Franz Kafka (3 July 1883 – 3 June 1924) was one of the major fiction writers of the 20th century. He was born to a middle-class Jewish family in Prague, Austria-Hungary, presently the Czech Republic. His unique body of writing—much of which is incomplete and which was mainly published posthumously—is among the most influential in Western literature.
Kafka was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Prague, the capital of Bohemia. His father, Hermann Kafka (1852–1931), was described as a "huge, selfish, overbearing businessman and by Kafka himself as "a true Kafka in strength, health, appetite, loudness of voice, eloquence, self-satisfaction, worldly dominance, endurance, presence of mind, [and] knowledge of human nature". Hermann was the fourth child of Jacob Kafka, a ritual slaughterer, and came to Prague from Osek, a Czech-speaking Jewish village near Písek in southern Bohemia. After working as a traveling sales representative, he established himself as an independent retailer of men's and women's fancy goods and accessories, employing up to 15 people and using a jackdaw (kavka in Czech) as his business logo. Kafka's mother, Julie (1856—1934), was the daughter of Jakob Löwy, a prosperous brewer in Poděbrady, and was better educated than her husband.
Kafka was the eldest of six children. He had two younger brothers, Georg and Heinrich, who died at the ages of fifteen months and six months, respectively, before Kafka was seven, and three younger sisters, Gabriele ("Elli") (1889–1941), Valerie ("Valli") (1890–1942), and Ottilie ("Ottla") (1891–1943). On business days, both parents were absent from the home. His mother helped to manage her husband's business and worked in it as much as 12 hours a day. The children were largely reared by a series of governesses and servants. Kafka's relationship with his father was severely troubled as explained in the Letter to His Father which Kafka complained of being profoundly emotionally abused since childhood.
Kafka's sisters were sent with their families to the Łódź Ghetto and died there or in concentration camps. Ottla was sent to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt and then on 7 October 1943 to the death camp at Auschwitz, where 1267 children and 51 guardians, including Ottla, were gassed to death on their arrival.
Kafka learned German as his first language, but he was also fluent in Czech. Later, Kafka acquired some knowledge of French language and culture; one of his favorite authors was Flaubert. From 1889 to 1893, he attended the Deutsche Knabenschule, the boys' elementary school at the Masný trh/Fleischmarkt (meat market), the street now known as Masná street. His Jewish education was limited to his Bar Mitzvah celebration at 13 and going to the synagogue four times a year with his father, which he loathed. After elementary school, he was admitted to the rigorous classics-oriented state gymnasium, Altstädter Deutsches Gymnasium, an academic secondary school with eight grade levels, where German was also the language of instruction, at Old Town Square, within the Kinsky Palace. He completed his Maturita exams in 1901.
Admitted to the Austrian-Hungarian Charles-Ferdinand University of Prague, Kafka first studied chemistry, but switched after two weeks to law. This offered a range of career possibilities, which pleased his father, and required a longer course of study that gave Kafka time to take classes in German studies and art history. At the university, he joined a student club, named Lese- und Redehalle der Deutschen Studenten, which organized literary events, readings and other activities. In the end of his first year of studies, he met Max Brod, who would become a close friend of his throughout his life, together with the journalist Felix Weltsch, who also studied law. Kafka obtained the degree of Doctor of Law on 18 June 1906 and performed an obligatory year of unpaid service as law clerk for the civil and criminal courts.
In 1911, Karl Hermann, spouse of his sister Elli, proposed Kafka collaborate in the operation of an asbestos factory known as Prager Asbestwerke Hermann and Co. Kafka showed a positive attitude at first, dedicating much of his free time to the business. During that period, he also found interest and entertainment in the performances of Yiddish theatre, despite the misgivings of even close friends such as Max Brod, who usually supported him in everything else. Those performances also served as a starting point for his growing relationship with Judaism.
In 1917, Kafka began to suffer from tuberculosis, which would require frequent convalescence during which he was supported by his family, most notably his sister Ottla. Despite his fear of being perceived as both physically and mentally repulsive, he impressed others with his boyish, neat, and austere good looks, a quiet and cool demeanor, obvious intelligence and dry sense of humor.
In 1921 he developed an intense relationship with Czech journalist and writer Milena Jesenská. In July 1923, throughout a vacation to Graal-Müritz on the Baltic Sea, he met Dora Diamant and briefly moved to Berlin in the hope of distancing himself from his family's influence to concentrate on his writing. In Berlin, he lived with Dora Diamant, a 25-year-old kindergarten teacher from an orthodox Jewish family, who was independent enough to have escaped her past in the ghetto. Dora became his lover, and influenced Kafka's interest in the Talmud.
It is generally agreed that Kafka suffered from clinical depression and social anxiety throughout his entire life . He also suffered from migraines, insomnia, constipation, boils, and other ailments, all usually brought on by excessive stresses and strains. He attempted to counteract all of this by a regimen of naturopathic treatments, such as a vegetarian diet and the consumption of large quantities of unpasteurized milk. However, Kafka's tuberculosis worsened; he returned to Prague, then went to Dr. Hoffmann's sanatorium in Kierling near Vienna for treatment, where he died on 3 June 1924, apparently from starvation. The condition of Kafka's throat made eating too painful for him, and since parenteral nutrition had not yet been developed, there was no way to feed him (a fate resembling that of Gregor in the Metamorphosis and the main character of A Hunger Artist). His body was ultimately brought back to Prague where he was interred on 11 June 1924, in the New Jewish Cemetery (sector 21, row 14, plot 33) in Prague-Žižkov.
During the later years of his life, Kafka developed an interest in moving to Mandate Palestine. He dreamed of going with Dora Diamant to create a new kind of life in the Land of Israel. Here too he was perhaps influenced by his Zionist friends Hugo Bergmann and Max Brod. However, Kafka's tuberculosis was too advanced and he was unable to realize this dream of his final years.
Kafka's writing attracted little attention until after his death. During his lifetime, he published only a few short stories and never finished any of his novels (with the possible exception of The Metamorphosis, which some consider to be a short novel). Prior to his death, Kafka wrote to his friend and literary executor Max Brod: "Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me … in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others'), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread. Brod overrode Kafka's wishes, believing that Kafka had given these directions to him specifically because Kafka knew he would not honor them—Brod had told him as much. (His lover, Dora Diamant, also ignored his wishes, secretly keeping up to 20 notebooks and 35 letters until they were confiscated by the Gestapo in 1933. An ongoing international search is being conducted for these missing Kafka papers.) Brod, in fact, would oversee the publication of most of Kafka's work in his possession, which soon began to attract attention and high critical regard.
All of Kafka's published works, except several letters he wrote in Czech to Milena Jesenská, were written in German.
Another virtually insurmountable problem facing the translator is how to deal with the author's intentional use of ambiguous terms or of words that have several meanings. One such instance is found in the first sentence of The Metamorphosis. Another example is Kafka's use of the German noun Verkehr in the final sentence of The Judgment. Literally, Verkehr means intercourse and, as in English, can have either a sexual or non-sexual meaning; in addition, it is used to mean transport or traffic. The sentence can be translated as: "At that moment an unending stream of traffic crossed over the bridge. What gives added weight to the obvious double meaning of 'Verkehr' is Kafka's confession to Max Brod that when he wrote that final line, he was thinking of "a violent ejaculation". In the English translation, of course, what can 'Verkehr' be but "traffic"?
Themes of alienation and persecution are repeatedly emphasized, and the emphasis on this quality, notably in the work of Marthe Robert, partly inspired the counter-criticism of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, who argued that there was much more to Kafka than the stereotype of a lonely figure writing out of anguish, and that his work was more deliberate, subversive, and more "joyful" than it appears to be.
Furthermore, an isolated reading of Kafka's work — focusing on the futility of his characters' struggling without the influence of any studies on Kafka's life — reveals the humor of Kafka. Kafka's work, in this sense, is not a written reflection of any of his own struggles, but a reflection of how people invent struggles.
Biographers have said that it was common for Kafka to read chapters of the books he was working on to his closest friends, and that those readings usually concentrated on the humorous side of his prose. Milan Kundera refers to the essentially surrealist humour of Kafka as a main predecessor of later artists such as Federico Fellini, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes and Salman Rushdie. For García Márquez, it was as he said the reading of Kafka's The Metamorphosis that showed him "that it was possible to write in a different way".
According to the publisher's note for The Castle, Malcolm Pasley was able to get most of Kafka's original handwritten work into the Oxford Bodleian Library in 1961. The text for The Trial was later acquired through auction and is stored at the German literary archives at Marbach, Germany.
Subsequently, Pasley headed a team (including Gerhard Neumann, Jost Schillemeit, and Jürgen Born) in reconstructing the German novels and S. Fischer Verlag republished them. Pasley was the editor for Das Schloß (The Castle), published in 1982, and Der Proceß (The Trial), published in 1990. Jost Schillemeit was the editor of Der Verschollene (Amerika) published in 1983. These are all called the 'Critical Editions' or the 'Fischer Editions'. The German critical text of these, and Kafka's other works, may be found online at The Kafka Project.
There is another Kafka Project based at San Diego State University, which began in 1998 as the official international search for Kafka's last writings. Consisting of 20 notebooks and 35 letters to Kafka's last companion, Dora Diamant (later, Dymant-Lask), this missing literary treasure was confiscated from her by the Gestapo in Berlin 1933. The Kafka Project's four-month search of government archives in Berlin in 1998 uncovered the confiscation order and other significant documents. In 2003, the Kafka Project discovered three original Kafka letters, written in 1923. Building on the search conducted by Max Brod and Klaus Wagenbach in the mid-1950s, the Kafka Project at SDSU has an advisory committee of international scholars and researchers, and is calling for volunteers who want to help solve a literary mystery.
In 2008, academic and Kafka expert James Hawes accused scholars of suppressing details of the pornography hidden in Kafka's journals to preserve the writer's image.
After Pasley and Schillemeit completed their recompilation of the German text, the new translations were completed and published -- The Castle, Critical by Mark Harman (Schocken Books, 1998), The Trial, Critical by Breon Mitchell (Schocken Books, 1998) and Amerika: The Man Who Disappeared by Michael Hoffman (New Directions Publishing, 2004). These editions are often noted as being based on the restored text.
Many collections of the stories have been published, and they include:
In Mexico, the phrase "Si Franz Kafka fuera mexicano, sería costumbrista" (If Franz Kafka were Mexican, he would be a Costumbrista writer) is commonly used in newspapers, blogs, and online forums to tell how hopeless and absurd the situation in the country is.
It has been noted that "from the Czech point of view, Kafka was German, and from the German point of view he was, above all, Jewish" and that this was a common "fate of much of Western Jewry."