Franz Kafka - Biography
Franz Kafka (1883 - 1924) was one of the most prominent writers to come out of the late nineteenth and early twentieth. His name and style of writing has lent itself to the word Kafkaesque, which signifies the oppressive, bizarre, illogical and nightmarish qualities of his literary production. Dr. James Hawes indicates that “Of the world's authors, only Shakespeare generates more PhDs, more biographies, more coffee-table books...” Franz Kafka’s reputation became so significant to both writers and philosophers. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari famously studied Kafka’s writings in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature.
Despite the significance of his work to later writers and thinkers, Franz Kafka did not have much literary success during his lifetime. Few of his works were published when Kafka was alive. Kafka’s Max Brod is responsible for editing, completing and preserving many of Kafka’s manuscripts.
In 1883, Franz Kafka was born in Prague to a Jewish family. His father owned a dry goods business and had worked tirelessly to remove himself from poverty to prosperity. However, it was only with the dowry from his wife that Herrmann Kafka (Franz Kafka’s father) was able to establish his business. Kafka’s father reminded his children of the deprivation he had faced as a child. He was also a tyrannical figure in the household. Many view Herrmann Kafka as the archetypal model for many of the antagonists in Franz Kafka’s stories.
Franz Kafka faced isolation within his family. In addition, Kafka faced isolation in Prague. His family was part of the German-speaking population, which found itself distrusted by the Czech speaking population of Prague. Kafka also faced a general anti-semitism from the members of the community. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari would point to this complicated network of identities and languages as a source for Kafka’s sophisticated literary production. In Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, Deleuze and Guattari indicate this complication by saying:
The impossibility of writing other than in German is for the Prague Jews the feeling of an irreducible distance from their primitive Czech territoriality...the impossibility of writing in German is the deterritorialization of the German population itself, an oppressive minority that speaks a language cut off from the masses... “paper language” or an artificial language, this is all the more true for the Jews who are simultaneously a part of this minority and excluded from it, like “gypsies who have stolen a German child from its crib.
Franz Kafka’s education began at the German National and Civic Elementary School and continued at the German National Humanistic Gymnasium. The learning experience centered around memorization. In 1901, Kafka was admitted to Ferdinand-Karls University. He began to study the law, in part to satisfy his father’s expectation. In 1906, Kafka would be awarded a Doctorate of Law.
In 1902, Franz Kafka met Max Brod, Oskar Baum and Franz Werfel. These men quickly embraced his intellect as he debated socialism and Zionism. Kafka’s colleagues also encouraged him to begin pursuing his literary interests with more interest. It was also during this period that Kafka began frequenting brothels. Franz Kafka’s sexual interests have been suppressed by literary scholars in an attempt to make Kafka seem like a martyr for his art. In fact, serious reflection of his pornography collection was discouraged until Dr. James Hawes recently brought such influences to light. Hawes reveals that “Some of it is quite dark, with animals committing fellatio and girl-on-girl action... It's quite unpleasant.”
After graduation, Franz Kafka’s search for a job superceded his creative production. Kafka’s initial belief was that a mindless bureaucratic job would allow him to have the freedom pursue his creative interests. In 1907, Kafka found employment as a clerk in a law office. Later that year, he found a more lucrative position with the Prague office of an insurance company based in Italy. Unfortunately the demands of the job included a sixty-hour workweek, which hindered his artistic production. Ultimately he ended up in the employ of Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute of Prague. This business allowed Kafka more freedom; however, he still felt trapped by the work. This situation was worsened by his father’s acquisition of an asbestos factory that Franz Kafka was expected to help manage. By 1911, Kafka’s workload led to his depression and suicidal thoughts.
However, against assumption Franz Kafka did find some pleasure in his work. It is noteworthy that Kafka helped reduce on-the-job injuries in Bavarian factories. Kafka’s work was so crucial to industry that he was granted a deferment from serving in the military in World War I.
Felice Bauer and Franz Kafka met in 1912. They quickly were engaged for marriage. The relationship was fraught emotional struggles. The relationship would inspire some of Kafka’s most well know works including The Trial and In The Penal Colony. Bauer and Kafka would break their engagement off after five years.
In 1913, Kurt Wolff published a section of Amerika. Wolff published all six volumes of Kafka’s work that were published in Kafka’s lifetime. Franz Kafka would never obtain the popularity he sought as a writer and would plead with Max Brod to destroy the unpublished and unfinished manuscripts. Brod would refuse this request.
Between 1915 and 1916, Franz Kafka produced no literary works. His guilt over not serving in the military and insomnia complied with his workload to prevent Kafka from working. In 1917, Kafka returned to his creative writing, but moved away from traditional narrative. His work from this period has been described as “thinking in images.”
1917 was also the year that Franz Kafka was diagnosed with tuberculosis. His employers granted him leave based on his illness. He visited his younger sister, Ottla, in Zuerau, a Bohemian village. After returning to Prague, he contracted influenza and stayed in a sanatorium in Schelesen in 1919. Kafka had produced a lengthy letter in which he expounded on the trouble in his relationship with his father. His mother refused to deliver this note. As his tuberculosis worsened, Franz Kafka spent more times in sanitariums. In 1920 and 1921, Kafka used this time to study Hebrew and to return to Judaism. He also met Milena Jesenska, who would become romantically involved with Franz Kafka. Jesenka would also translate some of his work in to Czech. The relationship would end, but instill more guilt in Kafka.
In 1922, Franz Kafka retired from his job and returned to his parents’ house. His health deteriorated. In 1924, Kafka went to the Kierling Sanatorium near Vienna where he died. Posthumously much of Kafka’s work is viewed as being autobiographically. Stories like A Hunger Artist in which a professional faster eventually kills himself through practicing his art is seen to have particular significance in the context of Kafka’s exhausting schedule and devotion to his craft.
The shorter works of Franz Kafka include Description of a Struggle, Wedding Preparations in the Country, Contemplation, The Judgment, The Stoker, In the Penal Colony, The Village Schoolmaster, Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor, The Warden of the Tomb, The Hunter Gracchus, The Great Wall of China, A Report to an Academy, Jackals and Arabs, A Country Doctor , A Message from the Emperor, An Old Manuscript, The Refusal, A Hunger Artist, Investigations of a Dog, A Little Woman, First Sorrow, The Burrow, Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk, and The Metamorphosis.
The novels of Franz Kafka include The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika.