If you have got this far, you probably know that Kafka is, along with James Joyce, probably the most important fiction writer of the twentieth century. He was virtually unknown during his lifetime and his most important works were mainly published after his death. Not only did he establish what is perhaps the key theme of the twentieth century – they are out to get you – but also gave his name not just to a literary style but to way of thinking in the twentieth century. Many people who have not read a word of Kafka’s are familiar with the word Kafkaesque, which has entered most major languages to describe a nightmare world of fear and isolation where you know someone is out to get you but you do not who they are.
Franz Kafka was born in Prague in 1883 in a German-speaking family (Prague was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time). He was the oldest of six. His two brothers died in infancy. His three sisters were killed by the Nazis. Kafka’s father ran a successful haberdashery business. Kafka was brought up in a German-speaking environment and attended German schools, though he later became proficient in Czech. He obtained a doctorate in law and, after working in various places for two years, eventually went to work for an insurance company. He worked there till illness forced him to retire. He never married, though he did have a relationship with Dora Dymant shortly before his death. He caught tuberculosis and died in 1924, aged forty.
It seems highly likely that his experiences at the insurance company, seeing workmen struggling, often unsuccessfully, against the system, influenced him and his writing. Being a minority – a German-speaking Jew in a Christian Czech-speaking country – also clearly influenced him. Though he did a lot of writing, he had relatively little published during his lifetime and most of the works for which he is famous were published posthumously. The three novels mentioned to the right are among the most important works of twentieth century literature but he also wrote many important short stories which should be read and have been collected in both English and German editions.
What Kafka established in his writing was the sheer hopelessness of man’s existence in the face of the system, whatever that system may be – government, big business, them. This system is all too often faceless and is certainly uncaring about human beings. This is such an obvious theme nowadays – witness the success of Dilbert – that we almost take it for granted but in the twenties this was a fairly revolutionary idea. Despite the fact that the novelty has worn off, Kafka’s work still seems horrifyingly up-to-date, because he is both a superb writer and because he was so far ahead of his time that we have still to catch up.
Books about Franz Kafka
(Note that there are hundreds of books about Franz Kafka; the following are the most interesting)
Max Brod: The Biography of Franz Kafka
Max Brod: Über Franz Kafka (in German)
Pavel Eisner: Franz Kafka and Prague
Ronald Hayman: A Biography of Franz Kafka
Gustav Janouch: Franz Kafka und seine Welt (in German)
Frederick Robert Karl: Franz Kafka, Representative Man
Ernst Pawel: The Nightmare of Reason: a Life of Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka (1883-1924)
Joseph K’s Franz Kafka homepage
Franz Kafka Museum (also in German and Czech)
The Kafka Project
End of a Kafkaesque nightmare: writer’s papers finally come to light
Franz Kafka: The Irony of Laughter
Texts in English and German
Texts (in English and German)