life and times of a tortured literary modernist
Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was born in Prague, at a time when it was the centre of Jewish, German-speaking Bohemia, in the heart of Czechoslovakia and a part of the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg empire. His father ran a fancy goods shop, and bullied his children into improving their manners whilst remaining something of a peasant-like boor himself. The family moved restlessly from one flat to another in search of ever higher social status – but never out of the city. It was a habit that Kafka continued in his own adult life – though for different reasons.
Kafka was a timid, under confident child, and if you believe his own accounts from letters and diaries, the principal source of this meekness (and most of his neuroses) was the exaggerated awe in which he held his father. At school he did reasonably well, and in the specially strict gymnasium even better. He studied languages – Latin and Greek – as well as German literature and the elements of grammar. He took his Barmitzvah, though he regarded himself as an atheist, and at that time was fanatically opposed to Zionism and Judaism – though he became interested in both movements later in his life.
For someone so shy and retiring he surprisingly took an interest in the theatre and reading out loud in class. There were also annual theatricals at home to celebrate his mother’s birthday, for which he wrote the scripts. At university his options were limited – because the only professions open to Jews at that time were medicine and law. He opted for law, which had the distinct advantage of pleasing his father. He attended supplementary classes on philosophy and art history.
Around this time he made the first of what were to be many attempts to leave home and live independently. He also struck up what was to become a lifelong friendship with fellow student Max Brod, who was a year younger and eventually became Kafka’s literary executor. He started writing around this time, but kept the fact secret from everybody. He also had his first sexual experiences, which he described very characteristically as “vileness and filthiness”.
As his studies drew towards their conclusion he was struck down with one of the many periods of illness he suffered throughout the rest of his life, and he spent some time in a sanatorium. Nevertheless he passed the first of his examinations and started working in a lawyers’ office, drafting legal documents. He also passed the second part of his examinations and was awarded his doctorate.
In 1907 he started work for an Italian insurance company in the hope that he would be sent abroad, and he began a ‘relationship’ with Hedwig Weiler, a girl he had met whilst on holiday. It was the first of many which would be conducted almost entirely by correspondence. She lived in Vienna, and despite much discussion of meeting, the only time she visited Prague he made sure he was not available.
The following year his first published writing appeared in a magazine Hyperion alongside work by Rilke, Hoffmannsthal, and Heinrich Mann, His work in the office demanded long hours, and he felt he needed more time to himself – so he left after nine months and took up a job where he finished work at two o’clock in the afternoon.
He was still living at home with his parents, and he was finding a dubious antidote to his feelings of loneliness in the brothels of Prague. When his parents and grandfather became ill, he felt obliged to spend more time at home, helping in the family business. This put him under extra strain, and he eventually applied for time off from his new job in the Workers’ Insurance office. He spent the week swimming in Lake Garda and visited an aeronautical display which he recorded in The Aeroplanes at Bescia.
He felt uncomfortable in his own body, developed eating disorders, had his stomach pumped (“My feeling is that disgusting things will come out”) and became a vegetarian. Around this time he began keeping diaries, which were not so much a record of events in his life as sketchbooks, filled with fragmentary thoughts, images, and first drafts of stories that are composed of a mixture of narratives and reflections on states of being. He very often created fictions by writing about himself in the third person – “He would often awaken in a terrified condition …”.
Meanwhile his personal idiosyncrasies multiplied. He was compulsive about personal cleanliness and slept with his bedroom window wide open even in winter; he prided himself on always telling the truth, no matter how hurtful it was to his interlocutor; he was compulsively polite, but persistently late for work and meetings; and his self-loathing and sense of guilt continued unabated.
He took a long summer holiday with Max Brod in Milan and Paris – a trip that incorporated visits to art galleries, the opera, and to brothels – Kafka all the time suffering from acute constipation, which he discussed freely with others. He also suffered from insomnia, which he discussed with himself, endlessly, in his diaries.
Round this time a group of itinerant Jewish actors visited Prague. Kafka enjoyed their performances so much he befriended the leader of the troupe, Jizchak Lowy, and the experience seems to have awakened his interest in Judaism.
At the age of twenty-eight he was still living at home, sleeping in the next room to his parents, separated only by a thin wall. He even found the sight of his parents’ pyjamas disturbing. There were endless arguments with his father, who thought his son was neurotic, an ineffectual time-waster, and feckless in not helping to run the family business, which now included an asbestos factory.
Letters to Felice
The year 1913 was significant for two reasons: Max Brod had introduced him to the publisher Rowahlt and to a young woman Felice Bauer. Kafka began putting together fragments of his writings for what was to become his first ever publication, Betrachtung (Meditations), and he began what was to become a love affair by correspondence with F.B. as he called her. He also sat down and wrote in one continuous burst of creation Das Urteil (The Judgement) one of his greatest stories and a masterful account of Oedipal conflict.
The relationship with Felice was curious. He seems to have settled immediately on becoming engaged to her as an escape route from the oppression of living with his family. The photographs prove that she was certainly not an attractive young woman, and yet he poured out thousands upon thousands of words in courting her. He wrote long letters that he didn’t bother sending; letters that were dispatched by express post cancelling the content of previous messages; and letters instructing her to stop writing to him. One of these letters was forty pages long.
The inner sequence of the letters follow the same pattern, over and over again. He would first propose a meeting with her at some time in the (somewhat distant) future. Then he would write excitedly about what they might do together when the day came around. This would be followed by detailed plans for the journey – including train times and alternatives in the event of any unforeseen problems. Then when the day actually arrived he would write torrents of apology for having to cancel the trip. The excuses for cancellation were usually trivial to an insulting degree, but they would be dressed up to seem vitally important. Finally he got round to proposing marriage – in a letter spelling out all the disadvantages and inconveniences she would be bound to suffer, including the insistence that his writing must always come first, leaving only one hour per day for contact between them.
Yet as though inspired by these developments he also started work on his first novel Der Verschollene (The Man Who Disappeared, later renamed as Amerika by Max Brod) which like most of his other literary projects was left unfinished. At this period he was also to write what became his most famous story (really a novella) Die Verwandlung (Metamorphosis).
In the autumn of 1913 Kafka went on an extended holiday to Venice and Lake Garda, from where he wrote to Felice that their relationship must end (whilst he was having a brief affair with a young girl he had just met). Felice sent her friend Greta Bloch to act as intermediary in the discussions. Kafka then began writing to Greta just as frequently as to Felice, and when an agreement was finally engineered, he suggested that Greta should come to live with them when he and Felice were married. This led, not surprisingly, to an affair with Greta, and shortly afterwards she bore a child (that died) and it is possible that Kafka was the father – but the evidence is rather ambiguous.
In preparation for the proposed marriage, Kafka was summoned to a ‘tribunal’ of Felice and her friends in Berlin where the details of their relationship were examined in what he described as a ‘law court’. where he was also expected to account for himself. The net result, again not surprisingly, was that the engagement was called off.
At the outbreak of the 1914-1918 war he finally moved out of his parents’ home, went to live in his sister’s empty flat, and began writing Der Prozess (The Trial). This change of location proved so successful that he decided to move into a flat of his own. On locating somewhere new the first thing he did was to stop his landlady’s clock in the hall because its ticking irritated him. He moved into another flat a few days later.
He and Felice finally managed to arrange a short holiday together in Marienbad, as a result of which their engagement was resurrected. There was a period of about two years during which he wrote almost nothing, but by 1917 he began again with a series of ‘stories’ based on surreal metaphors and the content of his dreams.
A turning point
Late in 1917 two events made a distinct change to Kafka’s life. First he had a terminal disagreement with Felice, and the engagement was called off again. Second, he developed tuberculosis and started coughing up blood. The result of these two events was that he immediately felt better and started sleeping better. The illness gave him a legitimate excuse not to be married, and it confirmed his neurotic belief that he was being punished.
Released from work on sick leave, he went to stay with his sister Ottla in the countryside, where he felt much better. He returned to Prague briefly to make the final decisive break with Felice, then after a few more months of rustication he was forced to return to work. But no sooner had he made a return to his normal life than he succumbed to the epidemic of Spanish flu which was sweeping through Europe in 1919. By the time he recovered from it, the entire Hapsburg empire had disintegrated and Czechoslovakia had declared itself a republic.
He went into yet another sanatorium where although his health did not improve he met Julie Wohryzek, a cheerful fellow patient. When their stay ended he returned with her to Prague, moved into a flat, and announced their engagement. Two days later he called everything off.
The following year he was contacted by Milena Jesensks, who wanted to translate some of his work into Czech. She was married to a rou^eacute; Ernst Pelack and was an occasional cocaine user. Writing from a sanatorium in Merano he began yet another passionate and intimate correspondence with a woman he had never met and only ever seen once – at a distance.
On leaving the sanatorium he spent four idyllic days with her in Vienna and then travelled back to Prague where the first thing he did was to tell Julie Wohryzek all about Milena. She demanded her rival’s address and threatened to write to her. At a second meeting with Milena she admitted she could not leave her husband – so there was no hope for the future, and Julie had meanwhile ended her relationship with him. So he wrote yet another long letter to Milena, bringing their correspondence to an end.
He spent the next six months at yet another sanatorium at Mitliary, near Budapest, but it did very little to alleviate the effects of his worsening tuberculosis. He couldn’t sleep; his neuroses became worse; and all his attempts at self-analysis came to nothing because (since he rejected psycho-analysis) he felt his literary introspection was merely an escape into metaphor. These later desperate years were the period in which he began work on Das Schloss (The Castle) and Der Prozess (The Trial).
But at least he managed to solve the problem of the office. In June 1922 he was granted ‘temporary retirement’ from the Institute – with a pension. He never went back. His first step was to live with his sister Ottla in the countryside. She even moved herself and her husband into a small room so that Kafka could have their larger bedroom.
At first all went well. He produced several chapters of Das Schloss. But then there were noisy children outside, a nearby sawmill, and then a psychological ‘collapse’ about accepting somebody’s invitation to a meeting. He eventually returned to Prague, from where he sent Max Brod his testamental request that apart from already published books, all his writing should be burned, unread. Fortunately (for his readers) Brod ignored this request.
On a rare visit to the sea at Rostock he met Dora Dymant who was working in the kitchens of a Jewish children’s camp. She was to be the last woman in his life. They moved to Berlin, which was in the grip of hyperinflation of the Deutschmark (1923). Here he had another incident of uninterrupted creation when he wrote the long story Der Bau (The Burrow) in a single sitting.
The beginning of the end
But the end was now very near. He developed tuberculosis of the larynx and was transferred to a hospital. Unable to speak, he communicated by writing brief notes on slips of paper – almost like one of his own short stories. Swallowing was so painful that he couldn’t eat, so he was effectively starving himself to death – just like the character in The Hunger Artist. In the end he was begging for morphine injections, but they were not powerful enough to quell the pain. He died in June 1924, forty-one years old.
There have been many biographies of Kafka, ranging from the short and charming Franz Kafka: An Illustrated Life to the three scholarly volumes by Reiner Stach. The strength of Ronald Hayman’s account is that as a translator he accesses most of his prime source materials in German. He also incorporates a great deal of comment on Kafka’s fiction into the biography, and this will help those needing guidance in the complex and often contradictory world of one of the most original twentieth century modernists.
The weakness is that Hayman uses Kafka’s own letters, diaries, and notebooks as his primary sources – whilst showing little scepticism regarding the validity of the claims Kafka makes about himself. Kafka was a complex and often neurotic personality. He was the vegetarian ascetic and self-denying writer who was also a sartorial dandy; a puritan who regularly visited brothels; a passionate lover who avoided intimacy; a would-be husband who was terrified of marriage; and a master of self-loathing whose genius was remarkably similar to that of his near-contemporary and fellow Hapsburg quasi-mystic Ludwig Wittgenstein.
© Roy Johnson 2015
Ronald Hyman, K: A Biography of Kafka, London: Orion, 2005, pp.349, ISBN: 1898801657
Other works by Franz Kafka
Metamorphosis (1915) is truly one of Kafka’s masterpieces – a stunning parable which lends itself to psychological, sociological, or existential interpretations. It’s the tale of a man who wakes up one morning and finds himself transformed into a giant insect. His family are horrified, gradually disown him, and he dies of neglect, with a rotting apple lodged in his side. Franz Kafka is one of the most important and influential fiction writers of the early twentieth century. He was a novelist and writer of short stories whose works came to be regarded as one of the major achievements of twentieth century literature.
Amerika (also known as The Man who Disappeared) is Kafka’s first attempt at a novel. He is renowned for documenting the horrors of modern life, but Kafka also had a lighter and amusing side. This is incomplete, like so much else he wrote. It’s the story of Karl Rossmann who after an embarrassing sexual misadventure is expelled from his European home and goes to live in an imaginary United States (which of course Kafka had never visited). In fact it’s a reverse ‘Rags to Riches’ story, because Karl starts his engagement with the American Dream quite successfully – but by the end of the novel he is destitute. The story is deeply symbolic – as usual – and an interesting supplement to the central texts. The first chapter is frequently anthologised as ‘The Stoker’.
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Franz Kafka – web links
Franz Kafka at Mantex
Biographical notes, book reviews and study guides on the major works, video presentations and documentaries, adaptations for cinema and television, and links to Kafka archives.
Franz Kafka at Project Gutenberg
A major collection of free eTexts in a variety of formats – in both English and German.
Franz Kafka at Wikipedia
Biographical notes, social background, survey of the stories and novels, publishing history, translations, critical interpretation, and extensive bibliographies.
Franz Kafka at the Internet Movie Database
Adaptations for the cinema and television – in various languages. Full details of directors, actors, production features, box office, film reviews, and even quizzes.
Kafka in Love
Video photomontage featuring portraits of Kafka, his friends and family, and locations in Prague – with a rather schmaltzy soundtrack in Yiddish and English.
A public Wiki dedicated to Kafka and his work, featuring the short stories, interpretations, and further web links.
Kafka Society of America
Academic group with annual meetings and publications. Also features links to other Kafka-related sites
Oxford Kafka Research Centre
Academic group based at Oxford University that tracks current research and meetings. [Doesn’t seem to have been updated since 2012.]
The Kafka Project
Critical editions and translations of Kafka’s work in several languages, plus articles, literary criticism, bibliographies.
Tribute to Franz Kafka
Individual fan site (created by ‘Herzogbr’) featuring a collection of texts, reviews, and enthusiast essays. Badly in need of updating, but contains some interesting gems.
Finding Kafka in Prague
Quirky compilation of photos locating Kafka in his home town – with surrealist additions and weird sound track.
Who Owns Kafka?
Essay by Judith Butler from the London Review of Books on the contentious issues of ownership of Kafka’s manuscripts where they are currently held in Israel – complete with podcast.
The Kafka Archive – latest news
Guardian newspaper report on the suitcase full of Kafka and Max Brod’s papers released by Israeli library.
Franz Kafka: an illustrated life
Book review of a charming short biography with some unusual period photos of Kafka and Prague.
© Roy Johnson 2015