Biography of Franz Kafka (1883-1924)
Kafka's biography reads almost like a critical analysis of his work, for so much of the neurotic tension of his writing finds its clear origin in the events of his life. Franz Kafka was born on July 3, 1883 in the Jewish ghetto of Prague. He was an outsider from the start. Prague's Jews were doubly outsiders because they spoke German-the official language of the Hapsburg Empire-in a Czech city, yet they were neither Germans nor Czechs. Moreover, as an "assimilated" non-believer, Kafka was an outsider even in the Jewish community. Later in life he would learn Hebrew and dream of going to Palestine, but he never fully accepted Judaism, and though he seemed to remain religious, his beliefs lay clearly outside any charted tradition.
Kafka's ambivalent take on authority-his ability to respect it, rebel against it, and blame himself for everything-seems to come mainly from his relationship with his father. Hermann Kafka, a self-made storekeeper, had a gigantic build and a brash character, opposed to Franz's smaller body and milder, highly intellectual, personality. Though he was very energetic and, according to his friends, smooth and charming, Kafka never managed to emerge out of his father's shadow and escape his self-hatred. Later in life he undertook a variety of health regiments and diets in an attempt to boost his physique.
Always haunted by feelings of inferiority to his father, Kafka also faced his father's disapproval of his writing, which the latter considered to be a waste of time, never hesitating to point out to his son that he thought him a disappointment. Partly under his father's influence and partly because he did not believe in making a profession out of writing, Kafka took a law degree and became a clerk for an accident insurance office. The office job provided Kafka with an income and some self-confidence, and he was responsible for a number of policy changes that saved the lives of many workers. He continued writing in the evenings while living with his parents and three sisters, learning to place himself in a writing trance to block out the noise.
Much of Kafka's early writing is lost, but 1912 proved to be a breakthrough year for him as he wrote some of his most important stories, including "The Judgment," "The Metamorphosis," and much of his novel Amerika. This was also the year when Kafka met Felice Bauer, to whom he was engaged (and disengaged) twice over the next five years in a storm of letters with extremely little physical interaction. His belief in the importance of marriage coupled with the need to get away from his father's influence was in perpetual conflict with his strong fear of matrimony. In the next year Kafka traveled to Vienna and Venice, and began a brief relationship with Grete Bloch, whose son by him Kafka never knew about and who died while still a child. Soon after, Kafka began work on The Trial (1914), his most famous novel and, though unfinished, the only one with a written ending.
After moving to several apartments in the next few years to get away from the noise of his parents' home and to escape his father's influence, Kafka finally broke off his engagement to Felice Bauer. Around that time he began coughing blood and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. To get away from everything and recover from his sickness, Kafka moved out to his sister Ottla's farm away from Prague. He dreamed aimlessly of becoming a potato farmer or of moving to Palestine, but soon returned to Prague.
Freed partly from his father's influence, Kafka wrote the "Latter to His Father" (1919), carefully cataloguing every aspect of his view of their relationship. The letter is a masterpiece, shedding light on every novel and story he had written in which a protagonist struggled with a superior power. The letter, which he gave to his mother to pass on, never reached its addressee. Another important relationship-by-letter, this time with Milena Jesenska, ended within two years despite Kafka's apparent love.
It was then that Kafka wrote The Castle (1922), now recasting power in the form of benign indifference, as well as his story "The Hunger Artist," a brilliant exposition of the artistic drive. But this was also the year that, after years of time spent in sanatoriums on medical leave, Kafka finally had to leave his job at the insurance office as a result of his illness. Soon feeling healthier, he met Dora Dymant and actually moved to Berlin with her, for the first time in his life living with a woman he wasn't related to and finding his independence. But their dreams of moving to Tel Aviv together were covered over by the black cloak of futility, as Kafka's tuberculosis grew worse, forcing him to return to Prague for treatment. Stripped of his new love and freedom, he died in 1924.
Never famous in his own lifetime, Kafka did have an audience of admirers within a small circle of German-reading intellectuals. Many of his stories were published during his lifetime, but many were not. His three novels, all unfinished, were left in disarray among his manuscripts, with chapters out of order and titles missing; their rough unfinished quality seems only to add to the stunning nervous confusion of his style. Kafka had famously asked his long-time friend, Max Brod, to burn most of these manuscripts after his death and Brod, equally famously, ignored the request and set out to edit this incredible collection for publication. Kafka, who never in his life had confidence on a par with his talent, at last became recognized as one of the most interesting writers of the modern era, his legacy standing in opposition to the words he had once written of himself:
"A picture of my existence... would show a useless wooden stake covered in snow... stuck loosely at a slant in the ground in a ploughed field on the edge of a vast open plain on a dark winter night."