Franz Kafka was born 3 July, 1883 in Prague, Bohemia, now the Czech Republic, into a Jewish middle-class, German speaking family; his mother Julie, (née Löwy), three younger sisters and his successful merchant father Hermann. Hermann owned a shop below where the family lived in Prague’s House of the Three Kings. He was ill-tempered and disrespectful towards his son’s escape into literature and pursuit of writing and proved to be an on-going source of conflict and despair in many of Kafka’s works. Kafka became the eldest and only son when his two brothers died in infancy and he was excruciatingly aware of this role in the family for the rest of his life.
Kafka rebelled against his father’s materialism and often wrote metaphorically of the struggle to overcome a dismayingly gargantuan, overpowering and practically suffocating force, much like his own timid and shy self in relation to his father. His Letter to Father (1919), never sent, is a plaintive attempt to explain his fear of and estrangement from his father and attempt to end the unceasing reproaches he received, as being the eldest son, he felt to be such a disappointment to his father.
Kafka’s was visionary fiction, addressing three decades ahead of time the anxieties and change of the 20th century. While surrounded by some of the literati of the time such as Franz Werfel, he was isolated from the German community in Prague and he wrote of the ghetto before the urban renewal and rebuilding: “In us all it still lives — the dark corners, the secret alleys, the shuttered windows, the squalid courtyards, the rowdy pubs, the sinister inns.” Kafka was also alienated from his own heritage by his parent’s perfunctory religious practice and minimal social formality in the Jewish community, though his style and influence is sometimes attributed to Jewish folk lore. Kafka eventually declared himself a socialist atheist, Spinoza, Darwin and Nietzsche some of his influences.
In 1902 Kafka met Max Brod who would become his translator, supporter and most intimate friend. Kafka entered the German University in Prague in 1901 to study German literature and law, receiving his doctorate in 1906. Kafka was to lead a relatively inauspicious life, an exemplary employee with the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute in Prague from 1907 to 1922. He would finally gain renown posthumously upon Max Brod’s publication of his three major works, The Trial (1925) and The Castle in 1926 and Amerika (1927). Kafka’s oeuvre is often filled with black humour in the style of parable, meditations, poetic fragments, and sketches. Though his works are often open to multiple interpretations, causing difficulty categorising his work in any single genre, existentialism and modernism are among them.
In 1911, Kafka was to spend his first of many curative periods in sanatoriums and spas for ill health. In 1912 he met and became engaged to Felice Bauer from Berlin. In 1912 he finished Metamorphosis his best-known short story, a masterpiece of stunning psychological, sociological and existential angst. From his third-floor room with a view of the Vltava river and the toll bridge crossing it, Kafka worked on Metamorphosis. “I would stand at the window for long periods,” he wrote in his diary in 1912, “and was frequently tempted to amaze the toll collector on the bridge below by my plunge.” He wrote Meditation in 1913, a collection of short prose pieces. In 1914 he finished Before the Law.
In 1916 Kafka wrote The Judgement, directly reflecting his struggle with his father; the prophetic In the Penal Colony and A Country Doctor (1919), another collection of short prose. In 1917 Kafka broke his second engagement to Felice Bauer, most likely precipitated by his continued failure to cut ties with his domineering father and set forth in his own life to get married and settle down. He was also diagnosed with tuberculosis after years of poor health. In 1923, finally escaping his paternal family he went to Berlin to write exclusively. He wrote A Hunger Artist in 1924, four stories illustrating the concise and lucid style of Kafka’s writing in his later years.
Kafka’s lack of confidence and personal misgivings about his work caused him to request that all his unpublished manuscripts be destroyed, however his friend, biographer and literary executor Max Brod didn’t obey his wishes and in 1925 he published The Trial, indisputably Kafka’s most successful novel in it’s dark exploration of anxiety, paranoia and persecution. Joseph K, the protagonist, unsuccessfully confronts arbitrary rules and a hopeless court system without knowing the crime with which he is guilty of. Brod also published The Castle (1926) a wide-sweeping metaphor of authority and bureaucracy and the search for grace and forgiveness and Amerika (1927) with a light and amusing angle but also an examination of the symbolic horrors of modern life. The Great Wall of China was published in 1931.
3 June 1924, Franz Kafka died from complications of tuberculosis in Kierling, near Vienna, Austria. His remains are buried alongside his parent’s under a two-meter obelisk in Prague’s New Jewish Cemetery in Olsanske. There is no epitaph, but Milena Jesenska, his lover and Czech journalist and writer, a few days after his death wrote: “He wrote the most significant works of modern German literature, which reflect the irony and prophetic vision of a man condemned to see the world with such blinding clarity that he found it unbearable and went to his death.”