The 20th century's realest surrealist.
As his dying wish, writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924) asked that all his manuscripts be burned. If he were alive today, Kafka would be sorely disappointed. Not only is he widely regarded as one of the greatest authors of the 20th century, but his name has become a part of standard English; the adjective Kafkaesque is used to describe situations and people that are surreal, disorienting, and often menacing.
Franz Kafka was born in Prague, which at the time was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Like virtually all Prague Jews of his time, he grew up speaking German.
Kafka's father came from Wossek, a small town south of the city, and, prompted by the poverty that surrounded him, moved to Prague at the age of 18. Hermann Kafka regarded his old life as barbaric, and was committed to assimilating his family to modern city life.
Though proud of his cosmopolitan existence, Kafka's father still insisted that his children learn about their religion. This education was, however, superficial, and Judaism was not practiced in the home. Kafka would later call his first Passover seder a "farce." His bar mitzvah, which triggered intense episodes of fear and anxiety during his preparation, consisted of a short speech and an inconsequential party. As a boy, he detested it all.
Toward the end of his life, in Letter to His Father, Kafka wrote, "I could not understand how, with the insignificant scrap of Judaism you yourself possessed, you could reproach me for not making an effort …to cling to a similar, insignificant scrap."
Still, it is impossible to deny the influence of being raised Jewish in the pre-WWII environment of Prague. Themes of otherness and alienation--which in many ways echoed the pogroms and foreshadowed the Holocaust--were central to Kafka’s writings.
In Metamorphosis (1915), these themes are explored through a traveling salesman, Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning and finds that he has turned into a "monstrous vermin."
Despite his new body, Gregor considers going to work and getting on with life as usual. But his family is repulsed by his new body, and though they care for him, they also leave him imprisoned in his room, distancing themselves from him more and more as the book proceeds.
Kafka’s only completed novel, The Trial (1925), also details the plight of a man who is isolated and alone. The protagonist, Josef K., is arrested and prosecuted for a crime that is not revealed to him. As K.'s execution looms closer, his innocence seems impossible to prove, despite the lack of evidence (or of any crime committed in the first place).
Like The Trial, The Castle (1926) tells of a near-anonymous protagonist (named, even more simply, K.) in an impossible situation. K. has been summoned to a castle for some ambiguous appointment. While waiting for the appointment, he takes a room in the village that surrounds the castle, and meets and speaks with an intricate succession of people--innkeepers, day laborers, women who live in the town and seem to only be there for the enjoyment of the castle guards--all of whom seem, like himself, stuck in the town without apparent purpose.