Franz Kafka

The 20th century's realest surrealist.

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Kafka's unfinished novel Amerika (1927) is a grotesque, surreal parody of a teenage boy sent away by his family to a strange United States where the Statue of Liberty holds a sword in her hand instead of a torch, and a single bridge stretches between New York and Boston.

Like the rest of Kafka's work, it follows a narrator who's not in control of his own destiny and is launched into a vast and indistinct world that he does not understand; and, like his other work, the protagonist is beaten, abused, or despised by nearly everyone he encounters. In Amerika, however, the abuse takes on an almost satirical tone.

Also odd for a Kafka story, he intended the story to have an uplifting ending--albeit a strange one, as the protagonist finally finds a steady job at a "nature theatre" in Oklahoma and, while working there, reunites with his parents.

Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, called Kafka's writings "secularized statements of the kabbalistic world-feeling in a modern spirit," but it was only in his later works--among them, Letter to His Father and the haunting "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk," which probably inspired Art Spiegelman's Maus--that Kafka explicitly address his own Judaism and his feelings toward other Jews.

New Loves

These feelings changed during the course of his life. In his younger days, Kafka was antagonistic toward his heritage, but in late 1911, Kafka chanced upon a visiting Yiddish theater company at a local cafe, and was instantly transfixed. Although Kafka’s close friend Max Brod, an observant Jew, teased him about it, he only became more obsessed. In February of the following year, Kafka gave a revelatory lecture in the Jewish Town Hall in Prague in which he raved about the virtues of Yiddish.

In the following years, Kafka grew interested in Judaism and Zionism, and even fantasized about moving to Israel. He attempted to teach himself Hebrew, but after a few aborted attempts, he met Dora Diamant, an Orthodox Jew and the daughter of a rabbi, who became his teacher.

Kafka became more successful in learning the language, and also fell in love with Dora. His output of stories was as gloomy as ever, but, even in this, there was a newfound whimsy that seemed to speak to the lighter side of his darkness. "The Hunger Artist," one of Kafka’s most beloved stories, seems at times, self-referential and self-mocking:

While for grown-ups the hunger artist was often merely a joke, something they participated in because it was fashionable, the children looked on amazed, their mouths open, holding each other's hands for safety, as he sat there on scattered straw--spurning a chair--in black tights, looking pale, with his ribs sticking out prominently, sometimes nodding politely, answering questions with a forced smile, even sticking his arm out through the bars to let people feel how emaciated he was....

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Matthue Roth

Matthue Roth created Jewniverse. He also co-created G-dcast, the animated Torah film series. His most recent book is My First Kafka, a picture book for children. He's also the author of the memoir Yom Kippur a Go-Go and three novels. He lives in Brooklyn with his family, and he keeps a secret diary at www.matthue.com.