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.
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.
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….
It’s as if the wandering, frequently-maligned protagonist of The Trial and Amerika finally found a place where, ultimately, he could be in control. “The Hunger Artist” takes place in a cage, and a sad one, but it is a beautiful, perfected kind of sadness, a kind of sadness that we can only hope Kafka achieved.
Despite his deteriorating physical condition, Kafka maintained dreams of moving to Israel with Dora and opening a restaurant. He met with her father and asked permission to marry her, but was refused. He died shortly thereafter, in 1924. Kafka’s father and mother both died years later, in 1931 and 1934 respectively, and were buried with him in their family plot; his three sisters were all killed by the Nazis.
Many people say the Holocaust itself was foreshadowed in Kafka’s work: a maddening event, devoid of logic or reason, echoing the main character’s pointless persecution in The Trial and the futile journey in The Castle with an eerie quality of premonition. Through all this, it seems as though Kafka’s most torturous experience, his writing, was also his greatest asset, the one activity that kept him sane. At one point, Kafka wrote, “God doesn’t want me to write. But I have no choice.”
Pronounced: SAY-der, Origin: Hebrew, literally “order”; usually used to describe the ceremonial meal and telling of the Passover story on the first two nights of Passover. (In Israel, Jews have a seder only on the first night of Passover.)