This Day In Literary History
On July 3rd, 1883, the legendary Austro-Hungarian writer Franz Kafka was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia. The eldest child of a wealthy Jewish family, Kafka's two brothers would die in infancy, and his three sisters would perish in the Holocaust.
All of his life, Franz Kafka would suffer severe emotional abuse at the hands of his father, Hermann. In 1919, five years before his father died, Kafka wrote him a 45-page letter and asked his mother to deliver it. She refused.
He opened the letter this way:
You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you, and partly because an explanation of the grounds for this fear would mean going into far more details than I could even approximately keep in mind while talking. And if I now try to give you an answer in writing, it will still be very incomplete...
The letter would later be published as Letter To His Father along with other correspondence after Kafka's death.
Franz Kafka was of Austrian and Hungarian descent and spoke German as his primary language, but quickly became fluent in Czech. He would later study the French language and culture, as Gustave Flaubert was one of his favorite writers.
Kafka's family rarely practiced their Jewish religion; he received his bar mitzvah at the age of thirteen, but the family only went to temple four times a year.
He loathed going to temple, but he loved Yiddish literature and theater, and would later attend the Eleventh Zionist Congress. He considered moving to Israel.
Kafka attended the Charles-Ferdinand University of Prague, where he originally planned to study chemistry. Two weeks into his first semester, he switched his major to law. It was a longer course of study that would give him the opportunity to take classes in German studies and art history.
At the end of his freshman year, he met Max Brod, who would become his lifelong friend and later, literary executor. He would meet another lifelong friend at university - journalist Felix Weltsch.
Together, Kafka, Brod, and Weltsch would become members of the Prague Circle, a loosely knit group of German-Jewish writers who lived in Prague and contributed to its culture.
In 1906, Kafka earned his Doctor of Law degree and began a year-long internship as a law clerk for the civil and criminal courts. A year later, he took a job at a large Italian-owned insurance company, the Assicurazioni Generali.
The job required Kafka to work from 8PM to 6AM, which he hated because it made writing difficult. After less than a year, Kafka resigned and was later hired as an insurance officer for the Workers' Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia.
He was a very competent and diligent employee and proud of his work, but he really considered his position a brotberuf - a "bread job" he worked just to pay his bills.
By 1911, Kafka quit his insurance job to help his brother-in-law run an asbestos factory. He devoted much of his free time to running the business, but still found time to write.
During his life, his writing didn't attract much attention. He published only a few short stories and didn't complete any of his novels, except for his classic novella The Metamorphosis (1915).
Two years after completing it, Kafka contracted tuberculosis. After a seven year battle with the disease, Franz Kafka died in 1924 at the age of 40.
He had left instructions to his executor Max Brod that his all his letters, diaries, and manuscripts be burned unread. Knowing that Kafka didn't really mean what he said, Brod didn't honor his last wishes.
He prepared Kafka's three unfinished novels for publication, editing them for coherency. Kafka's previously unpublished short stories, diaries, and letters, were also published posthumously.
Kafka's girlfriend, Dora Diamant, also kept a collection of his writings, even though he'd asked her to destroy them. Unfortunately, these writings - a collection of 20 notebooks and 35 letters - were confiscated by the Gestapo in 1933.
The search for these missing writings is ongoing, as they are suspected to have survived, and may be locked away somewhere in the world, long forgotten.
Kafka's writings were very much the product of his poor relationship with his father, whose years of emotional abuse left Franz a psychological wreck.
He suffered from clinical depression, social anxiety, migraines, insomnia, and psychosomatic illnesses. Some scholars believe that he may have been schizophrenic as well.
Even though he lived with his parents for most of his life, he felt a profound sense of alienation from them, and alienation is a theme that runs deep in his writing.
In his classic novella The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, wakes up one morning to find that he has been transformed into a giant insect.
His first concern is not that he has become a monstrous bug, but how he will get to work. Instead of compassion, Samsa's condition inspires his family to react with repulsion and reject him, locking him up in his room.
His sister, Grete, to whom he is close, cares for him at first, bringing him food and water. But as his condition becomes more of a social and financial burden to his family, even Grete rejects him.
Samsa's father proves to be the most cruel. He resents having to come out of retirement and work to help pay off his son's debts.
He chases Gregor around the dinner table and pelts him with apples. One of them becomes lodged in his back and results in an infection that kills him slowly and painfully.
The Trial (1925) tells the story of Josef K, a senior bank clerk who, on his 30th birthday, suddenly finds himself arrested by two unidentified agents for an unspecified crime.
As he awaits trial on charges that are not revealed to him, K soon realizes that nothing is as it seems. When he goes to visit the Magistrate - a pillar of integrity and morality - he finds a collection of pornography hidden amongst the man's books.
When K complains to the Magistrate that the agents who arrested him asked for bribes, he later witnesses the two men being flogged in a store room at his bank. K pleads for mercy for the men, but the flogger won't be swayed.
K thinks that the whipping may have been staged to frighten him, but the next day, in the bank store room, K again witnesses the agents being flogged.
In The Castle (1926), a man known only as K arrives at a village to work as a land surveyor, summoned by the village authorities who rule from a place called the Castle.
The gigantic, castle-like structure houses a monstrously huge, impossibly complex bureaucracy that thrives on endless, incredibly detailed paperwork.
The authorities maintain that their system is flawless, but that's a lie - K was mistakenly summoned to the village as the result of a clerical error.
In this one-man-against-the-system story, Kafka cleverly maintains ambiguity as to exactly what duties the authorities and the other workers at the Castle perform.
Franz Kafka was a brilliant writer way ahead of his time, a master of surrealism and political allegory. One can only imagine what he might have written had he lived to witness the horrors of the Holocaust that would claim the lives of his sisters.
Quote Of The Day
“A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.” - Franz Kafka
Today's video features a complete reading of Franz Kafka's classic novella, The Metamorphosis. Enjoy!