Franz Kafka, 1883-1924
The novelist Franz Kafka was born of Jewish parentage in Prague in 1883. Kafka studied law at the German University of Prague and at Munich and eventually became an official in the accident prevention department of the Workers' Accident Insurance Institution. His literary career began in 1907 but by his own choice published little. About that time Kafka contracted tuberculosis. A hypersensitive, almost exclusively introspective person with an extraordinary attachment for his father, in 1923 he moved to Berlin to live with Dora Dymant, a young girl who was in charge of a Jewish orphanage. It has been said that this was the only period in Kafka's life in which he achieved happiness. He died of a tubercular infection of the larynx in a nursing home at Kierling, near Vienna.
The central experience of Kafka's short life was alienation: as a speaker of German in a Czech city, as a Jew among German and Czech Gentiles in a period of nationalist fervor, as a man full of doubts and a thirst for faith among conventional liberal Jews, as a born writer among people who only spoke about business, as a timid and neurasthenic lover in erotic relationships.
In Kafka's work, the existentialists' conceptions of absurdity and dread are fully explored. Unlike the later existentialists, he did not derive positive value from these modes of experience; the value of what Kafka wrote perhaps lies in the intense clarity of the exploration.
His short stories and essays, including The Boilerman (1913), Meditations (1913), and The Metamorphosis (1916), were published in his lifetime, but he refused the same for his three unfinished novels, which, through his friend Max Brod, were published posthumously and translated by Edwin and Willa Muir. These novels were Ein Prozess (1925, published as The Trial in 1937), Das Schloss (1926, published as The Castle in 1937), and Amerika (1927, trans. 1938).
Literary critics have interpreted his novels in various ways. For example, The Castle has been interpreted as a modern Pilgrim's Progress, as a literary exercise in Kierkegaard's existentialist theology, as an allegory of the Jew in a Gentile world, or psychoanalytically as a monstrous expression of Kafka's Oedipal tendencies, but his solipsism (extreme/absolute egoism) primarily portrays society as a pointless schizophrenically rational organization into which the bewildered but unshocked individual has strayed.
Freudian, Marxist, Christian interpretations of Kafka's work aside, the fragmentary nature of Kafka's writing points to something profound. His heroes' desolate quests for justice, recognition, and acceptance by the world are meaningful to us because they invoke our sense of pity and justice, whereas the matter-of-fact ways in which these quests are presented invite us to accept cruelty and injustice as though they were necessary and self-evident modes of life. Thus, the meaningfulness of the quests in impaired. Kafka's writings are prophetic intimations of the logic of the concentration camps -- the insinuation inherent in his prophesies is that the exterminator is not wholly in the wrong, that his hold over his victim is something more than a matter of superior might, for in the end, the victim cooperates in his own destruction.
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copyright � 2000 Steven Kreis