Franz Kafka was an influential German-language novelist whom critics considered as one of the best writers of the 20th century. His writings were believed to be associated with modernism or magic realism. Some even relate the hopelessness and absurdity of his works to be in sync with existentialism. Most of his unfinished and unpublished books were published posthumously by his close friend, Max Brod. These famous novels include “The Trial”, “The Castle”, and “Amerika”. He mostly wrote in German and is known for his excessively long sentences. Another unique feature of his writings was his intentional use of ambiguous terms and words that have several meanings. Such was his popularity that Kafka even had a museum dedicated to his work in Prague, Czech Republic. His native house on the Old Town Square next to Prague's Church of St Nicholas where he was born now contains a permanent exhibition dedicated to him.
Franz Kafka Childhood & Early Life
Franz Kafka was born on July 3, 1883 in Prague, Austria-Hungary. His father, Hermann Kafka was believed to be a selfish businessman. His mother, Julie was the daughter of Jakob Löwy, a prosperous brewer in Podìbrady. Kafka was the eldest of six children to the couple. His two younger brothers died in infancy. His three sisters were Gabriele, Valerie and Ottilie. Though German was Kafka’s native language, he was also fluent in Czech. He had great interest in Czech literature and also studied French language and culture. From 1889 to 1893, he attended Deutsche Knabenschule, the boys' elementary school at Meat Market. After attending the elementary school, Kafka was sent to the rigorous classics-oriented state Gymnasium, Altstädter Deutsches Gymnasium. It was an academic secondary school at Old Town Square. Kafka completed his Maturita exams in 1901. He was enrolled at the Charles-Ferdinand University of Prague. After studying chemistry for two weeks, he shifted to law. Law gave Kafka wide range of career possibilities and provided him with ample time for taking classes in German studies and art history. He also joined a student club, named Lese- und Redehalle der Deutschen Studenten. This student club basically organized literary events, readings and other activities. In the university, he met Max Brod, who remained his close friend throughout his life. Felix Weltsch was another close friend of Kafka who studied law with him.
On June 18, 1906 Kafka received the degree of Doctor of Law. For next one year, he worked unpaid as a law clerk for the civil and criminal courts. On November 1, 1907, an Italian insurance company, Assicurazioni Generali hired him. He worked in the company for nearly one year. It was said that Kafka was unhappy with the timing of the job as he was not getting any time to concentrate on his writing. He resigned from the job on July 15, 1908. Couple of weeks later he got a job with the Worker's Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia. This job was more congenial to him and involved investigating personal injuries to industrial workers and assessing compensation. He was even credited by Peter Drucker, management professor, for developing the first civilian hard hat but this fact was not supported by his employers. Kafka’s other tasks included compiling and composing the annual reports. In 1911, he collaborated with his brother- in-law, Karl Hermann to operate an asbestos factory known as Prager Asbestwerke Hermann and Co. Kafka started liking this collaboration and diverted his attention towards it. Meanwhile, he also found interest in the performances of Yiddish theatre. These performances proved to be the starting point of his strong relationship with Judaism.
Later Life & Works
In 1912, Kafka met Felice Bauer, a twenty-four-year-old businesswoman from Berlin. The two met occasionally and had a relationship for five years. In 1917, she left for United States. This period marks as the beginning of his literary career, as he wrote notable short stories like, “Das Urteil” and “Die Verwandlung”. World War I hindered his writing of novels and short stories, but nevertheless, Kafka did keep writing his diary. He had written his experiences, ideas and dreams in his diaries. Theatre and films became an important part of his life. Kafka started writing his second novel, Der Prozess (The Trial) in 1914. He also wrote a short story, “In der Strafkolonie”, which was among the few works that were published in his lifetime. In August 1917, Kafka found that he had contracted tuberculosis. For the next ten months, he stayed in the Bohemian village of Zuerau under the care of his sister Ottilie. In 1919, he suffered from influenza and was hospitalized. Consequently, he had to spend increased amount of time in various rural sanatoriums. During this time period, Kafka met Czech journalist and writer Milena Jesenská and fell in love with her. However, due to his possible fear of sexuality, he stopped sending her letters and ultimately left her. In July 1923, during his vacation to Graal-Müritz on the Baltic Sea, Kafka met Dora Diamant. She was kindergarten teacher from an orthodox Jewish family.
The following year, in 1924, Kafka moved to the Kierling Sanatorium outside Vienna with her. His proposal of marriage was rejected by Dora’s father but Dora always considered him as her husband. Kafka spent his last six weeks in the sanatorium only. Being a Jew, Kafka was kept isolated from the German community in Prague. He could publish only few short stories in his lifetime. He tried to finish his best works during the last two and half years of his life. His last wish to his best friend Max Brod was to burn his all unpublished works, but Brod disregarded his wish and published his works. These works included “The Trial”, “The Castle”, and “Amerika”. Brod made few changes with the manuscript of these writings such as moved a few chapters and edited the punctuation, which was why these editions are sometimes called the Definitive Editions. A team headed by literary scholar, Malcolm Pasley restructured and republished these German novels. These editions are called “Critical Editions” can be found online at “The Kafka Project” along with his other works. Another Kafka Project based at San Diego State University, began an official international search in 1998 for Kafka’s last writings. These missing works included 20 notebooks and 35 letters to Kafka's last companion, Dora Diamant. These works were confiscated from her by the Gestapo in Berlin 1933.
Kafka’s tuberculosis condition worsened in his last days. It became very painful for his throat to eat anything and as a result, he died out of starvation on June 3, 1924. His body was ultimately brought back to Prague and was buried in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague-Žižkov.