Find out more about the author who brought us the haunting story of Metamorphosis. See below to know more about him, his views on politics and religion, and his family.
Information on Kafka compiled by Surya Iyer, Dramaturg.
Franz Kafka (3 July 1883 – 3 June 1924) was a German-speaking Bohemian novelist and short story writer. He is regarded as one of the significant figures of literature in the 20th century. His works reimagine elements of realism and fantasy together. It typically involves an isolated protagonist who faces bizarre predicaments and difficult social-political situations. The most common themes that have been explored in his work are alienation, existential anxiety, guilt, and absurdity.
Kafka was born in Prague, the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia, then part of the Astro-Hungarian Empire, today the capital of the Czech Republic. His family was German-speaking middle-class Ashkenazi Jews.
In 1901, Kafka joined the Deutsche Karl-Ferdinands-Universität in Prague. He began studying chemistry but changed his major to law after two weeks. Law did not excite him much, but it offered a wide range of career options that pleased his father, and that made him stick to it. Besides, law school required a more extended period of study, giving Kafka time to take German studies and art history. He joined student clubs that organized literary events, readings, and other activities that he immensely enjoyed.
After college, Kafka was hired by an insurance company where he worked for nearly a year. While it was a steady job, he was unhappy with the 8 AM to 6 PM work schedule, which made it difficult to concentrate on writing, which was assuming increasing importance to him, compelling him to relegate writing to his spare time. He quit the job, and in two weeks, he found employment at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia, which offered more flexible work hours, allowing him the needed time to write. Kafka’s father referred to his son’s job as an insurance officer as a Brotberuf, literally “bread job,” a job done only to pay the bills, and Kafka often detested the claim. He was rapidly promoted at his job. His duties included processing and investigating compensation claims, writing reports, and handling appeals from businessmen who thought their firms had been placed in too high a risk category, which cost them more in insurance premiums. He would compile and compose annual reports that were well received by his seniors at work.
He usually left work at 2 PM, so that he had time to spend on his literary work, to which he was committed. In 1911, Kafka began working in an asbestos factory with his sister Elli’s husband Karl Hermann. They started the factory in Prague, and it was known as Prager Asbestwerke Hermann & Co., using the dowry money from Kafka’s father for Elli’s marriage to Karl. Kafka was initially very interested in the business, dedicating a lot of his free time to it, but eventually he resented the encroachment of the work on his writing time.
Around that period, he discovered his immense appreciation and love for Yiddish theatre, after seeing a Yiddish theatre troupe perform in October 1911. For the next six months, Kafka immersed himself in Yiddish language and literature. This interest also served as a tipping point to his growing exploration of Judaism. It was around this time that Kafka became a vegetarian.
Personality and Political Views
Kafka had a lifelong suspicion that people found him mentally and physically repulsive. However, when people got to know him better, they invariably found him to possess a quiet and calm demeanor, obvious intelligence, and a dry sense of humor. They also found him boyishly handsome, even with his stern appearance.
Kafka met Max Brod (see photo, above), a fellow law student in college who became his only close friend for life. Brod noticed that despite Kafka’s shy personality and habit of seldom speaking, what he said when he did speak was usually profound. Kafka was an avid reader throughout his life.
Brod identifies “absolute truthfulness” and “precise conscientiousness” as Kafka’s distinguishing traits. Kafka explored life’s details with love and precision that allowed unforeseen, seemingly outlandish, but undeniably true things to surface.
Kafka had an interest in alternative medicine, modern education systems such as Montessori, and technology related to airplanes and films. Writing was essential to Kafka. He considered it a “form of prayer.” He preferred quiet spaces to write and was highly sensitive to noise.
Kafka’s Political and Religious Views
Kafka was an anti-militarist. Antimilitarism is a doctrine that opposes war, relying heavily on a critical view of imperialism. He used to attend several meetings of an anti-clerical organization. Anti-clericalism is opposition to religious authority, typically in social or political matters. Historical anti-clericalism has mainly been opposed to the influence of Roman Catholicism. Anti-clericalism is related to secularism, which seeks to remove the church from all aspects of public and political life and its involvement in the everyday life of the citizen.
During the communist era, the legacy of Kafka’s work for Eastern coalition socialism was hotly debated. Opinions ranged from the notion that he satirized the bureaucratic bungling of a crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire, to the belief that he embodied the rise of socialism.
Kafka was a German-speaking Jew who grew up in Prague. He was spellbound by the Jews of Eastern Europe, who he believed possessed an intensity of spiritual life that was absent from Jews in the West. His diary is full of references to Yiddish writers. Yet he was, at times, alienated from Judaism and Jewish life. On 8 January 1914, he wrote in his diary:
What have I in common with Jews?
I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.
Kafka declared himself an atheist in his adolescent years. He tried his best not to incorporate Jewishness into his work. In the opinion of literary critic Harold Bloom, although Kafka was uneasy with his Jewish heritage, he was the quintessential Jewish writer. The presence of Jewishness in Kafka’s body of work is no longer subject to doubt.
Kafka was raised in a German-speaking middle-class Ashkenazi Jewish family. His father, Hermann Kafka (1854-1931), was the fourth child of Jakob Kafka, a shochet (a Jewish ritual slaughterer) in Osek, a Czech village located near southern Bohemia. Hermann relocated the Kafka family to Prague. He became a fashion retailer who employed up to 15 people after working as a traveling sales representative.
Kafka’s mother, Julie (1856-1934), was the daughter of Jakob Löwy, a prosperous retail merchant in Podêbrady. She was more educated than her husband.
Kafka’s parents probably spoke German influenced by Yiddish that was sometimes derogatorily called Mauscheldeutsch, but, as the German language was considered the channel of social success, they encouraged their children to speak Standard German.
Hermann and Julie had six children, of whom Franz was the eldest. Franz’s two brothers, Georg and Heinrich, died in infancy before Franz turned seven; his three sisters were Gabriele (“Ellie”) (1889-1944), Valerie (“Valli”) (1890-1942) and Ottilie (“Ottla”) (1892-1943).
Both parents were not at home on weekdays. Julie also helped in the family business. Consequently, Kafka’s childhood was lonely. The children were brought up by a series of governesses and servants. Franz Kafka had a troubled relationship with his dad, which was very evident in most of his works, especially “Letter to His Father,” in which he complains of being overwhelmingly disturbed by his father’s rigid and demanding character. On the contrary, his mother was quiet and shy.
Ottla, his favorite sister, she was probably also his closest relative and supported him in difficult times. Their correspondence was published as “Letters to Ottla.”
She was a close confidant and Kafka called her “unbeschadet der Liebe zu den anderen, die bei weitem liebste” (the love to the others notwithstanding, the dearest by far). He helped her get an education at an agricultural school. In 1916–17, she provided her brother with a writing refuge where he was able to write many short stories, and he also lived with her from September 1917 to April 1918, while suffering from tuberculosis. The Kafka family had a servant girl living with them in their cramped apartment. In November 1913, the family moved into a bigger apartment.
Even though Ellie and Valli had married and moved out of the first apartment, things had changed, and the family needed a bigger space. In early August 1914, just after World War I began, the sisters did not know where their husbands were while they were in the military and moved back in with the family to the larger apartment. Both Ellie and Valli also had children. Franz, at age 31, moved into Valli’s former apartment, quiet by contrast, and lived by himself for the first time.
Like many other Jews from Prague, Ottla and her sisters were deported during World War II by the Nazis. Elli and Valli were sent with their families to the Łódź Ghetto, where they perished. Ottla was sent to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt. On 5 October 1943, Ottla accompanied a group of children as a voluntary assistant. When the transport reached the Auschwitz concentration camp two days later, all were murdered.