Few artists become so famous that they become known by only one name, such as Madonna, Elvis, Picasso, Lovecraft, etc. Prague happens to be the home of one such individual, Kafka. Just the name itself invokes certain imagery to come to mind. However, during the young, Jewish writer’s life, the name Kafka had very little relevance. Back then he was only known as Franz…
On July 3rd, 1883, Franz Kafka was born in Prague inside a tenement building in between the Jewish Quarter and the Old Town Square, right on the corner of Maislova and Kaprova Street. He was the oldest of son of Hermann and Julie Kafka, who were middle-class, German speaking Jews. He had five siblings, including two brothers who died before Franz had turned seven, and three sisters, all of whom would later be murdered in the Holocaust.
Relationship With Father
His relationship with his father was complicated to say the least. The two of them couldn’t have been more different from one another. Hermann Kafka was a loud, confident, overbearing individual, which was everything the younger Kafka was not. This caused them to often not see eye to eye on things. In November, 1919, while Kafka was living with his sister in house No. 22 on the Golden Lane, he wrote a 47 page letter to his father, accusing him of emotional abuse and hypocritical behavior towards Franz. The letter was given to his mother, who returned it back to Franz. Hermann never got the letter, but it would eventually be published, and is known today as “Brief An Den Vater,” or “Letter To His Father.”
His tumultuous relationship with his father is also eminent in his other writings, such as the relationship between Gregor Samsa and his father in Metamorphosis, is said to parallel the Kafkas’. Das Urteil, or “The Verdict” (also known as “The Judgement”), which is often considered Kafka’s breakthrough piece, also is about the struggles of a father and son’s relationship.
Although Kafka was raised in a financially secure home, and would eventually land a financially secure job at an insurance company, it is clear that he was unhappy. Kafka saw himself as an outsider. Not only did he feel out of place within his family, but he also also was a Jew, although it is debated how much he actually identified with his heritage. At this time, Jews, who had been persecuted for centuries, were just about to come subject to the worst kind of suffering the world had yet been exposed to.
He was alive during the remodeling of the Jewish Quarter, which is when City Planners of Prague were fixing the deteriorated Jewish Quarter after the walls that had surrounded it were torn down. Kafka would later write: “We walk through the broad streets of the newly built city, but inside we still tremble in the centuries-old streets of our misery.”
It is believed that the Kafkas spoke a combination of German and Yiddish, which was the Western Yiddish dialect, sometimes pejoratively labeled as Mauscheldeutsch (Moses German). It wasn’t uncommon to speak German in Prague, as there were many ethnic Germans living in the city at the time. Because of the importance of the German language, Kafka could speak Hochdeutsch (High German) fluently, which would be the language that he wrote all of his works in (with the exception of one written in Czech). Kafka went to Czech schools. He himself could speak Czech, but never felt fluent. When he spoke regular German, he spoke with a Czech accent. Language was also probably a reason why Kafka felt so different and alienated.
Never really feeling like he fit in anywhere, Kafka turned to literature. His bests friends became Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Nikolai Gogol, Franz Grillparzer, and Heinrich von Kleist (not in a literal sense, of course). Kafka delved into all types of literature, but he particularly took interest in Czech literature. His natural draw to other authors explains perfectly why he used writing as an outlet to express how he felt about his life.
After his first year at the University, Kafka met Max Brod. The two would become life long friends. Max was able to not only see the talent in his gifted friend, but also supported him in becoming a published writer. Beschreibung eines Kampfes (“Description of a Struggle”) was one of Kafka’s early works, and the first that he showed to Max Brod, who became convinced that his friend should continue to write.
Brod is responsible for getting Kafka’s first works published while he was alive. He acted as sort of Kafka’s agent, setting up meetings with publishers. Even before Kafka had ever been published, Brod was giving his friend rave reviews. If it weren’t for Brod, it is very possible that the world would never have known Kafka.
On June 3rd, 1924, Kafka died of Tuberculosis. His throat had gotten so swollen, that he couldn’t eat anything. Just prior to his death, he gave all of his writings to Max Brod and his lover at the time, Dora Diamant, and gave them instructions to destroy all them. Of course, neither of them obeyed, otherwise I wouldn’t be typing up this article.
Even though Kafka’s most famous work was published while he was alive, “The Metamorphosis” (Die Verwandlung) in 1915, he didn’t become famous until around the 1940’s, long after he had been dead.
Kafka is considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. His work has transcended literature, and has inspired every artistic medium imaginable. His writing is so unique that it inspired a new word “Kafkaesque.” Instead of trying to explain it to you, I’ll let a scene from one of my favorite TV show, Breaking Bad, explain it to you:
Although Kafka’s fame may have came to him posthumously, but that is probably what makes him so great. If he were to feel the pressure of fame, he may not have been able to write such unique stories that touch on the fears and frustrations of all people, making a story about a man who turns into a beetle surprisingly relatable.