Biography of Franz Kafka, Czech Novelist

Portrait Franz Kafka
Portrait Franz Kafka, around 1905.

Imagno / Getty Images

Franz Kafka (July 3, 1883 – June 3, 1924) was a Czech novelist and short-story writer, widely considered one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century. Kafka was a natural writer, though he worked as a lawyer, and his literary merit went largely unrecognized during his short lifetime. He submitted just a few of his pieces for publication, and most of his known oeuvre was published posthumously by his friend, Max Brod. Kafka's life was marked by intense anxiety and self-doubt, which he ascribed in particular to his father’s overbearing nature.

Fast Facts: Franz Kafka

  • Known For: Literary depictions of the alienation of the modern individual, particularly through governmental bureaucracy
  • Born: July 3, 1883 in Prague, Bohemia, Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Czech Republic)
  • Parents: Hermann Kafka and Julie Löwy
  • Died: June 3, 1924 in Kierling, Austria
  • Education: Deutsche Karl-Ferdinands-Universität of Prague
  • Selected Published Works: The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung, 1915), "A Hunger Artist" ("Ein Hungerkünstler," 1922), The Trial (Der Prozess, 1925), Amerika, or The Man who Disappeared (Amerika, or Der Verschollene, 1927), The Castle (Das Schloss, 1926)
  • Notable Quote: “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?”

Early Life and Education (1883-1906)

Franz Kafka was born in Prague, then part of Bohemia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1883. His family was middle-class German-speaking Ashkenazi Jewish. His father, Hermann Kafka, had brought the family to Prague; he himself was the fourth son of a shoshek, or ritual slaughterer, in southern Bohemia. His mother, meanwhile, was the daughter of a well-to-do merchant. The two were an industrious couple: after working as a traveling salesman, Hermann started a successful fashion retail enterprise. Julie, though better educated than her husband, was dominated by his overbearing nature and worked long hours to contribute to his business.

Franz was the oldest child of six, though his two brothers died before he was seven years old. The remaining three sisters all died in concentration camps during the Holocaust, though Franz himself did not live long enough to mourn them. Their childhood was notable in its lack of parental presence; both parents worked long hours for the business and the children were mainly raised by governesses and nannies. Despite this hands-off approach, Kafka’s father was ill-tempered and tyrannical, a figure that dominated his life and his work. Both parents, business-like and capitalist, were able to appreciate Kafka’s literary interests. In his one foray into autobiography, Kafka expressed in his 117-paged Brief an den Vater (Letter to the Father), which he never sent, how he blamed his father for his inability to maintain a sense of security and purpose and to ever adjust to adult life. Indeed, Kafka spent much of his short life living painfully close to his family and, though deeply desperate for intimacy, never married nor was able to sustain relationships with women.

Franz Kafka (1883-1924) czech writer here young c. 1898
Franz Kafka, c. 1898. Apic / Getty Images

Kafka was an intelligent, obedient, and sensitive child. Although his parents spoke a dialect of German influenced by Yiddish and he spoke good Czech, Kafka’s native tongue, and the tongue he chose to write in, was the more socially-mobile standard German. He attended German elementary school and eventually was admitted to a rigorous German Gymnasium in Prague’s Old Town, where he studied for eight years. Although he excelled academically, he inwardly chafed against his teachers’ strictness and authority.

As a Czech Jew, Kafka was not a part of the German elite; however, as a German speaker in an upwardly mobile family, he was not led to identify strongly with his Jewish heritage until later in life. (It is notable that Kafka is often grouped in with writers from Germany, since they share a native tongue; however, he is more accurately described as Czech, Bohemian, or Austro-Hungarian. This common misconception, lasting even till the present day, is indicative of Kafka’s greater struggle to find a coherent place of belonging.)

First Page of Kafka's
First Page of Kafka's "Letter to His Father". Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

He started a course of study in chemistry at Karl-Ferdinands-Universität in Prague in 1901. After two weeks he switched to law, a move of which his father approved and which also had a longer course of study, allowing him to take more classes in German literature and art. At the end of his first year, Kafka met Max Brod, a writer and intellectual primarily known today as Kafka’s biographer and literary executor. The two became lifelong best friends and formed a literary group of sorts, reading and discussing texts in French, German, and Czech. Later Brod called their loose group of writer friends the Prague Circle. In 1904, Kafka wrote one of his first stories to be published, Description of a Struggle (Beschreibung eines Kampfes). He showed the work to Brod, who convinced him to submit it to the literary journal Hyperion, which published it in 1908 alongside seven of his other works, under the title “Contemplation” (“Betrachtung”). In 1906 Kafka graduated with the degree Doctor of Law.

Early Working Years (1906-1912)

After graduating, Kafka worked at an insurance company. He found the work dissatisfying; the ten-hour shifts left him with little time to devote to his writing. In 1908, he switched to the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia, where, although he claimed to loathe it, he remained for almost a decade.

He spent most of his free time writing stories, an occupation that was like a form of prayer for him. In 1911, he saw a Yiddish theatre troupe perform and became captivated with Yiddish language and culture, making room also for an exploration of his own Jewish heritage. 

Franz Kafka's diary
Page of Franz Kafka's diary, c. 1910. Imagno / Getty Images

Kafka is thought to have had low- to mid-level schizoid traits, and suffered from intense anxiety that damaged his health. He is known to have had chronically low self-esteem; he believed others found him utterly repulsive. In reality, he is reported to have been a charming and good-natured employee and friend, though reserved; he was clearly intelligent, worked hard, and, according to Brod, had an excellent sense of humor. However, this fundamental insecurity damaged his relationships and tortured him throughout his life. 

Later Working Years and Felice Bauer (1912-1917)

  • "The Judgment" (1913)
  • Meditation (1913)
  • "In the Penal Colony" (1914)
  • The Metamorphosis (1915)
  • "A Country Doctor" (1917)

For one, his relationship to women was largely fraught. His friend Max Brod claimed he was tormented by sexual desire, but was terrified of sexual failure; Kafka visited brothels throughout his life and enjoyed pornography.

However, Kafka was not immune to a visit from the muse. In 1912, he met Felice Bauer, a mutual friend of Brod’s wife, and entered into a period of literary productivity marked by some of his finest works. Soon after their meeting, the two struck up a lengthy correspondence, which was to make up most of their relationship for the next five years. On September 22, 1912, Kafka experienced a burst of creativity and wrote the entirety of the short story “The Judgment” (“Das Urteil”). The main characters have notable similarities to Kafka and Bauer, to whom Kafka dedicated the work. This story was a major breakthrough of Kafka’s, which followed a process he described almost as a rebirth.

In the following months and years, he also produced the novel Amerika, or The Man who Disappeared (Amerika, or Der Verschollene, published posthumously), motivated in part by Kafka’s experience watching the Yiddish theatre troupe the year before, which so inspired him to investigate his Jewish roots. He also wrote The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung), one of his most famous short stories, though when it was published in 1915 in Leipzig, it received little attention.

Kafka and Bauer met again once more in spring of 1913, and in July of the next year he proposed to her. Just weeks later, however, the engagement was broken off. In 1916, they met again and planned another engagement in July of 1917. However, Kafka, suffering from what would become fatal tuberculosis, broke the engagement a second time, and the two parted ways—this time permanently. Kafka’s letters to Bauer are published as Letters to Felice (Briefe an Felice) and are marked by the same thematic anxieties of his fiction, though punctuated with moments of tender love and authentic happiness. 

In 1915, Kafka received a draft notice for World War One, but his work was understood to be government service so he did not ultimately serve. Kafka did attempt to join the military, but was already unwell with symptoms of tuberculosis and was refused.

Zürau and Milena Jesenska (1917-1923)

  • "A Report to an Academy" (1917)
  • "Letters to His Father" (1919)
  • "A Hunger Artist" (1922)

In August of 1917, Kafka was finally diagnosed with tuberculosis. He quit his job at the insurance agency and moved to the Bohemian village of Zürau to stay with his sister Ottla, to whom he was closest, and her husband Karl Hermann. These he described as some of the happiest months of his life. He kept diaries and notes, of which he took 109 aphorisms, later published as The Zürau Aphorisms, or Reflections on Sin, Hope, Suffering, and the True Way (Die Zürauer Aphorismen or Betrauchtungen über Sünde Hoffnung, Leid und den Wahren Weg, published posthumously).

Franz Kafka with his sister Ottla before Oppelt House in Prague Artist: Anonymous
Franz Kafka with his sister Ottla before Oppelt House in Prague. Heritage Images / Getty Images

In 1920, Kafka began a relationship with Czech journalist and writer Milena Jesenská, who was working as a translator. In 1919, she wrote to Kafka to ask if she could translate his short story “The Stoker” (“Der Heizer”) from German into Czech. The two struck up an almost-daily correspondence that slowly grew romantic, despite the fact that Milena was already married. However, in November of 1920, Kafka cut off the relationship, in part because Jesenska could not leave her husband. Although the two had what would be characterized as a romantic relationship, they met in person probably only three times, and the relationship was mostly epistolary. Kafka’s correspondence to her was posthumously published as Briefe an Milena

Later Years and Death (1923-1924)

  • "The Burrow" (1923)
  • "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk" (1924)

On a vacation in 1923 to the Baltic, Kafka met Dora Diamant, a 25-year-old Jewish kindergarten teacher. In late 1923 until early 1924, Kafka lived with her in Berlin, fleeing the influence of his family in order to concentrate on his writing. However, his tuberculosis rapidly worsened in March of 1924 and he returned to Prague. Dora and his sister Ottla cared for him as his health worsened, until he moved to a sanatorium near Vienna.

Kafka died two months later. The cause of death was likely starvation. His tuberculosis was centered around his throat and this made it simply too painful to eat; it comes as little coincidence that Kafka was editing “A Hunger Artist” (Ein Hungerkünstler) on his deathbed. His body was brought back to Prague and he was buried in June 1924 at the New Jewish Cemetery, where his parents were also buried.

Legacy

Works Published Posthumously

  • The Trial (1925)
  • The Castle (1926)
  • Amerika, or The Man who Disappeared (1927)
  • Reflections on Sin, Hope, Suffering, and the True Way (1931)
  • "The Giant Mole" (1931)
  • The Great Wall of China (1931)
  • "Investigations of a Dog" (1933)
  • Description of a Struggle (1936)
  • The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910-23 (1951)
  • Letters to Milena (1953)
  • Letters to Felice (1967)

Kafka is one of the highest regarded writers of the German language, although he achieved little to no fame during his own lifetime. However, he was quite shy and fame was not important to him. Indeed, he instructed his friend Max Brod to burn all of his works after his death, which, luckily for the state of modern literature, Brod refused to do. He published them instead, and Kafka’s work almost immediately received positive critical attention. Kafka was, however, still able to burn probably 90% of his work just before he died. Much of his still-extant oeuvre is made up of short stories; Kafka also wrote three novels, but finished none. 

Franz Kafka, Czech novelist, early 20th century.
Franz Kafka, Czech novelist, early 20th century. Print Collector / Getty Images

Kafka was influenced by no one more deeply than German Romantic-era author Heinrich von Kleist, whom he considered a blood brother. While not outspokenly political, he also firmly held socialist beliefs.

In the 1930s, he was quite influential in the socialist and communist circles of Prague, and throughout the 20th century only grew in popularity. The term “Kafkaesque” has entered popular parlance as a way of describing intense all-powerful bureaucracies and other centralized powers that overpower the individual, and continues to be used even today. Indeed, Kafka’s friend, Brod, claimed that the 20th century would one day be known as the century of Kafka. His assertion carries the suggestion that no century better reflects Kafka’s universe of inflexible, menacing bureaucracy working against the lonely individual, who stands full of guilt, frustration, and disorientation, alienated from the often nightmarish world by an incomprehensible system of rules and punishment.

Indeed, Kafka’s work has, without a doubt, changed the course of literature of the 20th century. His influence spreads from surrealist, magical realist, science fiction, and existentialist works, from writers as varied as Jorge Luis Borges, to J.M. Coetzee, to George Orwell. The widespread and profound nature of his influence shows that, despite how crushingly difficult he found it to connect with others, Kafka’s voice ultimately has resonated with one of the largest audiences of all. 

Sources

  • Brod, Max. Franz Kafka: A Biography. Schocken Books, 1960.
  • Gray, Richard T. A Franz Kafka Encyclopedia. Greenwood Press, 2000.
  • Gilman, Sandra L. Franz Kafka. Reaktion Books, 2005.
  • Stach, Reiner. Kafka: The Decisive Years. Harcourt, 2005.