Now an icon of twentieth-century literature, Franz Kafka entered the world in unexceptional circumstances. His father was an ambitious and bullying shopkeeper and his mother was a wealthy brewer’s daughter who married beneath her social rank. He was their first child, born in 1883 in a house in the center of Prague. Five siblings followed, two of whom died young, leaving Kafka the only boy. Kafka had a sensitive disposition and slight appearance, much to his father’s distaste. Moreover, Kafka’s literary interests—he wrote plays for his sisters and read constantly—did not sit well with his father’s practical mindset. Their relationship remained strained throughout Kafka’s life, and his father’s overbearing and authoritarian personality left its mark on much of Kafka’s writing.
At the time, Prague was the capital of Bohemia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Prague boasted a large Jewish population that included the Kafkas, though the family had little daily concern for the faith and rarely attended synagogue. (Kafka regarded his bar mitzvah as a meaningless joke.) Prague’s working class majority spoke Czech, while the elites spoke German, the language of the empire’s rulers. Kafka knew both languages but was most comfortable with German. Being a German speaker in a predominantly Czech-speaking area and a Jew with little connection to Judaism, Kafka struggled his entire life with a sense of alienation from those around him.
Kafka underwent a rigorous and strict education that placed great emphasis on the classics. In 1901, he enrolled in Charles-Ferdinand University (now known as Charles University), intending to study chemistry but harboring literary ambitions. After two weeks, he abandoned chemistry for law, then switched to German literature, only to return to law. He never liked law, however, and said he chose it because it required the least amount of mental energy. After graduation, he worked for a year in the judicial system before leaving for a job in insurance. He hated his first employer and the long hours, so in 1908 he went to work for Bohemia’s Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute, where he stayed for the rest of his working life. Kafka claimed he only took the job, which involved evaluating workers’ injury claims, because its short hours and decent wages allowed him time and opportunity to write. Despite this attitude, he was evidently a conscientious employee.
While at Charles-Ferdinand University, Kafka befriended Max Brod, another German-speaking Jew interested in literature. Brod encouraged Kafka’s writing, and together with Felix Weltsch, a journalist, they formed the nucleus of the “Prague Circle,” a group of writers who met regularly to discuss literature and ideas. Brod and Weltsch were deeply invested in Jewish issues and encouraged Kafka in this regard, with mixed success. Kafka developed an interest in popular Yiddish theater, for instance, and tried to learn Hebrew near the end of his life. But he never fully embraced Zionism, and he remained ambivalent toward Judaism. He was more openly interested in anarchism and socialism, though the depth of his commitment to either philosophy remains controversial as he refused to completely align himself with an established worldview. As a result, he cannot be put into a simple political category.
In 1911, Kafka’s father pressured him into helping a relative open an asbestos factory. This venture took a severe toll on both Kafka’s time and his already weak constitution, leading him to contemplate suicide. But in 1912, Kafka met Felice Bauer, a relation of Brod’s through marriage. Kafka fell for Bauer immediately and began writing her passionate letters in which he revealed many doubts about his abilities. These events broke a creative logjam for Kafka. In September 1912, he wrote the short story “The Judgment” in a single sitting, dedicating it to his new love. And over the course of three weeks that autumn, he wrote The Metamorphosis. Brod urged Kafka to publish The Metamorphosis, but it took three years of encouragement and negotiation before the story finally made its public debut. In response, Kafka won the Theodor Fontane Prize, a significant German-language literary award. He also began work on a novel, now known as Amerika, and published the first chapter in 1913.
In 1913, Kafka went to a sanatorium in Italy to revive his failing health. He continued to write to Felice Bauer, and the two were engaged that year. Though not a virgin, Kafka was extremely uneasy about sex, regarding it as disgusting and a sort of punishment, and his letters to Bauer describe his anguished feelings in great detail. Their engagement ended in 1914. That year, Kafka began work on his novel The Trial, which he never managed to complete. In 1917, he and Bauer briefly became re-engaged. Their renewed relationship ended when Kafka was diagnosed with tuberculosis shortly thereafter. In 1919, Kafka proposed to the daughter of a janitor, sending his father into a rage, but Kafka left her just before the wedding. He next developed a passionate attachment to a married journalist who translated his work into Czech, then he fell in love with Dora Diamant, a volunteer at a tuberculosis clinic. Kafka followed her to Berlin, but his condition worsened and they moved to a clinic near Vienna. On June 3, 1924, unable to eat because of the pain, Franz Kafka starved to death.
Before he died, Kafka asked Max Brod to destroy all of his writings after his death, but Brod didn’t comply with his wishes. Over the course of the 1920s and 30s, Kafka’s works were published and translated, instantly becoming landmarks of twentieth-century literature. His emphasis on the absurdity of existence, the alienating experience of modern life, and the cruelty and incomprehensibility of authoritarian power reverberated strongly with a reading public that had just survived World War I and was on its way to a second world war. Today, people use the word Kafkaesque to signify senseless and sinister complexity, and Kafka’s reputation as one of the most important writers of modern times is undiminished.