Franz Kafka (1883-1924) 

Because Franz Kafka has become the symbol for 20th-century alienation and disoriented anxiety, his work is often introduced in the context of Kafka's own experience of alienation. A Czech in the Austro-Hungarian empire, a German-speaker among Czechs, a Jew among German-speakers, a disbeliever among Jews; alienated from his pragmatic and overbearing father, from his bureaucratic job, from the opposite sex; caught between a desire to live in literature and to live a normal bourgeois life; acutely and lucidly self-critical; physically vulnerable—Kafka nowhere found a comfortable fit.

Franz Kafka was born in Prague to middle-class Jewish parents. His father, the son of a village butcher, was a man of little education but strong entrepreneurial ambition. He rose from a traveling peddler to a successful retailer and wholesaler and married the daughter of a wealthy brewery owner (a marriage above his station, in the eyes of the time). Kafka was the firstborn, followed by two brothers who died in infancy, and then three surviving sisters. Throughout his life, Kafka's memories of his childhood, and specifically of his childhood relationship to his upwardly mobile, harsh father, remained bitter.

After an education in a typically draconian gymnasium for the time, Kafka entered law school and received a doctorate degree. While a law student, he associated with many members of Prague's burgeoning scene of young, German-speaking writers. One such companion, Max Brod, became a lifelong devoted friend and was ultimately responsible for preserving much of what exists of Kafka's writing.

Kafka knew writing was his vocation but did not feel he could make a living at it--nor did he particularly want to try. It was something purer and more desperately personal to him--a "form of prayer" and a temporary respite from his demons. He took a law clerkship after graduation, and then, briefly, a job with a private insurance company. In 1908, with the help of a friend's father, he obtained an entry-level position with the Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia. There he served as a diligent and respected functionary until his premature retirement in 1922.

In 1924, at the age of 41, Kafka succumbed to tuberculosis. The bulk of his work was published after his early death, just as many of the nightmares he described in his work were taking shape in Europe's new totalitarian states. “In the Penal Colony,” however, was published in his lifetime—in 1919, only a few years before his death. His novels Amerika, The Trial (written during 1914-1915, published 1925), and The Castle were left unfinished. Yet he did have admirers during his lifetime. The collections of short stories and the novellas he published sold minimally but were highly praised within a small but respected circle of German-speaking intellectuals.

The developments of the warped 20th century itself brought Kafka's works—prescient accounts of the banality of terror—to the world's attention and lent the word Kafkaesque to hundreds of languages. (Fulfilling his pessimism, Kafka's three sisters and the woman who was likely the one true love of his life all perished in concentration camps.) Beyond this terrible prophesy, however, it is Kafka's description of the struggle to find meaning in a cosmos he knew to be meaningless that makes his work the gateway to modern literature.