Kafka, Franz (1883–1924)
Kafka’s visionary prose is almost exclusively drawn from his experiences in his native city, Prague, as the eldest son of a strict, lower-middle-class family. His doctorate in law and his career at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Office which he retained throughout most of his writing life both provided sources for his dissections of bureaucracy. His psychological insights are partly drawn from his difficult relationships with women such as Felice Bauer and Milena Jesenka, and with his father, all of which are partly recorded in his letters to them. Finally, his Jewish identity encouraged his interests in Yiddish theater and Zionism. His subtle and elusive style simultaneously incorporates these elements into his writing, which include the themes of father-son conflict, artistic solitude, bureaucratic totalitarianism, and spiritual redemption. Kafka also dealt with these issues in his diaries, which help to shed light on his fiction.
Early in 1912 Kafka began his first novel Der Verschollene (1927, Amerika); he first intended it to be an imitation of a Dickens bildungsroman, but it also embodied the qualities of his later writing. It includes Kafka’s concern with the arbitrariness of the law, as its hero Karl Rossmann unsuccessfully defends a ship’s stoker for trying to wrest him from his uncle, and, later, Karl is accused by the head waiter of the Hotel Occidental for leaving its elevator unattended for a couple of minutes. Also, there is the Oedipal scenario of Karl desiring Brunelda, but being ousted by the vagabond Delamarche who leaves him on the balcony; this scene reenacts Kafka’s childhood trauma of being left outside on the balcony during the night by his father. Finally, the novel is uncompleted, but promises Karl’s reconciliation with American society through joining the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, which is perhaps based on Kafka’s impressions of Yiddish theater.
Kafka regarded his composition of the short story “Das Urteil” (1916, “The Judgment”) in one night during 1912 as the birth of his mature style. It begins apparently naturalistically in the dialogue between Georg Bendemann and his elderly father, until his father cries “No!,” declaims a completely different interpretation of their relationship, and orders George to drown himself. In the same year Kafka wrote “Die Verwandlung” (1915, “The Transformation”), perhaps his most perfect work, about Gregor Samsa, who turns into an insect overnight. Kafka holds in balance the themes of Oedipal conflict in Gregor’s relationship with his father, and spiritual messianism at his death, in an apparently realistic, yet symbolic style.
In the novel Der Prozess (1925, The Trial), written in 1915, Joseph K. is accused of an unspecified crime, and wanders through scenes evoking the workings of an impenetrable and unanswerable so-