Franz Kafka


Kafka was born July 3, 1883, into a middle class German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, in the Austrian province of Bohemia, inside the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father was the Galanteriewaren merchant Hermann Kafka (1852-1931) and his mother was Julie Kafka, nee Löwy (1856-1934). Although his native language was German, he also learned Czech as a child, and spoke it fluently throughout his life. He also had some knowledge of French language and culture; one of his favorite authors was Flaubert and he had a sentimental affinity for Napoleon. He had two brothers, Georg and Heinrich, neither of whom lived two full years and died before Kafka was six, and three sisters, Elli, Valli and Ottla. From 1889 to 1893, Kafka attended the Deutsche Knabenschule at Fleischmarkt in Prague and finished his Matura exam in 1901. He went on to study law, and obtained his law degree in 1906, then worked for a worker’s accident insurance agency. He began writing on the side. In 1917 he began to suffer from tuberculosis, which would require frequent convalescence during which he was supported by his family, mostly notably his sister Ottla, whom he had much in common with.

The asceticism and self-deprecation with which Kafka is associated is well-documented in the letters of his and of his friends and family; however, it does need to be put into context. Chronic sickness–whether real or psychosomatic is a matter of debate–plagued him; aside from tuberculosis, he suffered from migraines, insomnia, constipation, boils, and other ailments. He attempted to counteract this by a regimen of naturopathic treatments, such as a vegetarian diet and consumption of large quantities of unpasteurized milk (the latter possibly the causal factor of his tuberculosis). Most likely today he would have been diagnosed as clinically depressed, but because of this his self-critical attitudes are severely exaggerated. While at school, he took an active role in organizing literary and social events, he did much to promote and organize performances for Yiddish theater, despite the misgivings of even his closest friends such as Max Brod, who usually supported him in everything else, and quite contrary to his fear of being perceived as both physically and mentally repulsive, impressed others with his boyish, neat, and austere good looks, his quiet and cool demeanor, and his intelligence and odd sense of humor.

Kafka’s relationship with his domineering father is an important theme in his writing. In early 1920s he has important love affair with Czech journalist and writer Milena Jesenska. In 1923 he briefly moved to Berlin in the hope of distancing himself from his family’s influence to concentrate on his writing. His tuberculosis worsened; he returned to Prague, then went to a sanatorium near Vienna for treatment, where he died on June 3, 1924, apparently from starvation (Kafka’s condition made it too painful on his throat to eat, and since intravenous therapy had not been developed, there was no way to feed him). His body was brought back to Prague where he was buried June 11, 1924 in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague-Zizkov.

Kafka published only a few short stories during his lifetime, a small part of his work, and consequently his writing attracted little attention until after his death. Before dying, he instructed his friend and literary executor Max Brod, to destroy all of his manuscripts. His lover Dora Dymant faithfully destroyed the manuscripts that she had, but Brod did not follow Kafka’s instructions and oversaw the publication of most of his work, which soon began to attract attention and critical regard. All his published works were written in German.

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