Keeping up with Kafka via The Trial, tribulations and trivia - Hindustan Times
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Keeping up with Kafka via The Trial, tribulations and trivia

ByDhamini Ratnam
Feb 24, 2024 01:20 PM IST

A century after his death, Franz Kafka’s stories continue to warn against unchecked authoritarianism and of how we still struggle with inclusivity.

This year will mark 100 years since German-Czech writer Franz Kafka died. But Kafka is a mood that persists. Kafka is a rite of passage. Dog-eared editions of his books have shepherded millions through teen angst, mid-life crises and the general existential dread of adulthood.

(Clockwise from top) A still from Orson Welles’s 1962 film The Trial. A portrait of Kafka from around 1905. The house at the Old Town Square in Prague, where he grew up. A statue in Prague, which shows Kafka riding on the shoulders of a headless man, draws from the 1912 story Description of a Struggle. A drawing by Kafka found in one of his notebooks. A Google doodle from his 130th birthday in 2013, pays tribute to The Metamorphosis. A graphic novel adaptation of The Metamorphosis by Søren Jessen, and a painting by Miquel Barceló inspired by the same novel. (Getty Images, Adobe Stock) PREMIUM
(Clockwise from top) A still from Orson Welles’s 1962 film The Trial. A portrait of Kafka from around 1905. The house at the Old Town Square in Prague, where he grew up. A statue in Prague, which shows Kafka riding on the shoulders of a headless man, draws from the 1912 story Description of a Struggle. A drawing by Kafka found in one of his notebooks. A Google doodle from his 130th birthday in 2013, pays tribute to The Metamorphosis. A graphic novel adaptation of The Metamorphosis by Søren Jessen, and a painting by Miquel Barceló inspired by the same novel. (Getty Images, Adobe Stock)

Kafkaesque is a term for the ages. It will continue to describe our experience of navigating an inscrutable world marked by indifferent bureaucracy, unreasonable patriarchs and powerful dictators, as much as it will deftly explain the alienation we experience when the wide chasm between ourselves and others by way of our political differences becomes known to us.

In The Paris Review, Joshua Cohen, editor of He: Shorter Writings of Franz Kafka, wrote: “In Kafka, no honour comes without suffering, and no suffering goes unhonoured.”

Here are 25 facts about the writer whose writing presaged some of the worst excesses of authoritarianism, including Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime, which changed the face of Europe — and indeed, much of the world — less than a decade after his death.

1. Franz Kafka was born to Julie Lowy and Hermann Kafka, a wealthy Jewish man who owned a haberdashery in Prague’s Old Town, on July 3, 1883. He died on June 3, 1924, a month short of his 41st birthday. Franz was the eldest of four children; two others born before him died in infancy. He would grow closest to his youngest sister, Ottilie (whom he called Ottla), particularly in his final years, as she helped care for him while he fought a losing battle with tuberculosis.

Franz Kafka with his youngest sister Ottilie, whom he called Ottla. (Getty Images)
Franz Kafka with his youngest sister Ottilie, whom he called Ottla. (Getty Images)

2. Hermann was a harsh father. His son would later write of how he was exacting about rules, but did not follow them himself; denigrated his children, to portray himself as better than them; spoke of sacrifices he made in ways that were designed to make the family feel that they did not, and could not, ever do enough for him. “Your opinion was correct, every other was mad, wild, meshugge, not normal. Your self-confidence indeed was so great that you had no need to be consistent at all and yet never ceased to be in the right,” Kafka wrote, in Letter to His Father (completed in 1919). Critics remain divided. What some see as a reflection of his father’s culpability, however, others ascribe to Kafka’s own angst-filled psyche.

3. Kafka, a sickly child who preferred to stay indoors and read, grew up identifying more with his mother’s side of the family, thinking of himself as “more Lowy than Kafka”. But his mother, while neither abusive nor unkind, did nothing to support her children or protect them from their father’s taunts and anger, he would later write. If she ever disagreed with her husband, they did not see or hear of it. He felt loved, he would later say, but not protected by his mother.

4. An incident that occurred when Kafka was a child turned into a core memory and became the defining recollection of his father. One night, as the boy whimpered for water, and after several “vigorous threats”, his father picked him up out of his bed, carried him out to a balcony abutting the courtyard, and left him there. “Even years afterwards I suffered from the tormenting fancy that the huge man, my father, the ultimate authority, would come almost for no reason at all and take me out of bed in the night and carry me out onto the pavlatche, and that meant I was a mere nothing for him,” he wrote, in Letter to His Father.

5. This dread of an unreasonable, all-powerful authority figure formed the basis of his worldview: Authority is all-knowing, all-seeing, omnipotent; we are but mere children before it, and as such, flailing and on our backs, unable to stand up to it and, more importantly, unable to win. We encounter this helpless figure in Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis (written in 1912), who goes to bed one night and wakes up a monstrous insect the following morning. We also see it in The Trial (published posthumously in 1925), in which Josef K is accused of a crime, but never told what he’s done, or why he must defend himself.

6. Kafka’s choice of imagery made him a favourite of the Absurdist movement, alongside others such as Albert Camus (1913-1960), Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) and Eugene Ionesco (1909-1994). Kafkaesque would come to describe both the unfathomable political (and legal, and bureaucratic) system that crushes the individual; and the human state of being subsumed by guilt and self-hatred, dismayed at a world devoid of meaning and security. Josef K epitomises this plight, trapped in a fight but unaware of the rules of engagement, and, thus, with no chance of winning.

A selection of Kafka’s best-known works.
A selection of Kafka’s best-known works.

7. The fracture between action and meaning was reflected in Kafka’s own life. By day, he worked in an insurance firm, having studied law at university in Prague. He was diligent, industrious, and known to be friendly with colleagues. By night, he wrote his fevered words, wracked with self-doubt, never quite sure of his worth as a writer.

8. Before his death, he burnt many of his writings. He asked his friend from university, the author Max Brod, to destroy most of what remained. He would write, over and over, that he thought of himself as reprehensible and repulsive.

9. Brod ignored Kafka’s wishes and published The Trial, The Castle (about a totalitarian government that rules from afar) and Amerika (his unfinished first novel; also known as The Man Who Disappeared), after the writer’s death. Kafka had already achieved a small degree of success during his lifetime, beginning with Description of a Struggle, written as a series of dialogues in 1904.

10. Kafka was a prolific writer, but his works weren’t written in defined formats. Much of what was published in magazines consisted of fragments or short stories. He wrote letters — over 600 just to his first fiancé, Felice Bauer — as well as numerous journal entries. Bauer and Kafka were engaged twice between 1912 and 1917. He broke off the engagement both times, worried that he would not be able to settle into the life of a married man.

11. Kafka’s works remain in print, a century after his death. They continue to hold out to the reader a canny foretelling of the menace of unchecked authoritarianism. By 1933, they were seeming particularly prescient, as Hitler’s Nazi Party came to power. Kafka’s manuscripts had to be spirited away as the world headed towards concentration camps and war. Brod, a Jew himself, fled with the papers, catching the last train out of Prague before the Nazis closed the Czech border. The writings would eventually make their way from the Schocken Library archive in Israel to a locker in a Swiss bank, and finally to the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Some were in the possession of Dora Diamant, Kafka’s partner in his final years. These were seized by the Gestapo in 1933 and remain untraced.

12. Kafka made his views on marriage clear in his writings. In Letter to His Father, he writes: “In reality… the marriage plans turned out to be the most grandiose and hopeful attempts at escape, and, consequently, their failure was correspondingly grandiose.” He wrote of how his father’s belittling left him unsure of his actions and choices. Seemingly continuing on to the theme of love, he added: “[...] it is, after all, not necessary to fly right into the middle of the sun, but it is necessary to crawl to a clean little spot on earth where the sun sometimes shines and one can warm oneself a little.”

13. Two of the four women he was in relationships with died in Nazi concentration camps: Julie Wohryzek, to whom Kafka was engaged briefly in 1919 (and of whom his father disapproved) and the journalist and writer Milena Jesenska (a Gentile, and a married woman). He came close to marrying Jesenska, but she would not leave her husband, the Austrian writer Ernst Pollak. Wohryzek died in Auschwitz, in 1944. Jesenska wrote prolifically against the fascist regime, until she was taken to Ravensbruck, where she died in 1944.

14. Jesenska was also Kafka’s first translator, translating his stories from German to Czech. Their 1920 correspondence around the translation of the short story The Stoker, a tale of chance meetings on a ship, was turned into an epistolary novel. Their correspondence through the next three years would become the bestselling Letters to Milena (1952). A sample line by Kafka: “You are the knife I turn inside myself; that is love. That, my dear, is love.”

15. Bauer would eventually marry a businessman, live first in Berlin, then Switzerland and finally the US. Before her death in 1960, aged 72, she placed Kafka’s letters at the disposal of Schocken Publishers in New York. These were published as Letters to Felice, in 1967.

16. Dora Diamant, who was 20 years younger than Kafka, nursed him in his final years. They lived a life of straitened circumstances, first in Berlin and later for a brief period in Austria. Just before his death, Kafka sought to marry Diamant, but her father refused to grant his permission. Diamant stayed with the writer till the end. She eventually migrated to London and lived a quiet life, devoting it to the preservation of Hasidic culture and the Yiddish language, organising plays, recitals and discussions in which she also acted. She died in 1952.

17. Kafka’s work has been the subject of extensive psychoanalysis. He himself read the work of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and once wrote that he had a “great but empty respect” for him. Over time, however, his position on psychoanalysis shifted. “Work as joy, inaccessible to the psychologists,” he wrote in one of his Hebrew-lesson notebooks.

18. Kafka was not a religious man, but did study Judaism from a historical and cultural perspective. He wrote of his concern over the plight of Jewish refugees during World War 1, and over the growing anti-Semitism in Europe soon after it. He learnt Hebrew in his later years, and wrote that he wished to someday travel to the promised land.

19. Kafka took a keen interest in the new ideas of his time. He and Brod often attended salons organised by the public intellectual Berta Fanta at her Prague home. Leading academics and thinkers met here and discussed subjects ranging from psychoanalysis to quantum theory. These included the physicists Albert Einstein and Philipp Frank, the mathematician Gerhard Kowalewski, and the Austrian philosopher Christian von Ehrenfels.

20. Kafka attended public readings with great interest and enjoyed participating in these too. It was customary for him, Brod, Oskar Baum and Felix Weltsch — a group that Brod referred to as the Prague Circle — to meet at one of their homes and read to each other from their manuscripts.

21. Kafka wrote in German. He attended Czech theatrical performances and lectures. He enjoyed the folk theatre of Hasidic actors, and developed a great friendship with one of them, Jizchak Lowy. Thus, he could rightly be considered a bridge between the two cultures.

22. All his sisters were killed in the war. Ottilie married a Czech Catholic and was a mother of two, and as such had a measure of protection against the Nazis, which she lost when her husband divorced her in 1942. She was sent to a concentration camp and eventually died in a gas chamber at Auschwitz. The other two sisters, Gabriele and Valerie, were killed in concentration camps too.

23. Though Kafka asked Brod to burn most of his manuscripts, he did give him permission to spare a few. The manuscripts of the published short stories The Judgment, The Stoker, In the Penal Colony, A Country Doctor and A Hunger Artist, and of the published novella The Metamorphosis, were be spared, he wrote. “Since they do exist, I do not wish to hinder anyone who may want to, from keeping them.”

24. Of all the questions that loom in The Metamorphosis, perhaps an eternal one is: What sort of insect did Samsa become? The writer Vladimir Nabokov, who taught Kafka at Cornell University, was also a passionate lepidopterist, and he concluded that Samsa turned into a very large beetle, given his use of strong mandibles to open a locked door.

25. Part of Kafka’s enduring legacy is the number of literary giants who engaged with his work. Nabokov taught Kafka at Cornell, Philip Roth at University of Pennsylvania. The literary critic Walter Benjamin dedicated an essay to Kafka in his seminal work, Illuminations (1968). The Marxist thinker Theodor Adorno analysed Kafka’s works in Prisms (1967). The Metamorphosis and The Trial have captured the imaginations of artists ranging from Roman Polanski to Orson Welles. Watch the latter’s cinematic retelling of The Trial (1962), if you can find it. It stars Anthony Perkins and Welles, with cinematography by Edmond Richard that is artistry of an entirely different kind.

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