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Franz Kafka

Born on July 3, 1883, in Prague, Czechoslovakia, Franz Kafka is, along with James Joyce, one of the most influential of 20th-century writers.  From a middle-class Jewish family from Bohemia, he spent most of his life in Prague.  After studying law, he obtained a position in the workmen's compensation division of the Austro-Hungarian government.  Most of his writings were published posthumously.

Of Kafka's numerous novels and short stories, most center around innocent people to whom strange and terrible things happen.  In The Trial (1925) Kafka begins, "Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K, for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning."  The Metamorphosis (1915) starts out, "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect."

Kafka and his father had a strained relationship.  As a youngster, Kafka once called out for a glass of water in the middle of the night.  His father stormed into the room, pulled him from his bed, and locked him on the courtyard balcony overnight.  Later, Kafka would recall, "For years thereafter, I kept being haunted by fantasies of this giant of a man, my father, the ultimate judge, coming to get me in the middle of the night."  Not surprisingly, numerous fathers inhabit Kafka's fiction.  In his story, The Judgement (1916), a father orders a young man to commit suicide, which he does by throwing himself off a bridge.

As Kafka grew more comfortable with his literary career, he believed that keeping a bureaucratic job would both help him pay the bills and allow him time to write.  But a job he took at an insurance company left him exhausted.  He found himself working sixty-hour weeks on mind-numbing tasks.  His health soon began to fail, and he entered a sanitarium--a task he would repeat several times during his life.

After Kafka met Felice Bauer--his first true love--he spent the next 10 days writing her a letter of reintroduction.  After that, he sent her a letter each day for the next five years.  Eventually, they got engaged, but Kafka wasn't comfortable with the thought of taking the next step.  He worried that marriage might ruin the privacy he needed to be a writer; so he began an affair with his fiancée's best friend, whom he impregnated.  A short while later, he broke off his relationships with both women.  He had several other affairs and proposed to other women, but he never married.

Kafka's best friend was a hunch-backed man named Max Brod, a strange and sickly little man who worshiped the ground Kafka walked on.  The two visited cafes, went to brothels, and attended séances together.  Even before anyone had heard of Kafka, Brod wrote articles about him for literary journals.  He called Kafka a true genius and the greatest writer of all time.  Brod kept copies of all the Kafka writings he could find.  Near the end of his life, Kafka told Brod to burn all of his unpublished work.  Brod refused, and he is responsible for preserving the vast body of Kafka's novels to this day. 

Kafka's other major novels include The Trial (1925) and Amerika (1927).  In prose that is memorable for its clarity and precision, the author presents a world that is both real and dreamlike, one in which individuals burdened with guilt, isolation, anxiety, and confusion make a futile attempt to find personal salvation.  Major stories appearing during his lifetime include The Judgement (1913), The Metamorphosis (1915), A Country Doctor (1919), In the Penal Colony (1920), and The Hunger Artist (1922).  Ironically, in his last novel, The Castle (1926), a man named K. tries over and over again to reach a castle without ever getting there.

Of Kafka's work, American novelist John Updike said, "[He had a] sensation of anxiety and shame, a sensitivity acute beyond usefulness, as if the nervous system, flayed of its old hide of social usage, must record every touch of pain." 

Franz Kafka died in 1924, leaving behind a body of work so broad and varied, so deep in emotion and complete in his unveiling of the human psyche that his legacy may well live forever. 

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