Today in Yiddishkayt… July 3
Birthday of Franz Kafka, Writer
Franz Kafka was born on July 3, 1883 in Prague to a middle-class, German-speaking, Jewish family. He attended the prestigious German high school in Prague and went on to receive a law degree in 1906. Shortly thereafter, he began working for the Workers’ Accident Insurance institution for the Kingdom of Bohemia. His work involved investigating personal injury to industrial workers, such as lost fingers or limbs, and assessing compensation. It was essentially a job done only to pay the bills so that he could focus his energy of writing, which he did primarily at night. In 1913 he published a collection of short prose pieces entitled Meditation. That same year, he published The Judgement, a long short story about a rebellious son driven to suicide by his father. This story marked the beginning of Kafka’s writings on the theme of outsiders. His most famous work, The Metamorphosis, was published in 1915.
In 1917 Kafka was diagnosed with tuberculosis and began to spend long periods of time in sanatoriums and health resorts. Despite his illness, he continued to write and in 1919 he published In the Penal Colony, a parable about a torture machine, its operators, and victims. He also published The Country Doctor, another collection of short prose. He officially retired from work in 1922 when his tuberculosis of the lungs spread to the larynx.
Due to his illness, Kafka was very dependent on his parents, whom he both loved and resented. He never married and his sexual life oscillated between an ascetic aversion to intercourse, and an attraction to prostitutes. In his writings, Kafka frequently connected sex with dirt or guilt. His social life, on the other hand, was very active and he was friends with many prominent literary and intellectual figures of his time, such as Franz Werfel and Max Brod. Kafka attended meetings of the Klub Mladých, a Czech anarchist, anti-militarist and anti-clerical organization. He was also deeply fascinated by the Jews of Eastern Europe, whom he regarded as having an intensity of spiritual life which Western Jews did not have. His diary is full of references to Yiddish writers, known and unknown.
By 1924 his tuberculosis had worsened and he went to a sanatorium near Vienna for treatment. He died there on June 3 1924. Despite Kafka’s instruction that his unprinted manuscripts be destroyed after his death, his friend Max Brod had them published. Although he was virtually unknown during his lifetime, he has become one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. His works have been recognized as symbolizing modern man’s anxiety-ridden and grotesque alienation in a confusing, hostile, or indifferent world. The best known of the posthumous works are The Trial, about a man persecuted and put to death, The Castle, and Amerika, which portrays the inconclusive struggle of a young immigrant to gain a foothold in an unintelligible country.
Here is the opening scene of The Trial, a 1962 film directed by Orson Welles, based on Kafka’s book: