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Franz Kafka
Author: Akul Tripathi
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.
(from "The Metamorphosis")

This one line is perhaps the most famous of the modern literature. And the writer is famous, or should I say notorious for all the contradiction and ambiguity that surround him. We today know a lot about Franz Kafka, but then we know nothing at all. Like Albert Einstein said when he returned a Kafka book lent to him by Thomas Mann, “Couldn’t read it for its perversity. The human mind isn’t complicated enough.” Here is a peek into a mind and soul so complex (or simple as you choose to see it) that even Einstein couldn’t comprehend fully,

Virtually unknown during his lifetime, the works of Kafka have since been recognized as symbolizing modern man's anxiety-ridden and grotesque alienation in an unintelligible, hostile, or indifferent world. Kafka came from a middle-class Jewish family and grew up in the shadow of his domineering shopkeeper father, who impressed Kafka as an awesome patriarch. The feeling of impotence, even in his rebellion, was a syndrome that became a pervasive theme in his fiction. Kafka did well in the prestigious German high school in Prague and went on to receive a law degree in 1906. This allowed him to secure a livelihood that gave him time for writing, which he regarded as the essence--both blessing and curse--of his life. He soon found a position in the semi-public Workers' Accident Insurance institution, where he remained a loyal and successful employee until--beginning in 1917-- tuberculosis forced him to take repeated sick leaves and finally, in 1922, to retire. Kafka spent half his time after 1917 in sanatoriums and health resorts, his tuberculosis of the lungs finally spreading to the larynx.

Kafka lived his life in emotional dependence on his parents, whom he both loved and resented. None of his largely unhappy love affairs could wean him from this inner dependence; though he longed to marry, he never did. Sexually, he apparently oscillated between an ascetic aversion to intercourse, which he called "the punishment for being together," and an attraction to prostitutes. Sex in Kafka's writings is frequently connected with dirt or guilt and treated as an attractive abomination. Nevertheless, Kafka led a fairly active social life, including acquaintance with many prominent literary and intellectual figures of his era, such as the writers Franz Werfel and Max Brod. He loved to hike, swim, and row, and during vacations he took carefully planned trips. He wrote primarily at night, the days being pre-empted by his job.

Franz had been trying his hand at serious writing since about 1898, but these early works were destroyed. Later he began writing more seriously. His first extant story, Description of a Struggle, dates from 1904-1905. He got his first job at the Assicurizioni Generali Insurance Company in 1907 but soon left, due to the lengthy hours and intolerable conditions. He still looked extremely young, sometimes being mistaken for being 15 or 16 when in fact he was 28. In 1911 he also made a trip to Paris, Italy, and Switzerland with Brod.

He was very conscious of his small size as compared to his father and kept trying various recipes and concoctions to counter it - something that would irritate his father to no end. Hermann Kafka thought his son was too eccentric, with his vegetarianism and quiet nature. One day he read about chewing each morsel of food a hundred times before swallowing to aid digestion and kept following it, much to the bewilderment and annoyance of his father.
Throughout his college days and well into adulthood, Franz was definitely not living the life of a monk. He had numerous affairs and one-night stands with barmaids, waitresses, and shopgirls, not to mention his visits to the whorehouses, activities that most men in Prague at the time also indulged in. However, these relations with women were entirely sexual. They didn't mean anything to him beyond immediate sexual gratification.

The most bizarre aspect of his sex life, though, was that sex was absolutely repulsive and disgusting to him. Hence, the very idea of "normal married life" with a respectable woman was too much for him. "Coitus as the punishment for the happiness of being together," he wrote in his diary, when faced with the prospect of marriage and what that would entail. He would time and again break off engagements, sometimes nearly at the last minute, in order to escape it. Franz seems to have suffered from the malady common to many at that place and time: namely, the virgin/whore complex, where every woman is either a "nice girl" or a slut, with no room in between. So a normal, adult affair with a woman he liked and respected would prove all but impossible

None of Kafka's novels was printed during his lifetime, and it was only with reluctance that he published a fraction of his shorter fiction. This fiction included Meditation (1913; Eng. trans., 1949), a collection of short prose pieces; The Judgment (1913; Eng. trans., 1945), a long short story, written in 1912, which Kafka himself considered his decisive breakthrough (it tells of a rebellious son condemned to suicide by his father); and The Metamorphosis (1915; Eng. trans., 1961), dealing again with the outsider, a son who suffers the literal and symbolic transformation into a huge, repulsive, fatally wounded insect. In the Penal Colony (1919; Eng. trans., 1961) is a parable of a torture machine and its operators and victims--equally applicable to a person's inner sense of law, guilt, and retribution and to the age of World War I. The Country Doctor (1919; Eng. trans., 1946) was another collection of short prose. At the time of his death Kafka was also preparing A Hunger Artist (1924; Eng. trans., 1938), four stories revolving around the artist's inability either to negate or come to terms with life in the human community.

Contrary to Kafka's halfhearted instruction that his unprinted manuscripts be destroyed after his death, his friend Max Brod set about publishing them and thus became the architect of his belated fame. The best known of the posthumous works are three fragmentary novels. The Trial (1925; Eng. trans., 1937) deals with a man persecuted and put to death by the inscrutable agencies of an unfathomable court of law. The Castle (1926; Eng. trans., 1930) describes the relentless but futile efforts of the protagonist to gain recognition from the mysterious authorities ruling (from their castle) the village where he wants to establish himself. Amerika (1927; Eng. trans., 1938), written early in Kafka's career, portrays the inconclusive struggle of a young immigrant to gain a foothold in an alien, incomprehensible country.

In all of these works, as indeed in most of Kafka's mature prose, the lucid, concise style forms a striking contrast to the labyrinthine complexities, the anxiety-laden absurdities, and the powerfully oppressive symbols of torment and anomie that are the substance of the writer's vision. Kafka's fiction, somewhat like ink-blot tests, elicits and defeats attempts at conclusive explanation. Practically every school of modern criticism has produced a corpus of interpretations. Kafka's own aphorisms, however, may come the closest to offering a key.

There is much that Kafka has written, and much more that has been written about him. Every sentence of his if taken away from the book as a whole can have many meanings. And to each one his own. That is the USP of his writing. The books don’t come to you as he wrote it, but as you think he write it. His words on books best define what his books are all about -

"I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us...We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us."

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