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Kafka, Franz

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Kafka, Franz

(Czech, 1883–1924) Kafka was born in Prague, into a wealthy German-speaking Jewish family. During his lifetime he published only a handful of short fragments and prose pieces, and left instructions to his friend from youth and literary executor, Max Brod, to destroy all his unpublished writings. After Kafka's death from tuberculosis, Brod disregarded this wish, and so the major works survived which place Kafka as one of the most original, influential, and disturbing writers of the twentieth century.

The fictional landscape he created, though naturalistic in detail, has the terrifying implacable logic of a never-ending dream from which there is no escape. Today we use the term ‘Kafkaesque’ to describe the sense of dislocation the individual feels when overwhelmed by a dizzyingly complex and threatening machine-society—memorably conveyed in one of the most famous opening lines in modern literature: ‘Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning’ (from The Trial, 1925). Never openly accused of a specific crime, so unable to defend himself, Joseph K. is sucked into a labyrinthine bureaucracy of nameless officials, shadowy authority figures, and unfathomable procedures. The gloom is tempered by Kafka's sense of the absurd—even the most menacing situation teeters on the edge of farce—and the undercurrent of sensuality, which is all the more heated for being suggested, rather than explicit.

A good way into Kafka is through his shorter pieces, particularly Metamorphosis (1915), with another memorable opening line: As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.’ And the absolutely harrowing In the Penal Settlement (1933) in which the accused prisoner is sentenced to die by having his crime imprinted on his flesh by needle points.

Amerika (so spelt in the original German edition, 1927) is lighter in tone and more playful, about 16-year-old Karl Rossman, a recently arrived immigrant from Europe, who is taken up and then rejected by a rich uncle. Kafka himself never visited America, and relied on guidebooks, which liberated his imagination to create a weirdly whimsical New World, and makes convincing the naïve charm and wide-eyed innocence of his hero.

Another full-length work, The Castle (1926), is an interminable tale about a land surveyor named K., who arrives in a peasant village and is forever balked from getting into the forbidding medieval castle and completing his job. Possibly Kafka's most profound statement, and most difficult book, it none the less repays the effort. The meaning in Kafka's books is notoriously elusive, but this is part of their attraction. Kafka's own explanation, in an extraordinary 50-page letter he wrote to his father, is interesting, but typically unhelpful: ‘My writings are about you. I merely poured out in them what I could not pour out on your breast.’

Albert Camus, Kazuo Ishiguro, Günter Grass, Knut Hamsun.

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