Kafka, Franz

Tagged: Author

(1883-1924) Czech novelist, a Jew who wrote in German, a full inhabitant in other words of the cosmopolitan world that would eventually become Czechoslovakia (> Czech and Slovak SF) after the trauma of World War One; though most of his work had already been written (and some of it published) before 1918, Kafka continued to participate in the Prague world, releasing a further three titles before his death six years later. He may not have been a writer conspicuously eager to publish, but the picture of him (common until recent years) as a man pathologically estranged from the world is of little help in attempting to understand his work: not only its "Kafkaesque" frustrations and abysses, but also its humour and its prescient clarity of vision about the true lineaments of the twentieth-century world. It is this deadpan clarity, perhaps even more than his parable-like storylines, that makes him a central figure in Fantastika – a term used in the Czech Republic (and elsewhere) to encompass the non-mimetic literatures of our times. Kafka's work is a central demonstration of a principle at the heart of fantastika in general: that a text should be read literally before it is read figuratively; that to see the modern world is to experience the uncanny.

All the same, in contrast to some Czech contemporaries like Karel Čapek or Gustav Meyrink, Kafka cannot be very profitably understood as anything like a straightforward writer of fantasy or sf, though it is increasingly clear, just short of a century after his death, that some of his stories – such as In der Strafkolonie (written 1914; 1919 chap; trans Willa and Edwin Muir as title story in The Penal Colony: Stories and Short Pieces coll 1948; vt In the Penal Settlement: Tales and Short Prose Works 1949), and Die Verwandlung (1915 chap; trans A L Lloyd as The Metamorphosis 1937 chap) – present through a prose of hallucinated (but in no sense delusional) transparency a world radically displaced from the normally perceived reality (> Fabulation; Perception) of preWar Europe. It might be suggested that the Kafkaesque displacement (or foregrounding) is towards the future: that is, to the modern world, properly seen, divested of "civilization". The first story tells of an execution or Torture machine which incises the nature or name of his crime onto the victim's body (> Crime and Punishment); the latter is a terrifyingly matter-of-fact tale of alienation and/or manifest destiny (> Horror in SF) in which a young man is transformed overnight into a huge beetle. Other stories and fables appeared before Kafka's death [see Checklist below], an example of interest being the Apes as Human tale, "Ein Bericht für eine Akademie" [usually trans as "A Report to an Academy"] (October 1917 Der Jude), which was assembled with thirteen further tales as Ein Landarzt: Kleine Erzählungen ["A Country Doctor: Short Stories"] (coll dated 1919 but 1920; trans Vera Leslie as The Country Doctor: A Collection of Short Stories 1945 chap). Many more were included in posthumous compilations such as Ungedruckte Erzählungen und Prosa aus Dem Nachlas (coll 1932; trans Willa and Edwin Muir as The Great Wall of China and Other Pieces 1933; vt In the Penal Settlement: Tales and Short Prose Works 1949) [again, see Checklist below for collections]. Anything he wrote that could fairly be deemed a narrative fiction (some of his shorter works are prose poems) is included in The Complete Stories (omni 1971).

Kafka's most famous works – none finished and all published posthumously (despite his apparent wishes that they be destroyed on his death) – are his three novels: Amerika (written 1911-1914; 1927; trans Willa and Edwin Muir as America 1938; vt Amerika 1940; new trans Mark Harman vt Amerika: The Missing Person 2008); Der Prozeß (written 1914-1915; 1925; trans Willa and Edwin Muir as The Trial 1937; new trans Mark Harman 1998) and Das Schloß (written 1921-1922; 1926; trans Willa and Edwin Muir as The Castle 1930). Though all have been understood as visions of the menacing absurdity of the world (> Absurdist SF), when read in the order of composition they present an illuminating sequence of adjustments to a world that could be described as not so much manifestly absurd as absurdly manifest: from the persecuted innocence of Amerika's protagonist Karl Rossmann, whose arrival in a disorientingly surreal New York, where his first sight is of the Statue of Liberty bearing a sword, leads him ever further into a Dystopian America; to the legalistic hunts for meaning of Joseph K in The Trial; to the confidence-man ingenuities of K, whose assaults on the inner workings of the The Castle seem almost capable of making sense of – which is to say gaining lebensraum within – the twentieth-century world. Karl Rossmann, Joseph K and K are only secondarily victims of the world as ceaseless transaction, the world as office: they are primarily inhabitants of that world. Kafka's influence has been enormous, figures like Jorge Luis Borges responding very early to him; he did not begin to affect writers in English until the 1930s (see translation dates below),Rex Warner's novel The Wild Goose Chase (1937) being one of the first clearly to demonstrate his impact. Kafka and/or the Kafkaesque increasingly permeate modern literature when it is most responsive to the world. His work is a Baedeker to where we live now. [JC]

see also: Austria; Fantasy; Monsters; Paranoia.

Franz Kafka

born Prague, Austria-Hungary: 3 July 1883

died Klosterneuburg, near Vienna, Austria: 3 June 1924

works

works published in Kafka's lifetime

posthumous publications

Novels are given in order of composition.

  • Amerika (Munich, Germany: Kurt Wolff Verlag, 1927) [written 1911-1914: hb/]
    • America (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1938) [trans by Willa and Edwin Muir of the above: hb/nonpictorial]
      • Amerika (Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1940) [vt of the above trans by Willa and Edwin Muir: hb/]
    • Amerika: The Missing Person (New York: Schocken Books, 2008) [new trans by Mark Harman of the above: based on restored text: hb/Jonathan Sainsbury]
  • Der Prozeß (Berlin: Verlag Die Schmiede, 1925) [written 1914-1915: hb/]
    • The Trial (London: Victor Gollancz, 1937) [trans by Willa and Edwin Muir of the above: hb/nonpictorial]
  • Das Schloß (Munich, Germany: Kurt Wolff Verlag, 1926) [written 1921-1922: hb/]
    • The Castle (London: Secker and Warburg, 1930) [trans by Willa and Edwin Muir of the above: hb/nonpictorial]
    • The Castle (New York: Schocken Books, 1998) [new trans by Mark Harman of the above: based on restored text: hb/]

collections (selected)

about the author

The literature on Kafka is enormous. A tiny sample is given here:

  • Ronald Hayman. K, a Biography of Kafka (London: Phoenix Press, 2001) [nonfiction: pb/]
  • Nicholas Murray. Kafka: A Biography (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2004) [nonfiction: hb/]
  • Roberto Calasso. K. (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2005) [nonfiction: hb/]

links

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