Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  

Kafka, Franz

Entry updated 15 April 2024. Tagged: Author.

Icon made by Freepik from


(1883-1924) Czech author, a Jew who wrote in German, a full tri-cultural inhabitant therefore of the cosmopolitan world that would eventually become Czechoslovakia (see Czech and Slovak SF) after the trauma of World War One, a civilization whose death throes began in 1938. Though much 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 literal clarity, perhaps even more than his parable-like storylines, that makes him a central figure in Fantastika – a term that has been used in the Czech Republic (and elsewhere) to encompass the non-mimetic literatures of our times, though without some specific descriptors governing its use in this encyclopedia. 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 intuition that the familiar and the unfamiliar are faces of the same reality; that in experiencing wrongness we are experiencing the true story of things.

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, a century after his death, that some of the stories he himself published – such as the nakedly Satirical In der Strafkolonie ["In the Penal Colony"] (written 1914; 1919 chap; variously trans); and Die Verwandlung (October 1915 Die Weißen Blätter; 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 (see 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, phenomenally 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 (see Automata; Crime and Punishment); the latter is a terrifyingly matter-of-fact novella of alienation and/or manifest destiny (see Horror in SF) in which the young Gregor Samsa awakens one morning, having been transformed in his sleep into a huge beetle; despite the never-expressed horror of the situation, the tale is at points hilarious. 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). The seven books that Kafka himself released into the world (some of them of only pamphlet length) were assembled as Erzählungen und Kleine Prosa (omni 1935; trans Willa and Edwin Muir as The Penal Colony: Stories and Short Pieces coll 1948; cut vt In the Penal Settlement: Tales and Short Prose Works 1949).

Many more were included in posthumous compilations including Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer: Ungedruckte Erzählungen und Prosa aus Dem Nachlas (coll 1931; trans Willa and Edwin Muir as The Great Wall of China and Other Pieces 1933) and Hochzeitsvorbereitungen auf dem Lande (coll 1953; trans Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins as Wedding Preparations in the Country and Other Posthumous Prose Writings 1954), the most significant of these in fantastic terms being perhaps the title story (written 1917) of the first volume, whose evocation of an illimitable Time Abyss has been deeply influential, almost in secret, on many authors (see also Ruins and Futurity). Everything 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 in wise disregard of his ostensible desire 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 Breon Mitchell 1998); and Das Schloß (written 1921-1922; 1926; trans Willa and Edwin Muir as The Castle 1930; new trans David Harman 1998). Though all have been understood as visions of the menacing absurdity of the world (see 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 (much clarified for readers in English by the 1998 translation); to the confidence-man ingenuities of the far more aggressive K, whose assaults on the fog-shrouded inner workings of The Castle seem almost capable of making sense of – which is to say gaining lebensraum within – the twentieth-century world, seem almost capable of making him as menacing as menaced (see Mysterious Stranger). Karl Rossmann and 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; though only K seems at moments to threaten to become an owner.

Kafka's influence has been enormous, figures like Jorge Luis Borges responding very early to him; he seems not to have begun significantly to affect writers in English until he was translated in the 1930s, 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; the considerable impact of a comic fantasy dama like Kafka's Dick (performed 1986; 1986 chap; rev 1987 chap) by Alan Bennett (1934-    ) depends on its audience's extensive awareness of the man and his work. The fantastika-evoking abysses opened by the defining incompletion of his great novels finds an echo in the charred incompleteness of the greater tales of Roberto Bolaño, who considered Kafka to be the twentieth century's greatest writer. Kafka's work is an astonishingly assured Baedeker to the thing-in-itself of where we live now. "Kafka" is a map without symbols. [JC]

see also: Austria; Dogs; Fantasy; Monsters; Paranoia.

Franz Kafka

born Prague, Austria-Hungary [now Czech Republic]: 3 July 1883

died Klosterneuburg, near Vienna, Austria: 3 June 1924


works published in Kafka's lifetime

  • Betrachtung ["Contemplation"] (Leipzig, Germany: Ernst Rowohlt, 1912) [coll: chap: book is dated 1913: pb/]
    • Contemplation & Other Stories (Prague, Czechoslovakia: Twisted Spoon Press, 1992) [coll: chap: trans by Kevin Blahut of the above plus further stories published during Kafka's lifetime: pb/Kip Bauersfeld]
  • Der Heizer: Ein Fragment ["The Stoker: A Fragment"] (Leipzig, Germany: Kurt Wolff Verlag, 1913) [story: chap: in the publisher's Der Jungste Tag series: version of the first chapter of Amerika (see below): pb/nonpictorial]
  • Die Verwandlung (Leipzig, Germany: Kurt Wolff Verlag, 1915) [novella: chap: first appeared October 1915 Die Weißen Blätter: in the publisher's Der Jungste Tag series: hb/nonpictorial: simultaneous: pb/Ottomar Starke]
    • The Metamorphosis (London: The Parton Press, 1937) [novella: chap: trans by A L Lloyd of the above: hb/nonpictorial]
      • Metamorphosis (New York: The Vanguard Press, 1946) [novella: chap: vt of the above trans by A L Lloyd: as here, later editions often drop the initial "The": hb/nonpictorial]
    • Metamorphosis; And, In the Penal Colony (London: Paperview, 2008) [omni: trans by Ian Johnston of the above and of In der Strafkolonie below: in the publisher's Banned Books series: hb/Pierre Vermeir]
    • Metamorphosis (London: Arcturus Publishing, 2009) [novella: new trans by William Aaltonen of the above: hb/from Odilon Redon]
    • The Metamorphosis (New York: W W Norton and Company, 2014) [new trans by Susan Bernofsky of the above: introduction by David Cronenberg: pb/Chris Welch]
  • Das Urteil: Eine Geschichte ["The Judgment"] (Leipzig, Germany: Kurt Wolff Verlag, 1916) [story: chap: first appeared in Arkadia (anth 1913) edited by Max Brod: hb/nonpictorial]
  • In der Strafkolonie (Leipzig, Germany: Kurt Wolff Verlag, 1919) [story: chap: pb/]
    • In the Penal Colony (New York: Limited Editions Club, 1987) [story: chap: reissue in single volume of the 1948 trans originally by Willa and Edwin Muir as title story in The Penal Colony (see below): pb/]
  • Ein Landarzt: Kleine Erzählungen ["A Country Doctor: Short Stories"] (Leipzig, Germany: Kurt Wolff Verlag, 1920) [coll: dated 1919: pb/nonpictorial]
  • Ein Hungerkünstler: Vier Geschichten ["A Hunger Artist: Four Stories"] (Berlin: Verlag Die Schmiede, 1924) [coll: chap: hb/George Salter as Georg Salter]

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: in the publisher's R series: 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/George Salter as Georg Salter]
    • The Trial (London: Victor Gollancz, 1937) [trans by Willa and Edwin Muir of the above: hb/nonpictorial]
    • Der Prozess (Frankfurt am Main, Germany: S Fischer Verlag, 1990) [critical edition of the above: with additions: hb/]
      • The Trial (New York: Schocken Books, 1998) [new trans by Breon Mitchell of the restored text above: hb/Kathleen Digrado]
  • 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:


previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies