I was going to start this feature with a line about when Smirnov K awoke morning he found that he was transformed into a duck. Or ‘Someone must have been telling lies about Smirnov K, for without having done anything wrong he was molested one fine morning.’ But it’s too daft.

Much of his work has been written about, appraised, scrutinised, criticised, re-appraised, filed, stamped, indexed and numbered! Perhaps not numbered. Be it The Trial, Metamorphosis, The Penal Colony, The Hunger Artist and The Castle, Kafka’s works have lasted not only because his literary executor, Max Brod, refused to burn them but because they remain as metaphors for the human condition. But also, despite the density of the structure, text and style, because they are great stories in themselves. They create memorable images that stay with us long after the story, they burrow into our imaginations, exposing and reaffirming our own neurosis, they satirise human behaviour, the cruelty we inflict on ourselves as much as we inflict on others, they mock endless, soul-destroying bureaucracy and at times, especially within the vignettes, the imagery is so absurd that it makes us laugh. (I’m thinking in particular of the short stories ‘The Bucket Rider’, ‘Fellowship’ and ‘Give it up!’)
I’ve recently acquired a new collection of the complete short stories of Franz Kafka. Strangely enough I lost my old copy on a Czech Airlines flight on the return visit to Manchester. My partner had been reading it, and as we disembarked, the book was nowhere to be found. Literally nowhere. Because we spent a few minutes looking, a flight from Saudi Arabia had just landed and we then got stuck in a big queue for about 60 minutes. This alone would have been an adventure for Kafka. While in Prague of course we saw various Kafka monuments and references. The Franz Kafka museum was interesting, weird and had a wrongness about it, which added to the experience.
What I want to focus on though, for this feature, is Kafka’s own concerns and hyper sensitivity in his own words. Kafka’s own self-analysis, nature and relationships with others is the key driving force of his writing. You might say that about many authors of course and while this is often a major factor, there is often some distance in the work, it concerns the plight of other people, it makes wider statements about the world in general. Or it’s a yarn for yarn’s sake. With Kafka, however, even if a character is portrayed as a dung beetle or a mole, it doesn’t detract from Kafka having to confront himself, his fears, his flaws, his lack of self-esteem and of the cruel world he’s living in.
Here follows some extracts and quotes from an assignment I wrote in 2000. It gives an insight and an overview of Kafka’s motivations:
After getting a doctorate from the Karl-Ferdinand University in Prague he went into Insurance. A stable job with a stable salary. Kafka found it stuffy, tedious and mind-numbing. It was no coincidence that the atmosphere in the office and the formal approach to paperwork and redtape of his posts were captured in a brutally accurate sense in stories such as The Trial.In the midst of all the tedium of his work he found time to release his tension through his writing, which, on the occasions he found  peace and quiet, he found pleasurable.23 September 1912 (From his diary)

‘This story, The Judgement I wrote at one sitting during the night of the 22nd-23rd from ten o’clock at night to six o’clock in the morning. I was hardly able to pull my legs out from under the desk they had got so stiff from sitting. The fearful strain and joy, how the story developed before me, as if I were advancing over water…only in this way can writing be done, only with coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and soul…’

In spite of his job and long hours at his desk at home, he also concedes in his diary on November 1912…in a letter to Felice, his fiancée.

‘My mode of life is devised solely for writing…time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers.’

‘My life consists, and basically always has consisted, of attempts at writing, mostly unsuccessful.’

Kafka would write all through the night with barely two hours sleep before he was back at work.

‘..at 10.30pm (but often not till 11.30) I sit down to write, and I go on, depending on my strength, inclination, and luck, until 1,2 or 3 o’clock-once even till 6 in the morning.’

Sitting at his desk he would note observations and ideas in his Octavo Notebooks, draft letters to his correspondents and work on stories. Kafka himself conjures up this image of this lonely, tortured, misunderstood artist, alienated from society and human affairs only to find temporary solace, sitting in solitude at night by his desk writing. Writing in spite of writing.

‘… writing means revealing oneself to excess…This is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around when one writes, why even night is not night enough…I have often thought that the best mode of life for me would be to sit in the innermost room of a spacious locked cellar with my writing things and a lamp. Food would be brought and always put down far away from my room, outside the cellar’s outermost door. The walk to my food, in my dressing gown, through the vaulted cellars, would be my only exercise. I would then return to my table, eat slowly and with deliberation, then start writing again at once. And how I would write! From what depths I would drag it up!’
His stories are more often than not, amid all the philosophical interpretations, concerned with identity and the role of the individual and the objects around them. How they relate to each other, how they interact, the significance of such an interface. If I was forced to commit myself to a significant theme which pervades directly to his own experiences it would be that of identity. Kafka was many roles to many people and not really comfortable in any of them. Was it any wonder that most of his characters like Gregor and Joseph K didn’t know who they were as well?  One of his techniques that give weight to conflict and humiliation in the course of his journey for truth was Kafka’s own personal obsessions.

29 January 1915 (From Kafka’s diary)
‘Again tried to write, virtually useless. The past two days went early to bed, about ten o’clock, something I haven’t done for a long time now…’

7 February 1915
‘Complete standstill. Unending torments.’

10 February 1915
‘First evening. My neigbour talks for hours with the landlady. Both speak softly…and therefore the worse. My writing, which has been coming along for the past two days is interrupted, who knows for how long a time? Absolute despair. Is it like this in every house? Does such ridiculous and absolutely killing misery await me with every landlady in every city?’

11 February 1915 (Letter to Felice)
‘All I want is peace, but the kind of peace that is beyond people’s understanding. …no one in any ordinary household needs the kind of peace necessary to me; neither reading, nor studying, nor sleeping, in fact nothing needs the kind of peace I need for writing.’

‘…the urgency with which I long to get out of this room, and out of this world, were equal.’

‘…the lodger (in the next room) coughed twice yesterday, by today it was more often, his cough hurts me more than it hurts him.’


1 March 1915

‘By a great effort , after weeks of preparation and anxiety, gave notice; not entirely with reason.’

For Kafka the torment didn’t end there.

In Metamorphosis Gregor is ashamed and his family are disgusted at his appearance as a Dung Beetle. If Kafka ever felt in his life insignificant and worthless, and felt strong enough to give vent to this problem in his stories and diaries, it wasn’t without reason. Hermann Kafka, was Kafka’s successful, well built and domineering father. He was a heavy influence on some of Kafka’s characters and ideas. As far as Kafka himself was concerned, all of his works were inspired in some way or a reaction against his father.

November 1919 (Letter to his father)

‘The dislike that you naturally and immediately had of my writing was…welcome to me…My writing was all about you…’

In November 1919, Franz Kafka sought to address some of the problems he had with his father in Letter To Father which was posthumously published by Kafka’s best friend, Max Brod. It was one of Kafka’s most autobiographical moments, laying bare his feelings for his father and their relationship and how it influenced the sensitive Kafka as he grew older. The young Kafka couldn’t live up to his father expectations or compete with him financially and physically but he did have his intellectual independence. Kafka resented the ignorance his father had to Kafka’s sensitivity. If Kafka had one retaliation for his father in the course of the letter it was when the subject turned to Kafka’s writing. It was understood that his father never read the letter.

Another aspect of Kafka’s life, that he was critical of, was in human relationships with friends and lovers. Of the little spare time he had, he was an avid reader of his own works and could often be found frequenting cafe’s and literary circles with his best friend Max Brod, reading aloud some of his many works. He was obsessively critical of his own worth as a writer and very little of his literary output was actually published during his own lifetime. Kafka entrusted his literary legacy to Max Brod and asked him to be his literary executor when it became evident that Kafka’s consumption was growing fatal. Brod defied Kafka’s wishes and published a wealth of material from Kafka’s notes and unfinished manuscripts after Kafka’s death, arguing that Kafka’s comments were actually tongue in cheek.

Of Kafka’s relationships with the women in his life they were complex and intense affairs mainly carried out in the privacy of the words on the page. Of the women he was involved with were Felice Bauer (whom he was twice engaged to), Milena Jesenska and Dora Dymant. Arguably the most intense of the three and most frustrating to conduct was his union with Felice. They only actually met a handful of times and most of their correspondence seemed to be misunderstood, apologetic, introspective affairs. They were obsessed with trivial episodes of why they couldn’t be together, why Kafka wasn’t appropriate for her and vice versa. He wrote to her daily, had an obsessive habit for detail and would question her when she was slow in reply. On her part she couldn’t understand his works and he felt put out whenever she cited other local authors whom he felt were generally inferior. If you look at the relationships in some of Kafka’s works between the women and the central character they are often complex affairs,  presenting women in an almost aggressive and intimidating vein.

Kafka expressed awareness of the intended effect of his work. This comment taken from his own diary entry dated 13 December 1914 is perhaps the most poignant example of the underlying message (if there is one) of his works.

13 December 1914
‘…the best things I have written have their basis in this capacity of mine to meet death with contentment. All these fine and very convincing passages always deal with the fact that someone is dying, that it is hard for him to do, that it seems unjust to him, or at least harsh, and the reader is moved by this, or at least he should be.’


The Diaries of Franz Kafka by Max Brod (Ed.) (Penguin, 1978)
Letters To Felice with Kafka’s Other Trial by Elias Canetti by Erich Heller and Jurgen Born (Ed’s) translated by James Stern and Elizabeth Duckworth. (Penguin, 1983)
Letter To Father (Pg. 555) (trans.) Ernst Kaiser and Ethne Wilkins. (Secker and Warburg, 1976)
The Trial (Introduction) by J.P Stern. (Picador, 1988)