Franz Kafka has come to be one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, as well as one of Bohemia's most famous sons. This month the Franz Kafka Society in Prague, the Jewish Museum, and Charles University, are all marking the 80th anniversary of the writer's death - inspiring us to revisit some of the key moments in Kafka's life. There is also a conference on Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges, organised in cooperation with the Agentine Embassy. So Kafka has not been forgotten in his home town.
This week also saw a reading of a libretto based on Kafka's work In the Penal Colony at the Jewish Town Hall. That was written by the late Alan Levy, who was one of Prague's most famous journalists. His libretto remains faithful to many of Kafka's dominant themes, including the submersion of the individual in a hostile and indifferent world, where one can be judged and sentenced without knowing fully the reasons behind one's crime.
"The one drawback of this apparatus is that it gets so messy. But we're still able to do two executions before we have to take the parts out and clean them in the workshops. We can, when needed, conduct two executions per day. Around the clock"
"And, do you?"
Many of the feelings of alienation and anxiety that drove Kafka to write, had their roots in the writer's youth. Franz Kafka, who was born to a Prague-based German-Jewish family in 1883, was weak and shy as a child. He did not inspire much respect from his father; nor did he fare much better as an adult. Kafka specialist Eduard Goldstucker, in an interview for Radio Prague not long before he died two years ago, said Kafka's dilemma with his father could be traced back to his earliest childhood.
"He wrote a piece called 'Letter to Father' in which he described an incident from early life, when he was a baby or a small child. One night he cried and couldn't stop. His father, who was tired after a whole day's work and wanted to sleep, tried to get him to stop crying. But it didn't help. His father lost his patience, got up and took the boy and put him on the balcony and left him there. I interpret this moment as a moment when that boy somehow thought of himself as abandoned. Rejected."
"He characterised himself as a man whose own nature distanced him from life in a meaningful community."
After completing secondary school Kafka continued with studies in law. Following graduation in 1907 he then joined an Italian insurance company, partly in the attempt to prove to his father he could hold a steady job. But for Kafka the work was hardly rewarding, and he left within a year. He then joined the Workers' Accident Insurance Institute which remained his sole place of employment until 1917.
But, it was away from the clerk's desk that he dreamed of becoming a writer, sacrificing many hours writing long into the night.
"It was fifteen years of gruesome effort to become a writer. The breakthrough came when he succeeded in writing a short story in one night - The Verdict. He was very dissatisfied with most of what he wrote, and he never finished any of his three novels. His protagonists in his works mostly try to get out of loneliness. Of imposed loneliness, from which there is no way out. And they are seeking their way out, but they always come back defeated."
Kafka's own relationships also suffered failure. In 1914 he became engaged for the first time to the daughter of a Jewish businessman: Felice Bauer. But he called the engagement off. In 1917, he would promise to marry her again, but by that time he became ill: he had contracted tuberculosis, which would kill him in seven years' time.
Another relationship involved the writer and the daughter of a cobbler. However, that was frowned upon most deeply by the domineering father.
Kafka's last important relationship was with journalist Milena Jesenska, said to be his intellectual match.
Outside of romantic relationships his closest friendship was with the writer Max Brod, a prominent intellectual on the Czech literary scene. It was Brod who first recognised the genius of Kafka's work. Ultimately betraying his dying friend's request to burn every page of his work. After Kafka died, Brod set about doing the opposite: publishing all of his writings. Eduard Goldstucker once more:
"Before Kafka published a single line he looked upon Kafka as a genius. In all respects. Max Brod wrote about him as a great writer, mentioning his name among a row of great writers of the age. To which Kafka said very modestly 'I thank you very much, but that name should be forgotten.'"
Franz Kafka died on June 3rd 1924, never knowing what impact his work would have on the 20th century. The modern literary canon is unthinkable without it, from novels like The Trial and The Castle, to the short stories like The Metamorphosis, and In the Penal Colony.
"You see there two kinds of needles. Can you follow it? The harrow is beginning to write. It keeps on writing, deeper and deeper for the whole twelve hours. The first six hours the condemned man stays alive as before. He suffers...only...pain."
Note: portions of this programme originally aired in Czechs in History with Nick Carey on August 9th, 2000.