From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Franz Kafka (3 July 1883 – 3 June 1924) was a German-language writer of novels and short stories, regarded by critics as one of the most influential authors of the 20th century. Kafka strongly influenced genres such as existentialism. Most of his works, such as "Die Verwandlung" ("The Metamorphosis"), Der Prozess (The Trial), and Das Schloss (The Castle), are filled with the themes and archetypes of alienation, physical and psychological brutality, parent–child conflict, characters on a terrifying quest, labyrinths of bureaucracy, and mystical transformations.
Only a few of Kafka's works were published during his lifetime: the story collections Betrachtung (Contemplation) and Ein Landarzt (A Country Doctor), and individual stories (such as "Die Verwandlung") in literary magazines. He prepared the story collection Ein Hungerkünstler (A Hunger Artist) for print, but it was not published until after his death. Kafka's unfinished works, including his novels Der Process, Das Schloss and Amerika (also known as Der Verschollene, The Man Who Disappeared), were published posthumously, mostly by his friend Max Brod, who ignored Kafka's wish to have the manuscripts destroyed. His work embodies a blend of absurd, surreal and mundane which gave rise to the adjective "kafkaesque".
Kafka's writing attracted little attention until after his death. During his lifetime, he published only a few short stories and never finished any of his novels, unless The Metamorphosis is considered a (short) novel. Prior to his death, Kafka wrote to his friend and literary executor Max Brod: "Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me ... in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others'), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread." Brod overrode Kafka's wishes, believing that Kafka had given these directions to him specifically because Kafka knew he would not honor them—Brod had told him as much. (His lover, Dora Diamant, also ignored his wishes, secretly keeping up to 20 notebooks and 35 letters until they were confiscated by the Gestapo in 1933. An ongoing international search is being conducted for these missing Kafka papers.) Brod, in fact, would oversee the publication of most of Kafka's work in his possession, which soon began to attract attention and high critical regard.
All of Kafka's published works, except several letters he wrote in Czech to Milena Jesenská, were written in German.
Kafka often made extensive use of a trait special to the German language allowing for long sentences that sometimes can span an entire page. Kafka's sentences then deliver an unexpected impact just before the full stop—that being the finalizing meaning and focus. This is achieved due to the construction of certain sentences in German which require that the verb be positioned at the end of the sentence. Such constructions cannot be duplicated in English, so it is up to the translator to provide the reader with the same effect found in the original text.
Another virtually insurmountable problem facing the translator is how to deal with the author's intentional use of ambiguous terms or of words that have several meanings. One such instance is found in the first sentence of The Metamorphosis. English translators have often sought to render the word Ungeziefer as "insect"; in Middle German, however, Ungeziefer literally means "unclean animal not suitable for sacrifice" and is sometimes used colloquially to mean "bug" – a very general term, unlike the scientific sounding "insect". Kafka had no intention of labeling Gregor, the protagonist of the story, as any specific thing, but instead wanted to convey Gregor's disgust at his transformation. Another example is Kafka's use of the German noun Verkehr in the final sentence of The Judgment. Literally, Verkehr means intercourse and, as in English, can have either a sexual or non-sexual meaning; in addition, it is used to mean transport or traffic. The sentence can be translated as: "At that moment an unending stream of traffic crossed over the bridge." What gives added weight to the obvious double meaning of 'Verkehr' is Kafka's confession to Max Brod that when he wrote that final line, he was thinking of "a violent ejaculation".
Critics have interpreted Kafka's works in the context of a variety of literary schools, such as modernism, magic realism, and so on. The apparent hopelessness and absurdity that seem to permeate his works are considered emblematic of existentialism. Others have tried to locate a Marxist influence in his satirization of bureaucracy in pieces such as In the Penal Colony, The Trial, and The Castle, whereas others point to anarchism as an inspiration for Kafka's anti-bureaucratic viewpoint. Still others have interpreted his works through the lens of Judaism (Borges made a few perceptive remarks in this regard), through freudianism (because of his familial struggles), or as allegories of a metaphysical quest for God (Thomas Mann was a proponent of this theory).
Themes of alienation and persecution are repeatedly emphasized, and the emphasis on this quality, notably in the work of Marthe Robert, partly inspired the counter-criticism of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who argued in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature that there was much more to Kafka than the stereotype of a lonely figure writing out of anguish, and that his work was more deliberate, subversive, and more "joyful" than it appears to be.
Furthermore, an isolated reading of Kafka's work—focusing on the futility of his characters' struggling without the influence of any studies on Kafka's life—reveals the humor of Kafka. Kafka's work, in this sense, is not a written reflection of any of his own struggles, but a reflection of how people invent struggles.
Biographers have said that it was common for Kafka to read chapters of the books he was working on to his closest friends, and that those readings usually concentrated on the humorous side of his prose. Milan Kundera refers to the essentially surrealist humour of Kafka as a main predecessor of later artists such as Federico Fellini, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes and Salman Rushdie. For García Márquez, it was as he said the reading of Kafka's The Metamorphosis that showed him "that it was possible to write in a different way."
Law and legality in Kafka's fiction
Many attempts have been made to examine Kafka’s legal background and the role of law in his fiction. These attempts remain relatively few in number compared to the vast collection of literature devoted to the study of his life and works, and marginal to legal scholarship. Mainstream studies of Kafka’s works normally present his fiction as an engagement with absurdity, a critique of bureaucracy or a search for redemption, failing to account for the images of law and legality which constitute an important part of “the horizon of meaning” in his fiction. Many of his descriptions of the legal proceedings in The Trial – metaphysical, absurd, bewildering and “Kafkaesque” as they might appear – are, in fact, based on accurate and informed descriptions of German and Austrian criminal proceedings of the time. The significance of law in Kafka’s fiction is also neglected within legal scholarship, for as Richard Posner pointed out, most lawyers do not consider writings about law in the form of fiction of any relevance to the understanding or the practice of law. Regardless of the concerns of mainstream studies of Kafka with redemption and absurdity, and what jurists such as Judge Posner might think relevant to law and legal practice, the fact remains that Kafka was an insurance lawyer who, besides being involved in litigation, was also “keenly aware of the legal debates of his day” (Ziolkowski, 2003, p. 224).
In a recent study which uses Kafka's office writings as its point of departure, Reza Banakar argues that "legal images in Kafka’s fiction are worthy of examination, not only because of their bewildering, enigmatic, bizarre, profane and alienating effects, or because of the deeper theological or existential meaning they suggest, but also as a particular concept of law and legality which operates paradoxically as an integral part of the human condition under modernity. To explore this point Kafka’s conception of law is placed in the context of his overall writing as a search for Heimat which takes us beyond the instrumental understanding of law advocated by various schools of legal positivism and allows us to grasp law as a form of experience" (see Banakar 2010).
Much of Kafka's work was unfinished, or prepared for publication posthumously by Max Brod. The novels The Castle (which stopped mid-sentence and had ambiguity on content), The Trial (chapters were unnumbered and some were incomplete) and Amerika (Kafka's original title was The Man who Disappeared) were all prepared for publication by Brod. It appears Brod took a few liberties with the manuscript (moving chapters, changing the German and cleaning up the punctuation), and thus the original German text was altered prior to publication. The editions by Brod are generally referred to as the Definitive Editions.
According to the publisher's note for The Castle, Malcolm Pasley was able to get most of Kafka's original handwritten work into the Oxford Bodleian Library in 1961. The text for The Trial was later acquired through auction and is stored at the German literary archives at Marbach, Germany.
Subsequently, Pasley headed a team (including Gerhard Neumann, Jost Schillemeit, and Jürgen Born) in reconstructing the German novels and S. Fischer Verlag republished them. Pasley was the editor for Das Schloß (The Castle), published in 1982, and Der Prozeß (The Trial), published in 1990. Jost Schillemeit was the editor of Der Verschollene (Amerika) published in 1983. These are all called the "Critical Editions" or the "Fischer Editions." The German critical text of these, and Kafka's other works, may be found online at The Kafka Project. This site is continuously building the repository.
There is another Kafka Project based at San Diego State University, which began in 1998 as the official international search for Kafka's last writings. Consisting of 20 notebooks and 35 letters to Kafka's last companion, Dora Diamant (later, Dymant-Lask), this missing literary treasure was confiscated from her by the Gestapo in Berlin 1933. The Kafka Project's four-month search of government archives in Berlin in 1998 uncovered the confiscation order and other significant documents. In 2003, the Kafka Project discovered three original Kafka letters, written in 1923. Building on the search conducted by Max Brod and Klaus Wagenbach in the mid-1950s, the Kafka Project at SDSU has an advisory committee of international scholars and researchers, and is calling for volunteers who want to help solve a literary mystery.
In 2008, academic and Kafka expert James Hawes accused scholars of suppressing details of the pornography Kafka subscribed to (published by the same man who was Kafka's own first publisher) in order to preserve his image as a quasi-saintly "outsider".
There are two primary sources for the translations based on the two German editions. The earliest English translations were by Edwin and Willa Muir and published by Alfred A. Knopf. These editions were widely published and spurred the late-1940s surge in Kafka's popularity in the United States. Later editions (notably the 1954 editions) had the addition of the deleted text translated by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser. These are known as "Definitive Editions." They translated both The Trial, Definitive and The Castle, Definitive among other writings. Definitive Editions are generally accepted to have a number of biases and to be dated in interpretation.
After Pasley and Schillemeit completed their recompilation of the German text, the new translations were completed and published – The Castle, Critical by Mark Harman (Schocken Books, 1998), The Trial, Critical by Breon Mitchell (Schocken Books, 1998) and Amerika: The Man Who Disappeared by Michael Hoffman (New Directions Publishing, 2004). These editions are often noted as being based on the restored text.
- Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote a short story called "A Friend of Kafka," which was about a Yiddish actor called Jacques Kohn who said he knew Franz Kafka. In this story, according to Jacques Kohn, Kafka believed in the Golem, a legendary creature from Jewish folklore.
- Kafka Americana by Jonathan Lethem and Carter Scholz is a collection of stories based on Kafka's life and works.
- Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
- Kafka was the Rage, a Greenwich Village Memoir by Anatole Broyard
- Kafka's Curse by Achmat Dangor
- The Kafka Effekt by American bizarro author D. Harlan Wilson, who relates his take on the irrealism genre of literature to that of Franz Kafka, and to that of William S. Burroughs.
- Criminal (comics) by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips contains, within a re-occuring comic strip seen in characters newspapers, the adventures of 'Franz Kafka PI'. The 4th story arc of the book also involves the creator of the strip. There is talk of a spin off series written by Matt Fraction.