Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

Franz Kafka was a Czech novelist and short story writer who wrote in the German language. He is universally regarded as one of the major figures of 20th century literature. His protagonists are isolated figures faced with surrealistic or bizarre predicaments and incomprehensible bureaucracies. The work explores themes of alienation, guilt and anxiety. The prose is full of torture, description of wounds, disorientation, sadomasochism, unexplained cruelty, appearance of rodents, beetles, vultures, and other grotesque creatures—all set against a background of utter hopelessness and despair.

The term, ‘Kafkaesque’ has become an English word referring to situations like those in his novels and stories. He is best known for his novel The Trial and a short fiction, The Metamorphosis. His unique body of writing — much of which is incomplete and has been published posthumously — is among the most influential in Western literature.

Kafkaesque situations occur when individuals are overwhelmed by bureaucracies in an unreal, nightmarish environment in which s/he feels disorientated and powerless. She has no resources to escape from the nightmare. The term originally referred to situations in literature but has come to apply to real life situations that are over-complex or bizarrely illogical.

Photograph of Franz Kafka

Photograph of Franz Kafka

In the arts, several Kafkaesque films have been made, notably, Polansky’s The Tenant, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink and science fiction series like The Twilight Zone. Scholars have identified Kafka as having influenced several of the most well regarded 20th century writers, like J.M. Coetzee, Albert Camus, Jorge Luis Borges, Eugene Ionesco and J.D. Salinger.

Kafka created a sterile bureaucratic universe and his fiction is full of legal and scientific terms. Yet that frightening vision also had insightful humour, highlighting the ‘irrationality at the roots of a supposedly rational world.’ Much post-Kafka fiction, especially dystopian and science fiction, employ the themes of Kafka’s universe. We see that in authors like George Orwell and Ray Bradbury.

In 1999 a committee of top German authors, scholars and literary critics ranked The Trial the second most significant German-language novel of the 20th century. There is a museum in Prague dedicated to Kafka. The Franz Kafka Museum’s aim is to surround the visitor with the world of Kafka’s fiction. In 2001 the City of Prague and the Franz Kafka Society established an annual literary award, the Franz Kafka Prize, with the following aim: to recognise the merits of literature as ‘humanistic character and contribution to cultural, national, language and religious tolerance, its existential, timeless character, its generally human validity, and its ability to hand over a testimony about our times.’

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