Kafka was born into a middle-class, German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He trained as a lawyer, and after completing his legal education he was employed with an insurance company, forcing him to relegate writing to his spare time. Over the course of his life, Kafka wrote hundreds of letters to family and close friends, including his father, with whom he had a strained and formal relationship. He died in 1924 at the age of 40 from tuberculosis.
In order to understand Kafka I shall do well to include a quote from his diary and an anecdote. The significant diary entry from August 1916: “My penchant for portraying my dreamlike inner life has rendered everything else inconsequential; my life has atrophied terribly, and does not stop atrophying.”
When Kafka was reading aloud the opening pages of The Trial before a group of Prague friends but laughed so much that he had to stop at intervals, while his listeners also laughed “uncontrollably,” despite what his friend Max Brod described as “the terrible gravity of this chapter.”
He complained often of being a martyr to his art, a self -realization that speaks of his sharp intellect but his irony in the face of the tragic fate of his protagonist, to burst out into laughter, sets the relevance of literature in his case as a nervous twitch set off by inanity of his times and his ideals. Literature has thus served her votaries each after its fashion. Everyday life about Kafka was giving way
as the father-figure you revered sliding into senescence and certainties about the hearth sounding false as the unfortunate masses of migrants you see on your screen daily shuffling about in the streets. Europe coming to terms with itself in a post-world war was all too real and as it were hell itself.
‘His conception of himself as tormented artist is allied closely to his view of his predicament as a man struggling to maintain his health and sanity in the face of an unrelentingly inhospitable world. In the annals of lamentation, from Job and Jeremiah to Beckett’s Unnamable, surely no one has devoted himself to the sustained moan with such dedication, energy, and exquisite finesse as the author of the “The Judgment” and the “Letter to His Father,” of the diaries, and of the correspondence with Felice Bauer and his lover Milena Jesenská, as well as his friend Max Brod’.1
Consider the prose fragment “The Great Wall of China.” The piece focuses not on the emperor on whose orders the wall was constructed, but on the construction itself, which was built “not as a single entity but rather in individual sections far apart from one another,” No one apart from those in the top command can say with any certainty how far the construction has progressed; it is not even clear whether the wall will really have all the gaps filled in when the work is done. It is never completed, and remains a fragment made up of fragments.
His journey into the self was a fragment made up of fragments and when a cry breaks out, no one shall know whether out of helplessness or of joy it assails us and prepares for similar surprises to come if the reader only persists enough. That fragmentary aspect, a student in literature in retrospect may accept or be dismissive about, but has despite of Kafka’s irony become a literary term –Kafkesque.
Quote: : “I am made of literature; I am nothing else and cannot be anything else.”
1. Brod, though mistaken in some things—his representation of Kafka as a religious writer, for instance—was ever commonsensical. He largely had the measure of his friend, and even after Kafka had been diagnosed with tuberculosis did not hesitate to write to him with a flat rebuke: “You are happy in your unhappiness.”
(A Different Kafka- John Banville/NYT Oct.23,2013)