Before going to the Leipzig Book Fair with my nine-year-old daughter, I read Kafka’s short story The Hunger Artist. It tells of an artist whose “art” consists of starving himself, while caged in public view. It is a strange story requiring a few readings. In the end, it is revealed that the hunger artist isn’t really a hunger artist, he just hasn’t found food that he really likes.

At the antique section of the Book Fair, I got very excited when I spied a beautiful copy of The Hunger Artist and Other Short Stories from 1923, the last book published by Franz Kafka during his lifetime. “How much does it cost?” I innocently asked. “€25,000, but I’ll give it to you for 23,” I was told. The book was a first edition, with a rare dustjacket.

I later learned that the rare book market is particularly inflated when it comes to Franz Kafka. This is also indicative of the fascination that many retain with this German-speaking, Prague-born author.

This is Kafka year, in the German-speaking world anyway, marking 100 years since the author’s death on June 3, 1924. It has already been marked by a flurry of newspaper articles, public lectures, an Austro-German six-part television mini-series called Kafka, and a film dealing with the last year of the author’s life. But why is there a “Kafka year” and why is the author a world figure, not least via the term “Kafkaesque”?

The bard of office work

This is of course firstly because of the work itself, which has stood the test of time and is still widely read. But what does Kafkaesque actually mean? According to the philosopher Rüdiger Safranski, the term varies in meaning, but it often relates to the “everyday absurdity” of human life. It also often appears to mean, for many, the frightening nature of faceless bureaucracy.

Kafka’s writing can be surreal and absurd, but also often very amusing. He is, in addition, the bard of office work, the wordsmith of the middle-class working world that arose parallel to industrial modernisation. His literary output is peopled with varieties of office workers, legal advisers, administration supervisors, and travelling salesmen that exist in a bizarre, cruel and sometimes extremely funny world.

In the novella The Metamorphosis, his most famous work, the travelling salesman Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning and realises that during the night he has, somehow, turned into a large insect, but he still wants to make his train and go on his business trip.

In the short story The Neighbour, two rival insurance offices compete for the same customers, but the story may also just paranoidly play in the narrator’s mind. Poseidon deals with the Greek god of the seas but Poseidon appears here as an administrative manager who is not extremely happy with his lot, not least due to the massive amounts of paperwork he has to deal with. He has actually seen very little of the seas, because he is so busy.

In the novel The Trial, the bank official Josef K. is visited in the early morning in his apartment by officials who arrest him, eat his breakfast and tell him they are open to bribery. When he asks them why exactly he has been arrested, he is told that they don’t know, and K. spends the rest of the novel trying to find out exactly what it is he has apparently done.

A fascinating life

Surrealist and abrupt shifts in logic are a marker of Kafka’s work, as is a certain vagueness. This has also meant that Kafka’s literary output has remained open to interpretation and has greatly occupied literary scholars. For example, the short story In the Penal Colony details an over-elaborate form of execution and may be a critique of colonialism. It may also be an allegory for religious myth-making, possibly even a critique of Christianity.       

Kafka’s life has been a source of fascination and has been seen as intertwined with his work. He was born in 1883 in Prague, which was then the capital city of the Kingdom of Bohemia and the third most important city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Thus, Prague was part of a political entity in which German was the language of administration. The first German-speaking university was established in Prague by Emperor Charles/Karl IV in 1349. By the end of the 19th century, German speakers were very much in the minority in Prague and made up only seven per cent of the city’s population, a minority of circa 30,000 people, most of whom were middle-class and many of whom were involved in the administration of the Austro-Hungarian state. At least half of them were also Jewish.   

Although he was actually a Czech-German bilingual, Kafka was more comfortable writing in German as he had attended a German-language grammar school and subsequently the German-speaking section of the then-bilingual Prague University.

Respected as a lawyer

Kafka was also part of a small group of German-speaking writers in Prague, which included his best friend Max Brod, who published and edited much of Kafka’s work posthumously. Rainer Maria Rilke, who is generally seen as one of the greatest poets in the German language, also hailed from the Prague of this era, as did the playwright and author Franz Werfel.

Often earlier viewed narrowly as neurotic and introverted, Kafka completed a degree and a doctorate in law and began working very successfully as a lawyer and legal advisor for the Worker’s Accident and Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia.

He often appeared in court, speaking in German but also in Czech. He was, it would appear, very well respected as a lawyer. While he did his work very well, was known for his modesty and was very much liked and respected at his office, he also resented the time it took from his writing. He generally wrote at night, when he had the silence he felt he needed. Kafka completed the story The Judgement in one nightly sitting while he had to stop working on The Metamorphosis to travel to a court appearance in northern Bohemia.

A certain mystique has developed around Kafka’s personality. Max Brod, in an interview for German television from 1968, which can now be viewed on YouTube, tells his interviewer that Kafka was “quiet and reserved” but in a smaller group he could show great “wit and spiritedness.” In a larger group, he would remain quiet. Kafka, according to Brod, could also become aggressive about topics that interested him.

Son of a self-made man

Brod also mentions Kafka’s relationship with his father, Hermann, a merchant who came to Prague from rural Bohemia and was “a self-made man without education, who loved his son and who wanted Kafka to become a businessman”. The relationship between Franz and Hermann Kafka was full of conflict. Kafka’s father, whose merchant business was housed in what is now ironically the Museum of Torture in Prague, is depicted as a familial tyrant in Kafka’s posthumously published Letter to His Father.

Kafka describes going to his parents’ bed as a child in the middle of the night looking for a drink of water. His annoyed father picked him up and put him outside on the wintry balcony for the rest of the night.

The Austro-German Kafka TV mini-series dedicates one episode to Kafka’s relationship with his father, and further episodes to Max Brod, the office, and one episode each to Kafka’s relationships with Felice Bauer, to whom he was engaged twice; Milena Jesenská, who translated his work into Czech and become a kind-of lover; and Dora Diamant, his last love who nursed Kafka while he was dying of tuberculosis. The series definitely needed to be creative to make Kafka’s life story watchable.

For example, Kafka’s relationship to Felice Bauer was central to his existence for a time but was also inherently “uncinematic” and based on intensive letter-writing, with Kafka often writing three letters a day to Felice in Berlin.

The Austro-German film Die Heerlichkeit des Lebens (The Splendour of Life), in German and Austrian cinemas at the moment, takes a more conventional approach when telling the love story of Franz and Dora Diamant before Kafka’s death in 1924. The series and movie again show the fascination that Kafka’s life has held for many.

The afterlife of Kafka’s work   

The story of how Kafka’s work reached the wider public has also fascinated many and remains bizarre and Kafkaesque in itself. Kafka died at the age of forty and he left instructions to his friend Max Brod to destroy his remaining literary manuscripts. Brod did not do this but edited and published Kafka’s texts following his death.

These probably unfinished works include all of Kafka’s three novels, many of the short stories and his autobiographical letter to his father. Thus The Trial, for example, is actually the unfinished fragment of a novel, which Kafka may have felt needed further work. The very fact that Kafka left so much of his work unfinished has actually added to his mystique.

Some see Brod’s actions as a literary betrayal, while others believe that Kafka never really intended Brod to burn his manuscripts but knew that Brod, who believed Kafka to be a genius, would publish his work anyway. Max Brod became known as the editor of Kafka, to the detriment of his own literary career.

Just before the Nazis arrived in Prague in 1939, Brod and his wife escaped on the very last train and made their way to Palestine, with Max carrying one suitcase containing the original handwritten Kafka manuscripts. Brod then later led the post-war revival of interest in Kafka’s work from Palestine.

Brod died childless and the manuscripts were inherited by Esther Hoffa, his assistant in Tel Aviv whose daughter Eva then inherited Kafka’s papers. The manuscript for The Castle was sold to the German literary archive in Marbach, for €2 million, and the remaining Kafka manuscripts became the centre of a series of court cases in Israel, which concluded only in 2016.

Gestapo files

The state of Israel wanted to take the manuscripts into state ownership, Eva Hoffe wanted to sell them on the open market, and the German Literary Archive in Marbach, arguing for Kafka’s universality rather than a narrower Jewish reading of his work, wanted to purchase them declaring that the German archive could best take care of them. The Germans had not taken good care of Kafka’s three sisters, who were all murdered in the Holocaust, an Israeli professor told the New York Times in 2010.

The Israeli court decided that the manuscripts belonged to the state of Israel, although Kafka has been barely translated into Hebrew. His angst-ridden writing did not seem to fit with the self-confidence of the nascent Israeli state. Thus, as Haviv Rettig Gur wrote in The Times of Israel in 2018, “an Israel that never liked Franz Kafka came to own his literary legacy”.

But these are not the only original Kafka manuscripts that may still exist. Kafka also asked Dora Diamant to burn some of his diaries, 35 of his letters, and 20 notebooks. She later told Brod that she had done this, but in fact she had kept everything.

Dora later married Ludwig Lask, an academic and an active communist, who like her was also Jewish. Their apartment was raided by the Gestapo in 1933, who confiscated any papers they could find. These included the remaining Kafka letters, diaries and notebooks. These ended up in the Gestapo files which, at the end of World War Two, were taken to Moscow by the Russians but sent back to the German Democratic Republic in the 1950s. This archive is massive — using archival measurements it is nine kilometres long — but it has remained sealed and has never been systematised.

Thus, it is actually possible that a last novel or a series of short stories by Kafka may actually still exist. In the most Kafkaesque manner, Kafka’s last creations may have been lost in the archives for more than ninety years.         

Kafka and pop culture

Kafka’s appropriation in popular culture has also meant that he has acquired a ubiquity that other authors simply do not have. References to Kafka have been, at times, opaque and, at times, unmissable. David Bowie, in his self-referential classic song about drug addiction “Ashes to Ashes”, sings: “I want an axe to break the ice.” This is a reference to a letter written by Kafka in which he writes: “A book must be an axe to break the frozen ice within us.” On the more obvious end of the scale is The Rollings Stones’ 1975 album Metamorphosis, the cover of which depicts the members of the band with insect heads.

There have also been numerous cinematic engagements with Kafka’s life and work, from various cultural contexts and of varying quality. Orson Welles spent years filming a version of The Trial with Anthony Perkins as Josef K. He shot scenes whenever he had the money and at various locations throughout Europe, including in Paris and Zagreb.

Steven Soderbergh, before making Erin Brockovich, Out of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven, made the movie Kafka in 1991. Starring Jeremy Irons and filmed in Prague, it drew on aspects of Kafka’s life and combined these with narrative elements from The Trial and The Castle. The short film Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life stars Richard E. Grant as Kafka and won an Oscar in 1995. Kafka’s work has also influenced many contemporary writers, not least Haruki Murakami in his book Kafka on the Shore.

Franz Kafka has also become a TikTok phenomenon, with #Kafka having almost 130 million views.

There have been numerous film versions of The Metamorphosis. It is probably not a surprise that David Lynch, director of Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive, is a fan of Kafka’s work and also has, or more likely had, a long-term project based on The Metamorphosis.

Indeed, many of Kafka’s short stories, such as The Country Doctor – with its shifts in logic, possible sheer banality, possible further allegorical meaning, and possible supernatural elements – reads very much like a central European episode of Twin Peaks.

Franz Kafka has also become a TikTok phenomenon, with #Kafka having almost 130 million views on the platform. According to Jahlia Solomon, on the fashion and cultural site russh.com, the very accessibility of Kafka’s writing, and the fact that many of his texts can be read in one sitting, is one of the reasons for this.

On the other hand, especially in relation to The Metamorphosis, Kafka’s writing, she believes, is in tune with the Zeitgeist: “From the pandemic, impending climate crisis, and the alienation of modern life you can see how a story about a man waking up as a giant insect would feel somewhat comforting to readers of today.”

A moralist and T-shirt motif

In the Max Brod interview from 1968, Kafka’s friend sets out what he sees as the author’s foremost contribution: “He was a great moralist and that is where I see his main significance.” Describing an author in this manner is usually seen as an insult in German. Taking on a preachy, moralistic and maybe even judgemental tone has quasi-authoritarian connotations.

But maybe we should read Kafka as an author dealing implicitly with actions and how they may simply be ethically and morally right or wrong behind a veil of surreal and often comic public performativity? We may, thus, have in Kafka the author whose constructed worlds fit best with the Donald Trumps and Boris Johnsons of our contemporary world and all of the men whose surreal behaviour is obviously and inherently wrong.

Kafka’s birthplace in Prague’s Old City. Photo: Fergal Lenehan

Prague now has two large monuments to its famous literary son, who wrote in German not Czech and became a literary superstar in the anglophone and German-speaking worlds at least, nearly thirty years after his early death.

Kafka’s birthplace, in the Prague old city and a short walk from the tourist magnet that is the Charles Bridge, is marked with a plaque but does not appear to arouse very much wider interest. Kafka’s final resting place in the New Jewish Cemetery of Prague and a few underground stops east of the city centre, was also not highly visited by tourists.

A painted stone with the name “Franz”, the remnants of an old photograph, as well as some flowers suggested, however, that some dedicated visitors do indeed come to pay their respects.

Franz Kafka’s face stares out from t-shirts, posters, cloth bags, and postcards in many of the dozens of souvenir shops sprinkled throughout the tourist hotspots of the Czech capital city.

I can’t afford a Kafka first edition with a rare dust jacket for €25,000, but a Kafka cloth bag is definitely within my financial range.

Franz Kafka on a tourist T-shirt in Prague. Photo: Fergal Lenehan