Have you ever heard the word “kafkaesque”? No? Well, it comes from one of the most frustrating, yet fascinating writers of the early twentieth century, Franz Kafka. His writing is both fascinating and frustrating in the sense that his writing sometimes manages to confuse readers with its complexity. As such, the term “kafkaesque” came into being in order to describe his style of writing, which was rather nightmarish or rather dark. Additionally, “kafkaesque” can also mean “complex,” but to a high degree.
Franz Kafka was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia (or Bohemia) in 1883 as the eldest of six children to middle-class parents as part of a Jewish and German-speaking minority. Due to the fact that his family was Jewish, he was not German, nor was he Czech. He had two younger brothers – both of whom died in infancy, thus making him the only boy in the family with three younger sisters. His father, Hermann Kafka, was a businessman who yearned for his son to follow in his footsteps. The young Kafka, however, wished to be a writer and his creative side certainly wasn’t welcomed by his father, or his mother. His father would beat him whenever he opted to share his creative side and would often make Kafka feel like a tyrant. As a result, Kafka is believed to have struggled with anxiety and depression for much of his life.
Kafka published what is arguably known as his most famous novel, The Metamorphosis, in 1915. Whilst reading this novel for the first time several years ago, I noticed there were several similarities between Kafka and the main character, Gregor. Both came from middle-class families and had been neglected and abused by their fathers. Kafka also notably referred to himself as a bug through Gregor in The Metamorphosis, which symbolizes how he is a victim of abuse and of being vulnerable or easily susceptible to emotional and physical scarring. Both had low self-esteem and were withdrawn. Writing, to Kafka, was his solace and yet, Kafka is said to have felt “trapped in his room which he referred to as ‘the noise headquarters of the apartment’” when writing. His writing reflected his life. He wrote the unwritable.
One of Kafka’s most famous quotes that I personally love is, “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” Writing kept him sane when he was emotionally and physically scarred. As such, this acts as a segway into the next piece of information that makes Kafka all the more fascinating; his dying wish to a friend, Max Brod, in 1924, while battling tuberculosis, was that all of his incomplete or unpublished works be burned. One may think, “Why?” Why would a writer as accomplished as Kafka want his works to be burned and left unseen to the public? Max Brod went against Kafka’s wishes and published them, which led to Kafka’s posthumous fame. This raises the question of whether or not Brod was wrong to have gone against Kafka’s wishes. Brod candidly stated that he would have still published the works, even if Kafka’s wishes were sincere. Max Brod stated the following regarding the matter, “My decision rests solely on the fact that Kafka’s unpublished work contains the most wonderful treasures, and, measured against his own work, the best things he has written.” The Metamorphosis, his most acclaimed work, had been published prior to his death. Of the unpublished works, there was The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika, alongside many other short stories and diary entries. It has been debated for a long time whether or not Brod’s having published Kafka’s work was ethical or not. I personally believe that seeing as Kafka was the creator of these brilliant works in my perhaps biased opinion, he had the power and the right to decide the fate of his works. Lior Strahilevitz, who argued that he believes that Kafka’s wish should have been respected by Brod in the University of Chicago Law School Faculty Blog, wrote a lengthy and thoroughly interesting paper on “The Right to Destroy” back in 2004 in which he discusses the ethical aspects of Brod’s decision and the right to destroy in general, alongside discussing how it’s not unusual for writers to wish that their works be destroyed.
One of Kafka’s pieces that is also well-known to an extent is that of his 1919 “Letter to My Father” in which he wrote a 40+ page letter to his father that answers why he is afraid of him. He explains himself in great and yet somewhat flip-floppy detail in the sense that he doesn’t get right to the point. He recalled an instance when he had asked for water and as a response, his father simply took him out to the balcony and ignored his having wanted water. He stated that his father’s actions had done him “inner harm.”
The following is an excerpt from the letter:
“Dearest Father, You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you, and partly because an explanation of the grounds for this fear would mean going into far more details than I could even approximately keep in mind while talking. And if I now try to give you an answer in writing, it will still be very incomplete, because, even in writing, this fear and its consequences hamper me in relation to you and because the magnitude of the subject goes far beyond the scope of my memory and power of reasoning… I suffered from the tormenting fancy that the huge man, my father, the ultimate authority, would come almost for no reason at all and take me out of bed in the night and carry me out onto the pavlatche*, and that consequently I meant absolutely nothing as far as he was concerned… That was only a small beginning, but this feeling of being nothing that often dominates me (a feeling that is in another respect, admittedly, also a noble and fruitful one) comes largely from your influence.”
*pavlatche: a Czech word for a long balcony in the inner courtyard of old houses in Prague
Why do I believe more people should read Kafka’s work? I would recommend Kafka to others for the simple reason of where the word “kafkaesque” stemmed from; his frustratingly fascinating writing. Some would shy away from works that are complex and are confusing in a way, but I would personally recommend it due to that very reason. Kafka’s writing is like no other. His writing is admittedly quite dark and nightmarish and complex, but that’s the beauty in it. Sure, he described his own death in several of his diary entries and somewhat in The Metamorphosis through Gregor’s death. Understandably, he was sometimes called a hypochondriac and an insomniac. Also, he was considered to be obsessed with death and terrified by life. Furthermore, some would be unsatisfied with the fact that his novels end in the middle of a sentence. I, however, believe that that only gives me reason to read more and personally, I have never really felt unsatisfied not knowing how a work ends. It’s frustrating, yes, but I feel satisfied regardless of where I end because there’s so much content and it gives me more freedom as an immersive reader when I think about it. I have the freedom to immerse myself even further into the unknown. There’s the saying “fear of the unknown.” The unknown can be fearful indeed, but I believe it can be exciting. Therefore, I suggest you read Kafka to immerse yourself in the “humane art”, as Virginia Woolf put it, of kafkaesque literature.
[If you would like to read Kafka’s letter to his father in its entirety, you can go to this link: https://docs.google.com/document/d/14hPYZdSg9g1up7z35gHPnPAoYjjGSF-vJHdye-40fZY/edit?usp=sharing]
Lior Strahilevitz commentary: http://uchicagolaw.typepad.com/faculty/2008/08/the-latest-kafk.html
“The Right to Destroy”: https://poseidon01.ssrn.com/delivery.php?ID=454026098004120085030098096089014093000085002012023032095093075109068084095003113006057018122039107109012091103122017029067064025094036037013092101072099075105005067012046082071008065124127086125028080115097010105027000022027001118096122098006083084&EXT=pdf
By Maya Abou El Nasr