Wednesday, July 3, 2019

“Kafkaesque”

Franz Kafka was born into a Jewish family on July 3, 1883 near the Old Town Square in Prague, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Franz was the eldest of six children (two tragically died in infancy), who grew up in a German-Yiddish speaking home. Franz died just short of his 41st birthday, on June 3, 1924, from laryngeal tuberculosis, from which he suffered for many years. The surviving three Kafka children, Ellie, Valli and Ottla, perished during the Holocaust.

After attending elite schools in Prague, Franz enrolled in the Deutsche Karl-Ferdinands–Universitat of Prague in 1901 to study law. During law school, he and his life-long friend Max Brod, immersed themselves in the great works of literature, reading them in their original languages; in Kafka’s native German and Czech, in addition to Greek and French. After law school, Franz took jobs with insurance companies, but more and more, Franz focused on his writing and took a great interest in the Yiddish theatre and Yiddish literature. Although Kafka declared himself an atheist while an adolescent, and he did not portray overt Jewish characters in his works, many literary experts see a profound Jewish influence in his writing.

Kafka engaged in very erratic behavior. He would write the chapters of his novels out of order. He never completed any of his full-length novels, and actually burned 90% of the drafts he wrote. Yet, on the night of September 22, 1912, Kafka wrote the entire story “Das Urteil” (The Verdict) and dedicated it to his then fiancée. He wrote a “last will and testament” asking for his diaries, manuscripts, letters and sketches to be burned unread.

How then did Kafka’s works break through the international word of publishing?

Despite Kafka’s final wishes, Brod, a Zionist, took many of Kafka’s works to Palestine in 1939. Franz’ final paramour, Dora Diament, also ignored similar wishes and kept 20 notebooks and 35 letters, all of which were confiscated by the Gestapo. Brod published most of what he had, and Kafka’s works became popular and acclaimed posthumously. In 1961, the Oxford Bodleian Library acquired most of Kafka’s original handwritten works.

Brod died in 1968 and left Kafka’s unpublished papers to his secretary, Esther Hoffe. She released or sold some of them and left the majority to her daughters. When the Hoffe daughters refused to release the Kafka originals, they were sued by the National Library of Israel, who claimed ownership of the manuscripts due to Brod’s immigration to British Mandatory Palestine. A Tel Aviv Family Court ruled in October, 2012, that the manuscripts indeed belonged to the National Library.

The term “Kafkaesque” has entered the cultural vernacular, based on plots in some of Franz’ works, such as “The Trial” and “The Metamorphosis.” It connotes situations where bureaucracies control people, and when people become stuck in enigmatic, dark, nightmarish and disorienting situations.

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