The mind and soul of the early 20th Century writer, Franz Kafka, have become perhaps the most highly coveted melancholy of the modernist era. The captivating contorted realms of Kafka have permanent hold over the literary world and beyond: worlds gripped by shrouded forces of authority, deep personal helplessness, and states of constant uncertainty that we all, if only for a short while, find ourselves in. To the world he is a literary giant, within himself he experienced low self-confidence, guilt, and was cripplingly shy—especially about his body.
As a contemporary to the socio-political experiences that framed the works of Philosophers Marx and Durkheim, Kafka toiled with the troubles of a rapidly industrialising Europe not in political writings but within vivid literary realms. The psychology of his deeply complex personal struggles and traumatic relationship with his father are embedded into just 3 collections of short, unfinished, novels. The most famous, Metamorphosis, in which Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to discover that he has been transformed into an unsightly insect who is mocked and ultimately forsaken by his family. The dream-like dystopian story of “The Trail” sees a man put on trial by an unofficial court for a crime no one will explain to him, after bullying and belittlement by authority he eventually resigns himself and goes quietly to be executed in a quarry.
The surrealist explorations of guilt, alienation, and oppression, combined with how little he wrote, has prompted academics and historians to debate hotly around the legacy of a man just as compelling as his work. Time itself has claimed Kafka, converting him into an adjective, “Kafkaesque”, so that we may all claim his perceived state of existence when we feel pathetic, ashamed, and bullied with no one to turn to. Indeed, it is the debate about who gets to claim Kafka, not only in his work but the very consciousness of the man who bore it, that is perhaps the most relevant aspect of his legacy.
Kafka himself intended no one to be the keeper of his work, instructing that all his writings be burnt after his death. He wrote to his friend, a fellow writer and eventual keeper of his works, Max Brod: “My scribbling … is nothing more than my own materialization of horror,”, “It shouldn’t be printed at all. It should be burnt.” When Kafka finally succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 40, Brod would not honour these requests and instead took them with him when he fled the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 and emigrated to Palestine where he assumed the responsibility of publishing Kafka’s work. The manuscripts were then bequeathed to Brod’s secretary, Esther Hoffe, with instructions to give them to the “Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the municipal library in Tel Aviv or another organization in Israel or abroad” upon his death. By this time, as Brod has so hoped, Kafka’s work had gained international notoriety. In 2011 Oxford University and Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach (German Literary Archive) jointly purchased the letters and documents belonging to Kafka’s surviving granddaughter, Ottla, which has already been in the care of Oxford University for some time.
In 2010 a bank vault in Switzerland which contained the remaining papers would be opened as part of a 12-year legal battle between Hoffe’s daughter and The National Library in Jerusalem to establish rightful guardianship of the documents. David Blumberg, Chairman of the National Library of Israel Board of Directors, stated:
“For more than a decade, the National Library of Israel has worked tirelessly to bring the literary estate of the prolific writer, composer, and playwright Max Brod and his closest friend Franz Kafka to the National Library, in accordance with Brod’s wishes”, he continued “After seeing materials including Kafka’s Hebrew notebook and letters about Zionism and Judaism, it is now clearer than ever that the National Library in Jerusalem is the rightful home for the Brod and Kafka papers”.
Centring Kafka’s Jewishness in the debate about his literary and personal legacy may seem unexpected, none of his literary works contain the word “Jewish” and one could easily, and often does, read and understand his work with no knowledge of his background.
So, to what extent is Kafka a Jewish writer? Biographically, Kafka’s Jewishness is obvious. He was born to a middle-class Jewish family and lived within a well assimilated and often successful Jewish community in Germany and wider Europe. A few years before Kafka began studying Law in Prague, Sir David Solomons had served as Britain’s first Jewish Sheriff of London following a Jewish-lead campaign for a change in the law not requiring political officials to swear on the Christian bible. Notwithstanding, the community suffered much of the antisemitism that besets the Jewish experience in Europe and all of Kafka’s immediate family, including his 3 younger sisters, would eventually die in the Death Camps of the Holocaust. Though he was raised with little knowledge of Judaism, Kafka developed a profound interest in Jewish culture, writing extensively on Jewish mysticism in his personal diaries.
Academics have commented on how Kafka’s literary themes and life experience reflect greater themes of the Jewish experience. Adam Kirsch, author of the global novel: Writing the world in the 21st century, wrote in an article “Kafka’s genius was to see that these Jewish experiences—what Balint calls his “stubborn homelessness and non-belonging”—were also archetypally modern experiences”. Pavel Eisner, one of Kafka’s first translators, interprets The Trial as the embodiment of the “triple dimension of Jewish existence in Prague … his protagonist Josef K. is (symbolically) arrested by a German, a Czech, and a Jew. He stands for the ‘guiltless guilt’ that imbues the Jew in the modern world”. Kafka himself lamented on the tentative balance between a nationalist identity and a Jewish one. In his notorious diagnosis of the struggle of the German-Jewish writer, he wrote to Brod, “[The Jewish writers] live beset by three impossibilities: the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing in German and the impossibility of writing differently, and we could add a fourth impossibility: the impossibility of writing at all”.
In December 2016, Israeli Supreme Court ruled that Brod/Hoffe’s archive, including Kafka’s writings, were to be handed over to the National Library of Israel. Among the materials in Brod’s estate were several items of Kafka’s: postcards to family members and acquaintances, two written messages for Brod, a few pages with lists, and also an unfinished and untitled short autobiographical sketch, from 1909, that begins with the sentence: “Among the students who studied with me I was dumb, but not the dumbest”.
Kafka suffered much pain in his life, not only from agonising tuberculosis, but also from the deep psychological strife that would go on to resonate with generation after generation of readers. One may be thankful that he died before he could witness the unfathomable horror that would kill 2/3 of Europe’s Jewish population, including most of his family, just shortly after his death. Whilst Kafka had so little faith in his writings, he believed that he had no purpose in life other than writing: “I am made of literature,” he said, “and cannot be anything else”. The retrospective success of Kafka’s work could be understood in different ways, perhaps as an inspirational metaphor for the resilience of the Jewish people, or simply a testimony to the shared characteristics of the human condition. Finding a place of resting for Kafka’s works and legacy seems to have been achieved at least for the foreseeable future, but finding a meaning is perhaps a more intimate and personal journey for those who find themselves somewhere reflected in him. “A book”, Kafka wrote, “must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”.