David Rosenthal
David Rosenthal

Franz’s Kafkaesque universe

The term “Kafkaesque” refers to this alternate, strange universe, immersed in mysterious sensations. The uneasiness, the lack of hope and a stupor that leaves the same paradoxical and absurd situation. Franz Kafka is an exponent of universal literature, essential for any curious or literary scholar. His legacy is, just as his being was, a mythical social discontent, an essential and surrogate transcendence through the levels of a life full of emptiness and enigmas. Kafka, Jewish and Czech; romantic, melancholic and nostalgic, and in search of himself. In a constant search, which many of his readers feel reflected in themselves. This thirst to live and at the same time to perish in the attempt, could turn him into that unpleasant insect that Gregor Samsa became in his famous novel: Metamorphosis.

Identity, and the lack of it, is a constant in Kafka’s work. Being Jewish and being Czech, as well as speaking perfect German, seemed to be incompatible concepts for him. An authoritarian father, also projected by Kafka as the figure of a tyrant, inoculates in himself a rather particular and tragic way of seeing and reading the world. Franz, of course, a very sensitive and abstract man, was not at all affected by the figure of power; he was in a constant state of inserenity. Moreover, he found peace of mind in literature, and his desires were irrepressible, moreover, he had to study law, after an unlikely attempt at chemistry. Kafka was not a scientist, nor a jurist. He was an artist, he was a poet, he was a philosopher, he was a sociologist, he was a writer. Kafka, like the Golem of Rabbi Judah Loew, known as the Maharal of Prague, was a being in search of his own self, though not at all clumsy, Kafka was a strange creation and his creation is as if from another, perhaps parallel, universe.

Misunderstood and incessant in his quest to find himself, his profound works hover between the unreal and the real. Between the magical or fantastic and the insipid and dreary reality left by the beginning of the 20th century. Despite being born at the end of the 19th century, and having lived through the end of an era of inspiration, he is nevertheless a man of the next century. Of the two World Wars and the Great Depression. He lived through a Europe at war and the pre-stage of a severe economic crisis. His world was truly Kafkaesque. Faced with the world of love, he was engaged four times, but never married. He corresponded extensively – today of incalculable value to history – with several women, as Kafkaesque as no other, and as brave as that generation.

Being born in beautiful Prague, the most important capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after Vienna and Budapest, and into a middle-class bourgeois family, made him a privileged man. His father Herrmann, however, with the help of his Jewish-German in-laws, the Löwys, became an important textile merchant. Franz’s father’s origins were rural; his father, Jakob Kafka, had been a Shojet – a kosher ritual slaughterer – in Osek, a small Czech village.

Herrmann’s life had been hard and reminiscent of his family, something Franz despised. Unlike his paternal family, his maternal family, the Löwys, were wealthy merchants and industrialists. Also, there were artists and intellectuals within the family, something that Franz not only liked more, but could also identify with. In Letter to his father, Franz expressed his dissatisfaction with his father, his affection for his father’s harsh treatment and the insecurity that it brought out in him. A 103-page letter, written in 1919, which he gave to his mother to hand over to her husband, which she never did.

His relationship with his father was Kafkaesque. He considered his father’s treatment of him not only strong, but also hypocritical. Before Franz, two children had been born who did not survive, so he felt a guilt, a weight on his shoulders, as did Salvador Dalí, who had been preceded by another Salvador, but this one had died. And Kafka’s three sisters were born several years later.

Kafka’s work is a journey, ranging from fiction to the crudest reality. Existentialism is part of his work, as is surrealism. At certain moments, both physical and psychological severity and the cruelty to which this can lead, finally rests on guilt. Anti-bureaucratic, in a relentless struggle against power – psychologically represented by his relationship with his father – he could even be considered an anarchist. He wrote in his diary: “God does not want me to write, but I have to”. Although after writing he always wished to remove any evidence of his work. The same work that would become his mythical and invaluable legacy.

Felice Bauer was his true Kafkaesque love. He met her in 1912, at the home of his best friend, Max Brod, who was to publish much of Kafka’s work between 1925 and 1952. The relationship with Felice – who lived in Berlin – was at a distance, by means of letters, up to more than one a day. A turbulent relationship, with many ups and downs, at the same time a sincere relationship, a pure, more, impossible relationship. They were engaged three times, but never married. Kafka confessed to her early on that he was very unhealthy. And, a few years later, he would be afflicted with a great illness: tuberculosis. He also confessed to her that he was a being devoid of any hope and referred to himself as nothing. He wrote to her: “The truth is that I am nothing, nothing at all”.

Kafka’s job in Prague was as an insurance broker, a job that did him no good, a job he abhorred. Surely a writer only wants to write, and in Kafka’s case, he would only want to be absorbed in his personal quest to discover who he really was. And, to know if he would ever have a “normal” life. Tuberculosis surely drove him to incoherence and misery. Just as syphilis did for Nietzsche. In fact, this philosopher, along with Darwin and Haeckel, were part of Kafka’s early education. There was within Franz a sympathy for Marx’s socialism and atheism as well. Kafka from a young age had been interested in literature, some of the authors who influenced him were: Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Goethe, Bataille, Flaubert and Dickens.

Destroying his texts was a recurring theme for him. From his youth he observed that he wrote differently and rejected that divergence, so he preferred to destroy his writings rather than have them seen or even published by others. He studied law as a last resort, after trying chemistry and German philology. His father instigated him to study law. He never became a lawyer, but it was at the University of Prague that he met Alfred Weber, who not only supervised his thesis, but also encouraged and influenced him in his theories.

Kafka was a weak man, his health had many ailments, he was very thin and had a childish appearance. He was not at ease with any of this. He was insecure, shy and withdrawn. But he also had an above-average intelligence and a fine humour, ironic and mischievous. Surely his eagerness to eliminate his creation was to flee from eventual criticism. He was sociable perhaps, but never a sociable man.

In his work as an insurance broker he had some success, as he was promoted. Before that he had been doing internships both in courts and in an Italian insurance company – Assicurazioni Generali – without any relevance or remuneration. His process as a writer, apart from his countless letters to his wives, was between 1918 and 1922, while he was part of the bureaucracy, working in the insurance company – Institute of Industrial Accident Insurance for the Kingdom of Bohemia.

Described himself as morose, hypochondriacal, taciturn, egotistical, unsociable and sickly, in one of his letters to Felice Bauer’s father, he revealed a complete rejection of himself. In addition to his idyll with Felice, in 1913, during a stay at the Hartungen sanatorium in Riva del Garda, Trento, he had a small affair with an 18-year-old Swiss girl named Gerti Wasner. This affects his relationship with Felice Bauer, who would maintain an interest in Kafka until 1917.

In 1913 he met Grete Bloch, also a German Jew like Bauer, and a friend of hers. He kept up a special correspondence with Grete Bloch. Kafka was smitten by Bloch, even though she was Bauer’s best friend. The letters he sent to Bloch were erotic rather than romantic. Bloch was the intermediary between Kafka and Bauer, yet this allowed the romance from the letters to Grete to end in a son, whom Franz never knew, and who died at an early age.

Julie Wohryzek, a young woman he met in 1918 in Schelesen, Bohemia – the daughter of a Kosher butcher – was to be his new love. He became engaged to this young woman, who, like Grete Bloch and Franz’s three sisters, would all be murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust. The engagement to Wohryzek did not end in marriage, as Franz’s father, who curiously had a very similar background to the young woman, flatly forbade his son to marry her – from this situation originates Letter to the Father.

Another of the Kafkaesque romances of the author of The Trial was with Milena Jasenská, a Czech aristocrat, writer, journalist and translator. She was married, but this did not prevent them from having a relationship that lasted a couple of years. She was disappeared in Ravensbrück in 1944 by the Nazis, even though she was not Jewish. She wore the yellow star as a sign of support for Jews and contempt for the Nazis, and was very active with Dr. von Zadwitzowy in helping Jews and Czech soldiers escape the Nazi hunt.

In 1924 she wrote a funeral note on Kafka’s death that read: ‘shy, withdrawn, gentle and kind, visionary, too wise to live, too weak to fight, the kind who submits to the victor and ends by shaming him’. These beautiful words, written in Vienna for the Czech newspaper Narodni Listy, well describe his former lover.

Kafka’s last lover, Dora Diamant, a 25-year-old Polish Jewish woman, with whom he spent the last moments of his illness in Berlin. Unlike Kafka and his previous muses, she came from a very religious family. She spared no resources to marry him – who was almost twice her age – but her father did not agree to the eventual marriage.

He met Dora in 1923 in Graal-Müritz on the Baltic Sea. This young woman was his companion until the end of his life a year later. Coming from such a religious family, she brought him closer to Judaism. Although Kafka in his youth had been interested in Yiddish and Hasidic theatre, now with Dora, Kafka would become more interested in the Talmud, even the Kabbalah. In Berlin he attended the Hochschule for Jewish Studies. There he attends Talmud classes with Professor Harry Torczyner. His work The Mouse People, in which he expresses a persecution, which would be interpreted as the anti-Semitism that was already ravaging Europe and of which he could have been one more victim, had he not previously died of tuberculosis.

Kafka considered moving to Palestine with the only woman he ever lived with, Dora Diamant. Although they did not do so, it was not the first time he had planned to do so, as he had proposed going to Jerusalem to Felice Bauer. Franz’s Hebrew name was Amschel, after his mother’s grandfather. That made him proud, for he described this ancestor as a scholarly and devout man who had been prominent in his time. But, at the same time, he felt a lack of identity as a Jew.

He is a pure, authentic author, and his work is so universal that no one should pass up reading it. To read this mystical and enigmatic author, who is Gregor Samsa and Joseph K, immersed in the Kafkaesque nightmare, in the dystopia that is apparently much more real than utopia. And, the absurdity and paradoxical reality of everyday life. Kafka is no more than a naïve narrator and a protagonist of his stories, more, he is a genius.

About the Author
Political scientist, analyst, researcher, journalist and columnist in various national and international media outlets. Host of “The Footprints of Sepharad in the New World,” a radio show on Radio Sepharad about Sephardic heritage in America. Also conferencist in multiple topics, like history, literature, judaism, women's history and mysticism.
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