Franz Kafka: 10 Facts On The Great Novelist

Best known for this study of Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka is widely acknowledged as one of the 20th century’s most important writers.

Apr 27, 2020By Mia Forbes, BA in Classics
Photo of Franz Kafka and friends
Photo of Franz Kafka and friends

Born in Prague in 1883, Franz Kafka came of age at the turn of the 20th century and went on to become one of its leading writers. His work brings together the every day and the incredible, inviting the reader to challenge their ideas about human nature, politics, and society. Sadly, Kafka’s life was, in many ways, just as haunting as his stories. This article unpacks everything you need to know about this great author, his life, and his legacy. 

10. Franz Kafka Always Had A Passion For Literature

Photograph of Franz Kafka as a young man

Kafka read vociferously from a young age, and by the time he got to university, was exploring texts in Greek, French, Yiddish, Czech, and of course his native German. Among his favorite authors were two of history’s greatest writers: Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Little did the young Kafka know that he would go on to join their ranks in the canon of world literature. 

At university, Kafka initially began studying chemistry, but soon changed to law. It is thought that the switch may have been inspired by the longer course in law, which gave Kafka extra time to take the classes he was really interested in (German studies and art history) and to write.


9. His Famous Study for The Metamorphosis

Study for The Metamorphosis by American book illustrator E. McKnight Kauffer, 1945-1950, via The Smithsonian

Kafka’s stories take place in worlds that are both familiar and foreign but what makes Kafka’s stories so profound is that they are grounded in reality. In each narrative, either the characters, the setting, or the situation is anchored in the real world, which allows us to relate to them. But there is always some significant twist that pulls the rug from under our feet. 

One of his most famous short stories, for instance, is ‘The Metamorphosis’. In it, he tells of a normal salesman who wakes up one morning to find himself inexplicably turned into a giant insect. Everything else in the narrative remains completely ordinary: his family are as shocked as we are, the world goes on as usual, and the salesman himself even retains the cognitive powers of a human. Written in 1912, ‘The Metamorphosis’ is considered one of the most important works of 20th-century fiction, as it encourages us to explore what being human means. 

Kafka achieves the perfect balance between realism and the fantastical, which forces the reader to reassess our perceptions of the world. Through this tension, he explores themes of isolation, brutality, bravery, and transformation.


8. He Refused To Let His Job Get In The Way Of His Writing

Kafka’s desk, where he spent hour upon hour writing, via the Kafka Museum

Writing was so important to Kafka that he called it his own ‘form of prayer’, and nothing as trivial as a job was going to stand in the way of his worship. 

In 1907, he joined an insurance company where he became deeply unhappy. The long hours left him little time to write, and so he resigned from his position after only a year. Instead, Kafka found employment at the state insurance institute, where he finished work at 2 pm, giving him the whole afternoon to focus on writing. It may also have given him some inspiration for some of his more eerie and twisted narratives: his role was to investigate injuries suffered by industrial workers, meaning he came into contact with a lot of lost fingers, severed limbs, and crushed bodies.

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7. He Surrounded Himself With Like-Minded People

An image of Kafka with Albert Ehrenstein, Otto Pick and Lise Weltch at the Prater leisure park in Vienna in 1913, via the Kafka Museum

While studying, Kafka formed a close group of friends, many of whom he met through a literature society that organized talks, readings, and discussions about books and the arts. Several of these friends would also go on to become important writers, including Max Brod, Felix Weltsch, Franz Werfel, Oskar Baum, and Ludwig Winder. Long after their university days, this group would come to be known as ‘The Close Prague Circle’.

As he began his career, Kafka’s social network expanded across the city, and he soon came into contact with its most prominent writers, poets, and actors. Among these were Albert Ehrenstein and Otto Pick, who, like Kafka himself, were both members of Prague’s Jewish community.


6. Kafka’s Language Force The Reader To Contemplate Big Questions

The Franz Kafka ‘equestrian’ monumental bronze statue in his hometown, by Jaroslav Róna, Prague

There are many ways to interpret Kafka’s stories: it is up to us to choose what we make of the giant insect in ‘The Metamorphosis,’ the torture device from ‘In The Penal Colony’ or the unspecified crime in ‘The Trial.’ 

Similarly, Kafka’s very language encourages us to explore a variety of alternatives. The word used to describe the creature in ‘The Metamorphosis,’ for example, is Ungeziefer. Most English translations derive this as ‘insect’ or ‘vermin’, but it literally means ‘a beast unfit for sacrifice’, which carries a range of different connotations. Likewise, the nature of German grammar means that Kafka could use incredibly lengthy sentences with the most important words placed right at the end. The effect is to keep the reader guessing, wondering, and contemplating for as long as possible. 

These quirks of language are sometimes impossible to translate, but it is worth noting that even at the level of the individual word, Kafka wants to keep his reader in a constant state of curiosity.


5. Politics And Religion Played A Significant Role In His Life And Writings

The Old New Synagogue in Prague, where the Kafka family may have been members, via the Kafka Museum

The political events of the early 20th century gave Kafka much food for thought. The overthrow of the Tsar and the emergence of communism in Russia was particularly important, especially for an author living in what would become a key area of the Eastern socialist bloc. Even though it is widely agreed that this political situation had an impact on Kafka’s work, scholars still argue fiercely about exactly what that impact was. Some say that his stories make a mockery of western capitalism, while others see them as an attack on uncompromising socialist ideology. Once again, the meaning of Kafka’s work is up for debate. 

His experience in Prague as a German-speaking Jew meant that Kafka was exposed to a range of cultures from an early age. Even though he was a self-professed atheist, his Jewish heritage led him to explore a number of Yiddish writers. In particular, his incomplete first novel, which was later published under the title ‘Amerika’, was inspired by Yiddish theatre and explored the meaning of family, heritage, and social acceptance.


4. His Life Was Sadly Plagued By Illness

Kafka’s tombstone, designed by architect, Leopold Ehrmann, via the Kafka Museum

During the First World War, Kafka valiantly attempted to join the army but was prohibited by a series of ongoing medical problems. The most severe was the tuberculosis with which he had been diagnosed in 1917. This eventually got so bad that his workplace put him on an early pension, and Kafka spent most of his remaining years in various medical and therapeutic facilities. 

Despite his suffering, Kafka continued to write, producing numerous short stories from his sister’s farm, where he lived under her care. When his condition worsened, however, he was moved to a professional sanatorium near Vienna, where he met a sorry end. 

The grim cause of Kafka’s death in June 1924 is thought to have been starvation. His illness made it too painful to swallow, and at that time there was no other way to supply his body with the essential nutrients. Kafka’s final story, written on his deathbed, is entitled ‘A Hunger Artist’; it focuses on a performer who attracts crowds with his ability not to eat for days on end. 


3. He Also Suffered From Mental Disturbances

The last known photo of Kafka, 1923-1924 (a year before his death), via the Kafka Museum

Along with his physical illnesses, Kafka is also thought to have suffered from a wide range of mental health problems. Later analysts have speculated that he may have had a borderline personality disorder, psychophysiological insomnia, eating disorders, and even schizophrenia. The evidence for these conditions is found in his writing style, personal accounts, and anecdotes supplied by his nearest and dearest. In his personal writings, Kafka admits that he considered suicide during the early 20th century, and his stories show a great preoccupation with death. 

Furthermore, Kafka burned the vast majority of his own work, and on his deathbed, he demanded that his friend and editor Max Brod destroy all his remaining writing: ‘Everything I leave behind me … in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches, and so on, is to be burned unread’. Although Brod did not respect Kafka’s dying wish, his instructions convey a deep-seated and tragic sense of worthlessness. 


2. Although Unknown During Life, His Reputation Soared After His Death

Art inspired by Kafka’s writings: ‘Kafka Symbols #2’ by American lithographer Lynton R. Kistler, via The Smithsonian

Although admired within his friendship group as a fine writer and an interesting character, Kafka’s work was hardly acknowledged during his lifetime. This was probably because 90% of it was burned and little of the rest published.

After his death, however, the world began to appreciate Kafka and his fame accelerated in the latter half of the 20th century. His stories have been published throughout the world and translated (with difficulty) into over 40 languages. So prominent is Kafka’s legacy that the eponymous adjective ‘Kafkaesque’ is commonly used to describe surreal, uncanny situations or events, which mirror his bizarre narratives.

He is particularly celebrated in his native city of Prague, which boasts two monuments celebrating the author, as well as the Kafka Museum, established in 2005 and dedicated to his life and works. In addition, the city awards the Franz Kafka Prize every year, the recipient of which wins $10,000 and a significant reputation boost.


1. Franz Kafka Is Perhaps The Most Influential Writer Of The 20th Century

Statue of Franz Kafka by artist David Černý, Prague, 2014

Despite his short life, Kafka left one of literature’s most powerful legacies. Many of the 20th century’s most notable writers from across the world are indebted to his haunting stories, including Nabokov, Márquez, Borges, Camus and Satre. His old friend, Max Brod, claimed that the era will eventually come to be known as ‘the century of Kafka’.

Interestingly, despite his importance, Kafka is not one of those writers quoted ubiquitously. In fact, it is quite rare to find a single line referenced. Instead, it is his ideas and style that continue to inspire. Later writers and artists have taken note of Kafka’s existential curiosity and unique perspective, channeling it into their own work so that the audience is made to question their assumptions and consider different interpretations. In this way, Kafka has forced generations of readers to reassess their opinions and offered a new way of approaching the world through literature.

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By Mia ForbesBA in ClassicsMia is a contributing writer from London, with a passion for literature and history. She holds a BA in Classics from the University of Cambridge. Both at work and at home, Mia is surrounded by books, and enjoys writing about great works of fiction and poetry. Her first translation is due to be published next year.