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The Franz Kafka his friends hardly knew
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I'm reading
The Franz Kafka his friends hardly knew
Pass it on
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I'm reading
The Franz Kafka his friends hardly knew
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Historical Profile
2 March 2015

The Franz Kafka his friends hardly knew

Kafka’s physical world might have been small but his inner world was enormous.

Written by Oscar Schwartz

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Franz Kafka boasted to his friends that while standing in the centre of the old town square of Prague he could point to his high school, his university and where he worked as a clerk at an insurance agency. This narrow circle in this ancient city of narrow laneways and Baroque castles encompassed Kafka’s life. Almost 100 years after his death, his presence still lingers in Prague. He is memorialised with dozens of plaques and statues. Every souvenir shop sells at least one of his books. There is even a Franz Kafka Café. And every day, a steady stream of tourists shuffles by Kafka’s grave, leaving coins, rocks and small notes on his tombstone.

Yet, if one collects the facts of Kafka’s life in Prague, they are not particularly remarkable. He was born in 1883 to a middle-class, German-speaking Jewish family, the eldest of six children, only four of whom survived infancy. His father Hermann, like many Jewish men of this era, embraced the increasing secularisation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and worked his way from poverty to affluence with brute drive and a single-minded concentration on the growth of his business. Kafka’s mother, Julie Lowy, was a self-reliant, intelligent and well-liked woman. Together, they worked up to 12 hours a day in the family dry good business, leaving Franz to the care of governesses and servants.

Throughout school, Kafka displayed intelligence but was not considered to be particularly gifted. At university, he studied law and passed all of his subjects. Around this time, he also started writing short pieces of fiction, but did not talk about his creative work outside of a small group of close friends, and very rarely published. After university, Franz worked long hours as a clerk in two insurance companies, and later helped his brother-in-law manage an asbestos factory.

Outside of work, Franz enjoyed an active social life. He frequented the cafés and saloons in the old quarter of Prague. His friends enjoyed his company, particularly his calm demeanour and dry sense of humour. He had many girlfriends, some casual and others serious. Franz was engaged three times to two women, but never married. In fact, he lived most of his life in his parents’ apartment, moving out only at the age of 31. Shortly after he contracted tuberculosis. Over the next five years, his condition worsened, until in 1924, he died in a sanatorium near Vienna.

Close family and a few dozen friends came to pay their respects at Kafka’s burial. Having left behind no family or business, it seemed, to most present, that his memory would swiftly and anonymously pass into the ever-flowing current of time. However, Max Brod, to whom Kafka left all of his notebooks and manuscripts, felt otherwise. Before he died, Franz demanded that Max burn all of his unpublished material. But as Max read through the short stories, letters, diaries and half-written novels, he began to understand that running parallel to Franz’s life in Prague was another life possessed by tormented genius. The Franz that Max discovered in these texts did not seem like the same person who made light-hearted jokes in the coffee shops. This was the side that Franz kept hidden and only let out in the early hours of the morning when, unable to sleep, he would sit down at his desk and allow his vision of the world to unfold along the page. This Franz was not the same person who dutifully put on his suit and went to work each day–this was Kafka, the author of The Trial and The Metamorphosis. Max chose not to fulfil Franz’s dying wishes and began preparing Kafka’s manuscripts for publication.

For many, Kafka’s writing speaks to the side of their personality that they keep hidden. To read his tormented work reminds us that behind the particulars that comprise everyday life–family, work, leisure–is an emotional life of unique and often indescribable intensity. Reading Kafka’s stories can be harrowing, but can ultimately also make you feel less alone in moments of inner reflection. “A book,” Kafka wrote in his journal, “must be an ax for the frozen sea within us.”

So today, when tourists go to his grave, it is not to Franz—who could draw a circle with his finger from his high school, university and workplace—that they pay homage, but to the words he left behind, words that address the universal experience of isolation.

Oscar Schwartz

Oscar Schwartz is a writer, researcher and teacher from Melbourne, Australia. He writes about technology, culture, literature and politics for a number of publications in Australia and overseas.

Feature image by Christiaan Tonnis

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