Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Franz Kafka wrote the surreal

Franz Kafka
It is the birthday of writer Franz Kafka (1883), who is considered by critics to be among the greatest writers of the 20th century. Most of his work was published after his death in 1924, by his friend and literary executor Max Brod.

He is most remembered for his books such as The Metamorphosis (1915), about a traveling salesman who wakes up to find himself transformed into a bug, and The Trial (1925), about a man arrested and prosecuted for a crime which is never revealed to him or to the reader. His bizarre plots gave rise to the term "Kafkaesque," suggesting a surreal situation and unidentified impending danger.

Kafka was born in Prague when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to a Jewish family. His father was the man in the community who ritually slaughtered animals according to Jewish dietary laws. Kafka had a lifelong fascination with the Jews of Eastern Europe but often seemed disconnected from Zionism. The Jewishness of his works remains the subject of debate among scholars.

He was educated in German and wrote most of his work in the language, though he also studied Czech and French literature. His writing was translated into English, and there are several English editions available.

Very little of his work was published during his lifetime. Kafka instructed that upon his death his unpublished work and his letters were to be burned but Brod ignored his instruction. Much of his work was published between 1925 and 1935, and translated into English later. A cache of letters he wrote to a lover was confiscated by the Gestapo during World War II. The location of the letters remains a fascinating project for literary sleuths.

Kafka's work is sufficiently ambiguous to allow broad interpretation. Writers see shades of anarchism, existentialism, Marxism, spiritualism, and Judaism in his writing.

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