The phrase “Kafkaesque” has a permanent place in the modern lexicon thanks to the work of writer Franz Kafka. The term refers to anything with a complexity that is disturbing; it is associated with nightmarish situations that lack any clear or rational courses of action. This concept is a recurring thread in Kakfa’s works. He writes about the plights of characters that have broken off mental, emotional, and psychological connections with the rest of the world. On closer inspection of this world, the reader realizes that in many aspects the world itself has become detached from any sense of purpose, hope, logic, or true freedom. Therefore, the protagonists cannot be blamed for their own detachment and isolation.
Franz Kafka was born in Prague, which was at the time situated in Bohemia but is now what is known as Czechoslovakia. He held various jobs in insurance businesses as a young adult, which could have been the seeds of his later distrustful views of bureaucracy and interest in political anarchy. Kafka began his writings outside of his jobs, but after several years he claimed that the regimented bankers’ office hours made his writing increasingly difficult to complete.
Kafka’s literary works only gained true recognition after his death, as is the case with many famous writers. Perhaps his most well-known short novel is Metamorphosis, in which the main character wakes up one morning and discovers he has turned into a large insect. This, along with a few short stories was all he permitted to be published during his lifetime. He left instructions to Max Brod, his literary executor, that everything else should be burned and never published. Brod evidently did not honor these wishes. An interesting side note is that one of Kafka’s former lovers kept a set of his private journals and letters that the Nazi party later seized during Hitler’s regime. There is still an ongoing international search for these lost Kafka writings.
Kafka wrote mainly on themes with a strong thread of existentialism, a feeling that existence in itself is pointless and absurd. He included several scathing satires of bureaucracies in his writing, mostly notably in The Trial and The Penal Colony. Contrary to what some new readers may think about Kafka’s work, he does not write fictionalized versions of his own difficulties. Rather, he writes with some underhanded and often biting humor about the difficult situations that people place themselves in throughout daily life. It usually takes more than one casual reading to catch this kind of satirical humor, but it is there. While he works on any given novel, he would sometimes read chapters in progress aloud to friends and place emphasis on this satirical side of his writing.
The fact that Kafka wrote entirely in German has provided some challenges for translators over the years. He had some habits of using the same word with ambiguous meanings in different contexts, often in the same story. This often creates a linguistic puzzle for translators and readers in English as well. Kafka also followed the German language structure of ending sentences with a verb, and he did so in a manner that has led to some confusion over word meanings. A noted example is the word for “insect” in Metamorphosis. Language discrepancies aside, the writings of Franz Kafka surged in popularity once the first translations of them were released. His work especially became a conversation topic in the U.S. during the Second World War and after. Kafka remains a topic of scholarly study, and his work still rings true with readers who feel the world is full of more confusion than answers or direction.