The Strange Case of the Franz Kafka Archive, part 2.

15 Apr

Part 2: The world’s thinnest man

Franz Kafka was born in the Jewish neighborhood of Prague in 1883, at the edge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He came from a family of butchers, and in his twenties chose to live as a vegetarian. This dissonance—a fundamental disconnect to the people around him—is a major theme of his life and work.

If Borges’s major writing metaphor is the labyrinth, Kafka’s is the starving man: diminutive, weak, and strange. His protagonists cannot quite understand their surroundings, or the bureaucratic systems that control them. His work is distinct, hard to mimic, difficult to interpret and impossible to forget. People waking up as cockroaches, moles being followed by unseen predators, a hunger artist who entertains people by refusing to eat, a bureaucrat with an appointment in a castle that never takes place—his stories are mythic, personal, idiosyncratic yet universal. His stories aren’t scary exactly, but they aren’t comforting either. There’s a discomfort with sexuality. His main characters are often interpreted as stand-ins for himself. He’s often mimicked, but his tone is unique. He haunts the fiction landscape still, close to a hundred years after his death.

His life was less than extraordinary. He lived a solitary existence (relative to more social people) as a workingman, writing in the evenings and on the weekends. He had a few love affairs. He sometimes drank too much. He worked hard and stayed close with his family and then tuberculosis claimed him at the absurd age of 41. His last words were, “Don’t leave me,” to the doctor, and then, right afterwards, “But I am leaving you.”

His deathbed request was for Max Brod, his closest friend, to destroy all of his unpublished work. Brod refused. A wise decision, for amongst the papers were manuscript versions of The Trial, Amerika, and The Castle, the three major novels upon which Kafka’s reputation rests (alongside the stories “The Metamorphosis,” “In the Penal Colony,” and “Judgment Day”). Included with these manuscripts were Kafka’s letters to his family members, girlfriends, and friends; diaries; unfinished stories; and other ephemera such as shopping and laundry lists. The total archive, by one estimate, is 20,000 pages.

20,000 pages.

This would be of major importance for any number of writers, but for a writer as prestigious as Kafka, this could amount to the literary find of the century.  It’s an enormous amount of writing from an author who felt alienated from his own body, distanced to his family and country, and disconnected to this ethnicity and culture.

At his death, Kafka ceased to be the protagonist of his own work, and Max Brod, dandy, hack author of popular melodramas, and soon to be Zionist exile, takes center stage.

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One Response to “The Strange Case of the Franz Kafka Archive, part 2.”

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  1. The strange case of the Franz Kafka archive: epilogue « simoneandthesilversurfer - April 21, 2012

    […] one and two and three here and here and […]

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