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Franz Kafka - Biography

Franz Kafka (1883-1924)
Commentary by Karen Bernardo

The stories of Franz Kafka cannot easily be mistaken for anyone else's; they range from slightly unnerving to quite patently insane, and yet the modern reader seems to see within them a troublesome echo of his own experience. For this reason, Kafka's work is generally interpreted against the backdrop of modernism, casting him as an early existentialist: in his stories, logic and process are thrown out the window; his characters are drawn by urges they do not understand, coerced into actions they have no rational reason to commit, and buffeted to and fro by forces that are beyond their grasp.

Yet there are other features of Kafka's work, such as his obsession with deformity, illness, and repulsiveness, that do not fit so easily into a modernist format. Kafka was a German Jew, and it is possible to interpret his obsessions as having their roots in a warped self-perception during a historical period of intense anti-Semitism. Kafka was the child of Eastern European Jews who had nonetheless been raised in Western Europe, and at that time there were considerable stereotypical distinctions between Eastern and Western Jews. Western Jews were held to be sophisticated and cultured, but spiritually empty -- masquerading, in fact, as 'regular people.' Eastern Jews were considered filthy, illiterate, and sickly, but living the lives they were 'meant' to live. Kafka manages, in his stories, to characterize his protagonists as both.

In 'The Country Doctor,' for example, the physician is called on to treat a patient who is already full of worms; in 'The Metamorphosis,' the protagonist turns into a giant cockroach and is rejected by his family -- just as Jews were rejected by the society in which they lived. Kafka's protagonists are guilty simply because they exist, moving from something physically whole but spiritually inauthentic to just the opposite. These attributes seem to have characterized Kafka's perception of himself, and undoubtedly find their roots in the way Kafka was treated as a Jew. The fact that up until he was in his late twenties he did not practice the Jewish faith, and did not even identify with Judaism, was irrelevant. His avowed Jewish blood tainted him as far as European society was concerned, and society's treatment of him provided a psychological basis for his irrational but deep-seated guilt.

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