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Franz Kafka
Prague 3 Juli 1883 - Vienna 3 June 1924 • Czech prose writer, writing in German

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Franz Kafka, the son of Julie Löwy and Hermann Kafka, a merchant, was born into a middle-class Jewish family. After two brothers died in infancy, he became the oldest child, remaining forever conscious of his role as older brother; Ottla, the youngest of his three sisters, became the family member closest to him. Kafka strongly identified with his maternal ancestors because of their spirituality, intellectual distinction, piety, rabbinical learning, eccentricity, melancholy disposition, and delicate physical and mental constitution. He was not, however, particularly close to his mother, a simple woman devoted to her children. Subservient to her overwhelming, ill-tempered husband and his exacting business, she shared with her spouse a lack of comprehension of their son's unprofitable and possibly unhealthy dedication to the literary 'recording of [his] . . . dreamlike inner life.'

The figure of Kafka's father overshadowed Kafka's work as well as his existence; the figure is, in fact, one of his most impressive creations. For, in his imagination, this coarse, practical, and domineering shopkeeper and patriarch, who worshiped nothing but material success and social advancement, belonged to a race of giants and was an awesome, admirable, but repulsive tyrant. In Kafka's most important attempt at autobiography, Brief an den Vater (written 1919: 'Letter to Father'), a letter that never reached the addressee, Kafka attributed his failure to live - to cut loose from parental ties and establish himself in marriage and fatherhood - as well as his escape into literature, to the prohibitive father figure, which instilled in him the sense of his own impotence. He felt his will had been broken by his father. The conflict with the father is reflected directly in Kafka's story Das Urteil (1916: 'The Judgment'). It is projected on a grander scale in Kafka's novels, which portray in lucid, deceptively simple prose a man's desperate struggle with an overwhelming power, one that may persecute its victim (as in The Trial) or one that may be sought after and begged in vain for approval (as in Castle). Yet the roots of Kafka's anxiety and despair go deeper than his relationship to his father and family, with whom he chose to live in close and cramped proximity for the major part of his adult life. The source of Kafka's despair lies in a sense of ultimate isolation from true communion with all human beings - the friends he cherished, the women he loved, the job he detested, the society he lived in - and with God, or, as he put it, with true indestructible Being.

The son of a would-be assimilated Jew who held only perfunctorily to the religious practices and social formalities of the Jewish community, Kafka was German both in language and culture. He was a timid, guilt-ridden, and obedient child who did well in elementary school and in the Altstädter Staatsgymnasium, an exacting high school for the academic elite. He was respected and liked by his teachers. Inwardly, however, he rebelled against the authoritarian institution and the dehumanized humanistic
curriculum, with its emphasis on rote learning and classical languages. Kafka's opposition to established society became apparent when, as an adolescent, he declared himself a socialist as well as an atheist. Throughout his adult life he expressed qualified sympathies for the socialists; attended meetings of the Czech Anarchists (before World War I); and, in his later years, showed marked interest and sympathy for a socialized Zionism. Even then he was essentially passive and politically unengaged. As a Jew, Kafka was isolated from the German community in Prague, but as a modern intellectual he was also alienated from his own Jewish heritage. He was sympathetic to Czech political and cultural aspirations, but his identification with German culture kept even these sympathies subdued. Thus, social isolation and rootlessness contributed to Kafka's lifelong personal unhappiness. Kafka did, however, become friendly with some German-Jewish intellectuals and literati in Prague, and in 1902 he met Max Brod; this minor literary artist became the most intimate and solicitous of Kafka's friends, and eventually he emerged as the promoter, saviour, and interpreter of Kafka's writings and as his most influential biographer.

The two men became acquainted while Kafka was indifferently studying law at the University of Prague. He received his doctorate in 1906, and in 1907 he took up regular employment with an insurance company. The long hours and exacting requirements of the Assicurazioni Generali, however, did not permit Kafka to devote himself to writing. In 1908 he found in Prague a job in the seminationalized Workers' Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia. There he remained until 1917, when tuberculosis forced him to take intermittent sick leaves and, finally, to retire (with a pension) in 1922, about two years before he died. In his job he was considered tireless and ambitious; he soon became the right hand of his boss, and he was esteemed and liked by all who worked with him.

In fact, generally speaking, Kafka was a charming, intelligent, and humorous individual, but he found his routine office job and the exhausting double life into which it forced him (for his nights were frequently consumed in writing) to be excruciating torture, and his deeper personal relationships were neurotically disturbed. The conflicting inclinations of his complex and ambivalent personality found expression in his sexual relationships. Inhibition painfully disturbed his relations with Felice Bauer, to whom he was twice engaged before their final rupture in 1917. Later his love for Milena Jesenská Pollak was also thwarted. His health was poor and office work exhausted him. In 1917 he was diagnosed as having tuberculosis, and from then onward he spent frequent periods in sanatoriums.

In 1923 Kafka went to Berlin to escape from his paternal family and devote himself to writing. In Berlin he found new hope in the companionship of a young Jewish socialist, Dora Dymant, but his stay was cut short by a decisive deterioration of his health during the winter of 1924. After a brief final stay in Prague, where Dora Dymant joined him, he died in a clinic near Vienna.

The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories
This collection brings together all the stories Kafka allowed to be published during his lifetime, including 'Meditation', 'The Metamorphosis', 'The Country Doctor'" and 'In the Penal Colony.'

Crime and Punishment
Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky, 1866
Raskolnikov, a destitute and desperate former student, commits a random murder without remorse or regret. But as he embarks on a dangerous game of cat and mouse with a suspicious police investigator, Raskolnikov finds the noose of his own guilt tightening around his neck.

Marquis de Sade, 1791
Justine is the woeful story of a chaste, virtuous woman who is shown in the most graphic and vile ways that such virtue is rewarded only with suffering in the world outside convent walls.

David Copperfield
Charles Dickens, 1849-1850
The 'widow and orphan novels'.
Portrait of the artist as an outcast.

The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol
Nikolai Gogol, 1835-1840
In these tales Gogol guides us through the elegant streets of St Petersburg. Something of the deception and violence of the city's creation seems to lurk beneath its harmonious facade, however, and it confounds its inhabitants with false dreams and absurd visions.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Friedrich Nietzsche, 1882-1885
This series of apothegms, put into the mouth of the Persian sage Zarathusan or Zoraster, contain the kernel of Nietzche's original thought.

The Talmud
The Steinsaltz Edition, ???
Formally, the Talmud is a 2,711-page summary of oral law organized in 37 Tractates, or 'masechtot'. It is an amalgam of law, legend, and philosophy, a blend of unique logic and shrewd pragmatism, of history and science, anecdotes and humor. The Talmud considers no subject to be too strange, too remote, or too bizarre to be studied.
(We recommend the 'Steinsaltz Edition', in 21 volumes, commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz)

The World as Will and Representation
Arthur Schopenhauer, 1819
The German philosopher explains his thoughts about intellectual perception and abstract representation and critically analyzes Kant's ideas and teachings.

The Redemption of Tycho Brahe
Max Brod, 1915
A historical novel by Max Brod, biographer and lifelong friend of Franz Kafka and editor of his major works.

The Castle
1926 (posthumous)
'published posthumously'
The story of K., the unwanted Land Surveyor who is never admitted to the Castle nor accepted in the village, and yet cannot go home, seems to depict like a dream from the deepest recesses of consciousness, an inexplicable truth about the nature of existence.


Marcovaldo: or, The Seasons in the City
Italo Calvino, 1963
A collection of stories, both melancholy and funny, about an Italian peasant's struggle to reconcile country habits with urban life.

The Music of Chance
Paul Auster, 1990
Nashe comes into an inheritance and decides to pursue a life of freedom. He meets Pozzi, a gambler, who exerts a terrible fascination over him, and together they take a desperate gamble.

Innocent Erendira
Gabriel García Márquez, 1972
Erendira accidentally burns down her grandmother's house and is forced to pay her back with the money she earns from prostitution. However, it seems Erendira has a more appropriate way of repaying her.

Samuel Beckett, 1947 (published in 1951)
Part I of a trilogy of novels. Written in the first person, Molloy consists of two monologues - that of Molloy on his odyssey towards his mother, lost in town and country and finally emerging from the forest; and that of Moran, a private detective who is sent to find him.

The Joke
Milan Kundera, 1967
A novel of thwarted love and revenge miscarried.

The Professor of Desire
Philip Roth, 1977
David Kapesh, an adventurous man of intelligence and feeling, tries to make his way to both pleasure and dignity through a world of sensual possiblities. This novel, by the author of Portnoy's Complaint, explores the pursuit and loss of erotic happiness.

The Procedure
Harry Mulisch, 1998
Microbiologist (modern-day alchemist) makes his own golem.

[Sedmiramenný svicen]
Josef Skvorecký,
A series of portraits of Jewish residents of Skvorecky's hometown, such as his doctor and his German teacher, who were deported to the Nazi camps.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Michael Chabon, 2000
The story of two talented Jewish cousins - one a writer, the other an artist. At the beginning of WWII they collaborate and create comic book action heroes who battle Hitler and his minions.

Arthur Phillips, 2002
In May 1990, five American expats come to Budapest to change the course of their lives.

The Dark Room of Damokles
Willem Frederik Hermans, 1958
"WWII novels"
Nihilistic novel about a weakling drawn into the Resistance by his (stronger) doppelgänger - or was it just his imagination?

Nineteen Eighty-Four
George Orwell, 1949
Newspeak, Doublethink, Big Brother, the Thought Police - the vocabulary of George Orwell' s classic political satire, Nineteen Eighty-Four, has passed into the English language, symbolising the horrors of totalitarianism.

Dangling Man
Saul Bellow, 1944
Take a man waiting - waiting between the two worlds of civilian life and the army, suspended between two identities - and you have a man who, perhaps for the first time in his life, is really free. However, freedom can be a noose around a man's neck.

The Outsider
Albert Camus, 1942
('cycle des absurdes')
An ordinary man is unwittingly caught up in a senseless murder in Algeria.

The Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World War
Jaroslav Hasek, 1920-1923
The deeply funny story of a hapless Czech soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army - dismissed for incompetence only to be pressed into service by the Russians in World War I (where he is captured by his own troops).

Waiting for the Barbarians
J.M. Coetzee, 1980
For decades the Magistrate has run the affairs of a tiny frontier settlement, ignoring the impending war between the barbarians and the Empire, whose servant he is. But when the interrogation experts arrive, he is jolted into sympathy with the victims and into a quixotic act of rebellion which lands him in prison, branded as an enemy of the state.

The Judgement

[Der Heizer]

The Metamorphosis
'published in Kafka's lifetime'
A man wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into an enormous insect.

In the Penal Colony

A Hunger Artist
'published in his lifetime'
Four stories in which the absurd really exists.*
The Trial
1925 (posthumous)
'posthumous work'
The tale of Joseph K, a respectable functionary in a bank, who is suddenly arrested and must defend his innocence against a charge about which he can get no information. A nightmare vision of the excesses of modern bureaucracy wedded to the mad agendas of twentieth-century totalitarian regimes.
1927 (posthumous)
Presents the story of Karl Rossman who, after an embarrassing sexual misadventure with a servant girl, is banished to America by his parents. Expected to redeem himself in the magical land of opportunity, he instead gets swept up in a whirlwind of strange escapades and dizzying adventures.
Letter to His Father
This is a letter never sent, from Kafka, the tormented son, to his father Hermann.
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The Ledge
editor-in-chief: Stacey Knecht,
Thanks to: De digitale pioniers and
Het Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds
Design: Maurits de Bruijn

Copyright: Pieter Steinz, Stacey Knecht
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