Franz Kafka’s documents published online
Austin Taylor explores how a newly published collection of Franz Kafka’s documents can expand our knowledge of the author’s life.
A collection of Franz Kafka’s documents has been made publicly available online for the first time by the National Library of Israel. The collection includes hundreds of letters, sketches, and travel journals, as well as a notebook in which Kafka practiced Hebrew, and three drafts of the story “Wedding Preparations in the Country”. The collection sheds light on who Kafka was and how his personal life impacted his writing and, subsequently, the reader’s textual interpretation. The documents raise questions about how knowledge of an author’s life affects textual interpretation, and the differences (or lack thereof) between art and artist.
The collection sheds light on who Kafka was and how his personal life impacted his writing
Franz Kafka was a German-speaking Bohemian Jew from Prague. He was born in 1883 in the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire, and lived through the turbulent events of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. His writings – the most famous of which are The Metamorphosis, The Trial, and The Castle – feature a concoction of alienation, guilt, and ‘Kafkaesque’ absurdity.
Kafka was part of a significant minority of German-speaking Jews in Prague at the time, and was deeply fascinated by Judaism, and later on Zionism. The collection contains a notebook in which Kafka practiced Hebrew, as he started to learn the language in 1917. He became increasingly interested in Judaism, eventually telling his lover, Dora Diamant, that he wanted to live in Palestine during the last year of his life. In spite of this, Kafka felt alienated from his Jewish background. In 1914, he wrote in his diary: “What have I in common with Jews?”. His family was, apparently, superficially Jewish (Kafka described his first Passover as a “farce”), and he complained in “Letter to his Father” that “I could not understand how, with the insignificant scrap of Judaism you yourself possessed, you could reproach me for not making an effort […] to cling to a similar, insignificant scrap”. As a German-speaking Jew in Prague – by then a majority Czech city, rife with ethnic tension – who often felt at odds with his religion, alienation was constant throughout Kafka’s life.
We know that Kafka had a strained relationship with his parents – from early childhood he scarcely saw them and was, instead, looked after by wet-nurses and governesses. Kafka had a particularly complicated relationship with his domineering and demanding father, whose figure cast a long and powerful shadow over Kafka’s life and psyche. The new collection includes the 47-page “Letter to his Father”, drafted by Kafka but never sent. Written like a legal attack, the text gives us an insight into the relationship Kafka had with his father.
The collection also includes three drafts of “Wedding Preparations in the Country”, an unfinished story that details a groom’s anxious and reluctant journey out to the country to meet his bride. The story is strongly reminiscent of Kafka’s own love life. Engaged twice but never married, Kafka had numerous partners and suffered rocky relationships with women and sex. He strongly desired sex and relationships with women, but suffered from crippling shyness and guilt around sexual acts. The collection contains a fascinating draft of a letter to Felice Bauer – to whom he was engaged twice – detailing his intention to break off their relationship.
Kafka’s works echo his complex and conflicted relationships with his ethnicity, religion, father, and women
Any author’s work is, inherently, a partial reflection or expression of their world view and experiences. Kafka’s works echo his complex and conflicted relationships with his ethnicity, religion, father, and women. Interestingly, the “Kafkaesque” is defined by sexual guilt, looming enemies, and feelings of isolation and outright loneliness. Nonetheless, it is still important to understand that an author’s relationship with their work is not straightforward, but rather a complex web of influences and reflections stemming from their life. We shouldn’t, however, simply settle for authorial intention, as the link between author and text is not a causal relationship, but rather one of association. For example, the impenetrable and domineering legal system that features in The Trial is not only a metaphor for Kafka’s relationship with his father, but also one for the general feeling of alienation during the early 20th century as well as the labyrinthine Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy and Kafka’s complex character.
The collection of Kafka’s works – which underwent a complex legal process before publication – is now available on the National Library of Israel’s website.