Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

According to Gabriel Josipovici, Kafka is the representative poet of the 20th century because he is ‘the great poet of solitude’, ‘even though he lived with his family for most of his life:

Solitude is not a matter of living alone, […] it means […] feeling in your bones that you no longer belong as of rights to the family of man’ - Gabriel Josipovici, Moo Pak, Manchester: Carcanet, 1996, p. 55.

Like life itself, Kafka’s stories are bizarre, frustrating and ultimately inexplicable. His texts gesture towards conventional realist narrative, only to frustrate and perplex readers by refusing to adhere to those conventions. When we read Kafka, we struggle to understand: that is the point. The stories and novels seem to cry out for interpretation, but also resist it stubbornly. They do this by means of the narrative technique, which uses free indirect speech (called ‘erlebte Rede’ in German), the subjunctive mood and the allegorical mode in order to disorient and tantalise the reader. [The standard work in English on Kafka’s use of free indirect speech in his stories is by Roy Pascal, see reading list below]. An allegory is a description which points towards a higher (religious) truth. Kafka’s texts adopt this gestural mode, but they point towards the inaccessible. His fictional statements undermine, relativize, and contradict each other. His protagonists are shut off from the truth which they seek, deny, embody or ignore. They fail, but they fail in very interesting ways. To quote Samuel Beckett: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

[This Beckett quotation is also used by David Constantine to characterise both Kafka’s work and the way we should read it, in ‘Kafka’s writing and our reading’, in The Cambridge Companion to Kafka, ed. by Julian Preece, see reading list below, p. 9]

Kafka was born and lived most of his life in Prague, which at the time was the capital of Bohemia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Kafka and his family belonged to a German-speaking Jewish ethnic minority in a city whose official language was German, but which was predominantly Czech-speaking and Catholic. From 1901-06 Kafka studied at the German University in Prague, graduating with a doctorate in law. In order to complete his qualification as a civil servant he served a twelve-month unpaid internship in court from 1905-06. In 1907-08 he worked for the Assicurazioni Generali and then in 1908 he became an employee of the Workers' Accident Insurance Institute, where he remained until he was pensioned off in 1922 on grounds of ill health. Kafka began publishing stories in literary periodicals in 1908, and in 1912 Kafka's first collection of stories, Betrachtung; Contemplation was published. 1912 was also the year in which Kafka found himself as a writer, producing his breakthrough stories Das Urteil; The Judgement and Die Verwandlung; Metamorphosis; Transformation. From 1912 to 1917 Kafka corresponded with Felice Bauer. In late 1917 he developed symptoms of tuberculosis. In 1919 Prague became the capital of independent Czechoslovakia. Kafka became increasingly ill and in the last year of his life he found love with Dora Diamant. He died of tuberculosis in Vienna in 1924.

Kafka’s many short stories include:

Betrachtung; Contemplation (collection of short stories; published 1912)

Beschreibung eines Kampfes; Description of a Struggle (written between 1904 and 1910, published 1936)

Das Urteil; The Judgement (written 1912, published 1916)

Die Verwandlung; Metamorphosis; The Transformation (written 1912, published 1915)

In der Strafkolonie; In the Penal Colony (written 1914, published 1919)

Blumfeld ein älterer Junggeselle; Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor (written 1915, published 1936)

Ein Landarzt; A Country Doctor (time of writing unknown, published 1917, dated 1918)

Beim Bau der chinesischen Mauer; The Great Wall of China (written 1917, published 1931)

Ein Bericht für eine Akademie; Report for an Academy (written and published 1917)

Ein Hungerkünstler; A Hunger Artist (written and published 1922)

Forschungen eines Hundes; Investigations of a Dog (written 1922, published 1931)

Der Bau; The Burrow (written 1923, published 1931)

Eine kleine Frau; A Small Woman (written 1923-24, published 1924)

Josefine, die Sängerin oder das Volk der Mäuse; Josefine the Singer or The Mouse People (written and published 1924)

Kafka’s three novels, all unfinished, are:

Der Verschollene; The Man who Disappeared; Amerika (written 1911-14, published 1927)

Der Process; The Trial (written 1914-15; published 1925)

Das Schloss; The Castle (written 1922, published 1926)

In 1917-18 whilst staying in Zürau Kafka wrote a series of metaphysical, religious and linguistic reflections known as the Zürau aphorisms.

Please click on the above titles for further information.

Further Reading

Mark M. Anderson (ed.), Reading Kafka: Prague, Politics, and the Fin de Siècle (New York: Schocken, 1989)

Mark M. Anderson, Kafka’s Clothes: Ornament and Aestheticism in the Habsburg Fin de Siècle (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992)

Mark M. Anderson, ‘Kafka, Homosexuality and the Aesthetics of “Male Culture”’, in Gender and Politics in Austrian Fiction. Austrian Studies VII, ed. by Ritchie Robertson and Edward Timms (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996), pp. 79-99

Walter Benjamin, ‘Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of his Death’, in Illuminations, trans. by Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1992), pp. 108-35

Maurice Blanchot, ‘Kafka and the Work’s Demand’, in Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans. by Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), pp. 57-83

Elizabeth Boa, Kafka: Gender, Class and Race in the Letters and Fiction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996)

Elizabeth Boa, ‘Losing the Plot? Kleist, Kafka, and Disappearing Grand Narratives’, German Life and Letters 70:2 (2017), 137-54

Patrick Bridgwater, Kafka’s Novels: An Interpretation (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003)

Iris Bruce and Mark H. Gelber (eds.), Kafka after Kafka: Dialogical Engagement with His Works from the Holocaust to Postmodernity (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2017)

Stanley Corngold, Franz Kafka: The Necessity of Form (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988)

Stanley Corngold, Lambent Traces: Franz Kafka (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004)

Stanley Corngold, Jack Greenberg and Benno Wagner (eds.), Franz Kafka: The Office Writings (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009)

Stanley Corngold and Ruth V. Gross (eds.), Kafka for the Twenty-First Century (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2011)

Stanley Corngold and Benno Wagner, Franz Kafka: The Ghosts in the Machine (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011)

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: toward a minor literature, trans. by Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986)

W. J. Dodd (ed.), Kafka: The Metamorphosis, The Trial and the Castle (London: Longman, 1995)

Carolin Duttlinger, Kafka and Photography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)

Carolin Duttlinger, The Cambridge Introduction to Franz Kafka (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Carolin Duttlinger (ed.), Kafka in Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019)

Sander Gilman, Franz Kafka, The Jewish Patient (New York and London: Routledge, 1995)

Sander L. Gilman, Franz Kafka, Critical Lives (London: Reaktion, 2005)

Richard T. Gray (ed.), Approaches to Teaching Kafka's Short Fiction (New York: MLA, 1995)

James Hawes, Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2008)

Erich Heller, Kafka (London: Fontana, 1974)

John Hibberd, Kafka in Context (London: Studio Vista, 1975)

Peter Hutchinson, ‘Kafka’s Private Alphabet’, Modern Language Review 106 (2011), 797-813

James Kelman, ‘A Look at Kafka’s Three Novels’, in James Kelman, ‘And the Judges Said...’: Essays (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2008), pp. 266-337

Clayton Koelb, Kafka's Rhetoric: The Passion of Reading (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1989)

Clayton Koelb, Kafka: A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: Continuum, 2010)

June O. Leavitt, The Mystical Life of Franz Kafka: Theosophy, Cabala, and the Modern Spiritual Revival (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)

Jakob Lothe, Beatrice Sandberg and Ronald Speirs (eds.), Franz Kafka: Narration, Rhetoric, and Reading (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2011)

Michael Löwy, Franz Kafka: Subversive Dreamer, trans. by Inez Hedges (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2016)

Ruth Martin, The literary metamorphosis of philosophy: Franz Kafka and the Brentano School (unpublished PhD thesis, Birkbeck College, University of London, 2007)

Marek Nekula, Franz Kafka and his Prague Contexts, trans. by Robert Russell and Carly McLaughlin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press for Karolinum Press, Charles University of Prague, 2016)

Roy Pascal, Kafka’s Narrators: A Study of his Stories and Sketches (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982)

F. G. Peters, ‘Kafka and Kleist: A Literary Relationship’, Oxford German Studies 1 (1966), 114-62

Heinz Politzer, Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox, 2nd edition (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966)

Julian Preece (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Kafka (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)

Ritchie Robertson, ‘Kafka's Zürau aphorisms', Oxford German Studies 14 (1983), 73-91

Ritchie Robertson, ‘Edwin Muir as critic of Kafka’, Modern Language Review 79:3 (1984), 638-52

Ritchie Robertson, Kafka: Judaism, Politics and Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985)

Ritchie Robertson, Kafka: a very short introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

James Rolleston (ed.), A Companion to the Works of Franz Kafka (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2002)

Ronald Speirs and Beatrice Sandberg, Franz Kafka (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997)

Scott Spector, Prague Territories: National Conflict and Cultural Innovation in Franz Kafka’s Fin de Siècle (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2000)

Reiner Stach, Kafka: The Decisive Years, trans. by Shelley Frisch (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013)

Reiner Stach, Kafka: The Years of Insight, trans. by Shelley Frisch (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013)

J. P. Stern and J. J. White (eds.), Paths and Labyrinths: nine papers read at the Kafka Symposium (London: Institute of Germanic Studies, 1985)

J. P. Stern, The Dear Purchase: A Theme in German Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

David Suchoff, Kafka’s Jewish Languages: The Hidden Openness of Tradition (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011)

Emily Troscianko, Kafka’s Cognitive Realism (London and New York: Routledge, 2013)

Further Reading in German

Manfred Engel and Bernd Auerochs (eds.), Kafka-Handbuch. Leben – Werk – Wirkung (Stuttgart and Weimar: Metzler, 2010)

Manfred Engel and Ritchie Robertson (eds.), Kafka und die kleine Prosa der Moderne (Würzburg: Könighausen & Neumann, 2010) [also contains some essays in English]

Reiner Stach, Kafka. Die frühen Jahre (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 2014)

Reiner Stach, Kafka. Die Jahre der Entscheidungen (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2008)

Reiner Stach, Kafka. Die Jahre der Erkenntnis (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2011)

Further Reading in French

Michael Löwy, Franz Kafka, rêveur insoumis (Paris: Stock Editions, 2004)

Web Links in English


Oxford Kafka Research Centre


The Kafka Society of America; publishes its own journal


Kafka-related broadcasts on BBC Radio, 10-16 May 2015

Web Link in German


German website on Kafka, operated by S. Fischer publishing house