Franz Kafka and the meaning of “Kafkaesque”

A partial transcript of Episode 19 of THE ART MOVEMENT. Click here to listen to the full radio show.

…Earlier I mentioned that I am on a Kafka-high, which prompted me to finally visit Franz Kafka. I have read most of his stuff and am currently reading a collection of short stories titled Meditation that I had never come across before but is absolutely modern and superb. And that is because Kafka is one of those timeless writers, despite the fact that he was born well over almost 150 years ago.

Personally, I can say that he is one of the authors I best identify with both on a personal level and in terms of work output.

Today, he is one of the best-known authors of all time but when he was alive, he would never have guessed. Very little of his was published in his lifetime and it was only shortly after his death that he gained that recognition that he so rightly deserved. So much has been written about Kafka and yet, the nature of his works is so compelling that it doesn’t take a genius to know that so much will continue to be written about him for as long as there will be humanity to populate this planet.

But what is it about him that is so compelling? I can only give a brief overview of what it is that is so fascinating about him and because, like I said, so much have been written by esteemed scholars, I will try to illustrate the essence of the power of his works based on what I understand of what I have written of his and read about him.

This can all be encapsulated in the word “Kafkaesque,” which is part of our vocabulary, and is a term that describes a feeling of being powerless against a higher authority of some kind; when we’re bullied, humiliated and mocked by society, when we feel like we don’t fit into a group or even our own families.

In Metamorphosis, Kafka represents the shame he feels for his own body and sexual urges, and concludes that it’s probably best if he were squashed like a bedbug. At the beginning of The Trial – which I commonly refer to as one of my favorite books as I do The Castle – the protagonist is accused of being guilty out of the blue and for no reason, and as the tortuous narrative progresses, he too progressively begins to believe that he is guilty.

A lot has been said about Kafka’s own insecurities, the origins of which is believed came from his troubled relationship with his own father, to whom he wrote a painfully honest, heartbreaking letter that he allegedly never read but has since been published. And as I am reading Meditation, I am noticing all the more just how observational Kafka was but also how forward-thinking he was.

This is a collection of eighteen short stories by Franz Kafka written between 1904 and 1912. It was Kafka’s first published book, printed at the end of 1912. It sold poorly, like anything Kafka published in his lifetime, but it is absolutely wonderful. And these short stories are kind of just simple reflections on life, existence and the way people relate to each other, understand their roles within society and even think of their own selves.

The opening story, for example, is “Children on a Country Road.” The protagonist of the story is an 8-year-old girl and to me a lot of it is about how gender roles are defined within society. In another story, “The Sudden Walk,” he illustrates a reawakening of the human mind and humanity’s longing for friendship and love.

In a moment, I will read one of the stories by Kafka, “The Rejection,” which is a story that illustrates just how modern Kafka feels but also his incredible satirical wit, which is something that I feel makes him so appealing, at least to me, as I am a great believer in the communicative power of humor and wit.

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