On this day in 1883, the great writer Franz Kafka was born. He was the kind of guy you would expect: shy, alienated, intellectual. He was educated and spent most of his adult life working as an insurance claims adjuster. But he always saw himself as a writer and even quit a job in order to give himself more time for his writing. This is remarkable to me because it shows a character of will that few people then or now have. I often ask the question, why do the children of writers often become writer, the children of actors often become actors, and so on. It isn’t genetics. It is that if you are like Kafka, whose father was a small businessman, it just isn’t seen as reasonable to be a writer. It seems fanciful. That’s because everything is a commodity: it is not enough to work; one must work on something that will make money. So it is fine for Joe King and Owen King to be writers, in a way that it wasn’t for father Stephen before he published Carrie.
For the last seven years of his life, Kafka suffered from tuberculosis, which would eventually kill him shortly before turning 41. In 1918, his employer, Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute, gave him a pension and retired him due to his illness. He had worked there for ten years. Can you imagine an employer doing that today? Anyway, that did allow him to concentrate on his writing, although his illness was by that point a problem. He wrote many important works during this period. But his best known works were written in the years right before World War I: “The Metamorphosis,” “In the Penal Colony,” and The Trial. (You can get the stories various places such as, Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories.)
What I find most striking about Kafka’s work is how he maintains standard narrative technique, but describes a world in which the characters are alien. It has been suggested that he suffered from schizoid personality disorder, so it is possible that he did see the world in this way. Of course, it seems to me that he was more classically neurotic. He seems to have been very uncomfortable with himself. And as we see in “The Metamorphosis,” it isn’t the world that changes but rather the hero. More commonly, nothing changes; the hero just starts alienated. And Kafka’s main way of freeing his characters from this existential isolation is death.
I am most interested in The Trial. It could have been written about the modern American “justice” system in the War on Drugs. K is never told what the charges against him are. The modern drug user knows the name of the charge, but it might as well be a number. Why exactly is it that a man sitting at home doing a drug is committing a crime? How does it negatively affect society? In what sense is it a crime? And then, although nominally innocent until proven guilty, in practice all drug users are simply guilty. The arresting officer says that drugs were found and the officer is never questioned. Just as in The Trial, the only way to avoid punishment is to have a well connected lawyer. There is no case that can be made against the law. It is as if the case against K is simply that he exists. That’s a ridiculous law, but so are the drug laws. The only real difference is that drug users are told their punishment is for their own good. No such hypocrisy exists in The Trial.
Happy birthday Franz Kafka!
Here is Orson Welles’ filmed version of The Trial in its entirety. It is reasonably close to the book, captures the feeling in the book perfectly, and yet is totally Welles: