Louis Begley’s biographical essay about Kafka is a great place to start unraveling the twisty turns of this Prague genius’s forty year life. You’re left with the confirmed opinion that K was a giant weirdo, beset by crippling fear and antipathy towards his father/parents, torturing his fiancee Felice with up and down/back and forth/push-pull of wanting to marry and not marry (his letter to Milena “Yes, torture is extremely important to me—my sole occupation is torturing and being tortured”). He was fiercely protective of his work, only allowing a handful of things to be published in his lifetime and instructing Max Brod to burn everything else on his death (command ignored, for better or worse, giving us The Trial, The Castle, Amerika, Letter to His Father, and all his diaries and letters). Of those published while he was alive I’ve only read The Metamorphosis (decades ago). Otherwise, his sanctioned works are In the Penal Colony, and short stories: The Judgement, A Country Doctor, A Report to the Academy, A Hunger Artist, Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.
Here’s a sobering tidbit—all three of Kafka’s sisters were murdered by Germans in concentration camps. Kafka himself bowed out of the world stage at age 40 in 1924, from tuberculosis. He preferred his youngest sister, Ottla, but otherwise despised his family, with whom he lived. “It is not because they are relatives that I cannot bear to be in the same room with them, but merely because they are people… I cannot live with people; I absolutely hate all my relatives, not because they are wicked, not because I don’t think well of them… but simply because they are people with whom I live in close proximity.” Further in this letter to his fiance, he tells her that he’d be incomparably happier living in a desert, in a forest, on an island, rather than with his family. “Beware of thinking of life as commonplace… Life is merely terrible; I feel it as few others do. Often—and in my inmost self perhaps all the time—I doubt that I am a human being.”
He took work as a clerk in an insurance office but always knew that his purpose in life was to write. “The tremendous world I have inside my head, but how to free myself and free it without being torn to pieces. And a thousand times rather to be torn to pieces than retain it in me or bury it. That, indeed, is why I am here, that is quite clear to me.” As such, he yearned for complete solitude in his life, saying, “this is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around one when one writes, why even night is not night enough.”
The fantastic quote about literature comes from a letter to Oskar Pollak from 1904:
“If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?… We need books to affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”
Begley credits K’s 1912 story, The Judgement for revealing one of Kafka’s greatest inventions: the “nonchalant treatment of events in his fiction that every reader knows are implausible.”
Lots of book suggestions from this: Tonio Kroger by Thomas Mann, Ferdydurke by Gombrowicz, Benjamin’s Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Elizabeth Boa’s Kafka: Gender, Class and Race, and K by Roberto Calasso. (Note: I did a cursory flip through Boa’s book on Kafka and gender and it looks solid but I’m all Kafka’d out at the moment. Benjamin’s Illuminations also very good.)