Who was Franz Kafka and why is he extra fashionable than ever?

Born in Prague in 1883, Franz Kafka belonged to the German-speaking Jewish minority, which made him somewhat of an outsider to begin with.

He also felt little acceptance from his family and suffered throughout his life at the hands of his father in particular, who would have preferred his son to be a businessman rather than a writer. 

Unable to make a living from writing alone, Kafka worked from morning to noon as an insurance clerk and then devoted himself to the things that gave him pleasure. He rode a motorcycle, went to the movies and visited brothels.

He was sporty, went on city trips to Paris and Berlin, and enjoyed being around people. But he didn’t get on so well with women, which was partly due to social expectations. How much closeness was acceptable if one had serious intentions? Kafka was uncertain.

Famous thanks to a close friend

Kafka wrote in the evenings and at night: diaries, short stories and novels. His best friend, Max Brod, whom he had met while studying law, recognized Kafka’s literary talent and encouraged him to publish his work. But Kafka doubted his writing abilities. In 1924, he died of laryngeal tuberculosis only a few weeks before his 41st birthday. He had previously instructed his friend to burn all his writings after his death.

But fortunately for posterity, Max Brod did not comply with this wish, otherwise works such as “The Trial” would never have been published. Today, the unfinished novel is one of Kafka’s best-known works. It is about a man who becomes a defendant but never finds out what he is accused of having done. And, as usual with Kafka, this story does not end well.

‘The Trial’ by Franz Kafka

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Kafka’s global appeal

Nowadays, Kafka is read all over the world. In Germany young people read him at school as part of the curriculum. In India, he is known in intellectual circles, and he’s also popular in Mexico, Colombia and Argentina. The list is endless.

Numerous international writers refer to Kafka in their own novels and see him as one of the most important modern authors of the 20th century. Colombian writer and Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who died in 2014, even said that it was reading Kafka’s novel “The Metamorphosis” that inspired him to write his own books.

Kafka’s particular sensibility also lives on through the adjective “Kafkaesque,”which can be found in many languages including German, English, Korean, Turkish, French, Japanese, Russian and Italian. The term describes something that seems unfathomably threatening — absurd, bizarre and inexplicable.

Why is Kafka still relevant today?

The writer dealt with timeless themes in his stories, such as bureaucracy and dealing with authority — or rather, the feeling of being at its mercy. Colombian writer Hernan D. Caro asks in the podcast series “Being Kafka” whether the famous author’s texts were inspired by dreams or, more specifically, nightmares.

A drawing by Franz Kafka, "Man at a Table." A sketch in black ink a figure sitting at a table, head resting on the hands upon the tabletop.
Kafka not only wrote tirelessly, he also produced several drawings, like this one, used for the novel ‘The Trial’Image: picture alliance/akg-images/Archiv K. Wagenbach

Kafka’s stories mostly revolve around human experiences. They poetically describe the feeling of being lost, alone and helpless in this world. All these feelings are universal. They apply to people then and now, all over the world. They are completely independent of cultural contexts or political structures. That is why Kafka is read and understood on all continents.

His clear, understandable language also makes it easy for translators to adapt his texts into other languages, explains Caro. And he has given authors who came after him an incredibly great gift by showing them how to write about the strangest of topics as if they were the most normal thing in the world.

But Nazi Germany took a dim view of Kafka’s books, banning and burning them where possible. For a long time Kafka was more popular abroad than in Germany.   

What fascinates Gen Z about Kafka?

Kafka has become a meme on social media. This is particularly true of the vermin that protagonist Gregor Samsa mutates into in “The Metamorphosis.” 

Young people exchange Kafka quotes on TikTok and Instagram. They may not always be correct, but that does not detract from the Kafka worship, which culminates in birthday cakes with Kafka’s likeness, also posted online.

Kafka often appeals to young people because they, too, come into conflict with authority and sometimes feel just as lost as the author’s characters. Franz Kafka’s themes of alienation and isolation, and questions of identity, seem just as relevant today, a century after the writer’s death.

This article was originally published in German.