Today is the birthday (1883) of Franz Kafka, a German-speaking Bohemian novelist and short story writer, widely regarded as one of the major figures of 20th-century literature. We now use the word “Kafkaesque” to describe literature which fuses elements of realism and the fantastic, typically featuring isolated protagonists faced with bizarre or surreal predicaments and incomprehensible social-bureaucratic powers. His best-known works include “Die Verwandlung” (“The Metamorphosis”), Der Process (The Trial), and Das Schloss (The Castle). Few of Kafka’s works were published during his lifetime: the story collections Betrachtung (Contemplation) and Ein Landarzt (A Country Doctor), and individual stories (such as “Die Verwandlung”) were published in literary magazines but received little public attention. Much of Kafka’s work was unfinished when he died and on his death bed he ordered his manuscripts destroyed by a friend. Instead he had them edited for publication, and it was only after his death that Kafka became internationally renowned. Back in my typically angst-ridden teens and early 20s, Kafka was on my shelves beside Orwell, Camus, Sartre, and Hesse. Fortunately, that stage of my life passed.
Kafka was born near the Old Town Square in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His family were middle-class Ashkenazi Jews. His father, Hermann Kafka (1854–1931), was the fourth child of Jakob Kafka, a shochet (Jewish ritual slaughterer) in Osek, a Czech village with a large Jewish population located near Strakonice in southern Bohemia. Hermann moved the Kafka family to Prague. After working as a traveling sales representative, he eventually became a fashion retailer who employed up to 15 people and used the image of a jackdaw (kavka in Czech, pronounced and colloquially written as kafka) as his business logo. Kafka’s mother, Julie (1856–1934), was the daughter of Jakob Löwy, a prosperous retail merchant in Poděbrady, and was better educated than her husband.
Kafka’s parents probably spoke a dialect of German influenced by Yiddish that was sometimes pejoratively called Mauscheldeutsch, but, because the German language was considered the vehicle of social mobility, they probably encouraged their children to speak High German. Hermann and Julie had six children, of whom Franz was the eldest. Franz’s two brothers, Georg and Heinrich, died in infancy before Franz was seven. His three sisters were Gabriele (“Ellie”) (1889–1944), Valerie (“Valli”) (1890–1942) and Ottilie (“Ottla”) (1892–1943). They all died during the Holocaust of World War II.
Hermann was described by Franz Kafka as “a true Kafka in strength, health, appetite, loudness of voice, eloquence, self-satisfaction, worldly dominance, endurance, presence of mind, and knowledge of human nature”. On business days, both parents were absent from the home, with Julie Kafka working as many as 12 hours each day helping to manage the family business. Consequently, Kafka’s childhood was lonely, and the children were reared largely by a series of governesses and servants. Kafka’s troubled relationship with his father is evident in his “Brief an den Vater” (Letter to His Father) of more than 100 pages, in which he complains of being profoundly affected by his father’s authoritarian and demanding character. His mother, in contrast, was quiet and shy.
The Kafka family had a servant girl living with them in a cramped apartment. Franz’s room was often cold. In November 1913 the family moved into a bigger apartment, although Ellie and Valli had married and moved out of the first apartment. In early August 1914, just after World War I began, the sisters did not know where their husbands were in the military and moved back in with the family in this larger apartment. Both Ellie and Valli also had children. Franz at age 31 moved into Valli’s former apartment, quiet by contrast, and lived by himself for the first time.
From 1889 to 1893, Kafka attended the Deutsche Knabenschule German boys’ elementary school at the Masný trh/Fleischmarkt (meat market). His Jewish education ended with his Bar Mitzvah celebration at the age of 13. Kafka never enjoyed attending the synagogue and went with his father only on four high holy days a year. After leaving elementary school in 1893, Kafka was admitted to the rigorous classics-oriented state gymnasium, Altstädter Deutsches Gymnasium, an academic secondary school at Old Town Square, within the Kinský Palace. German was the language of instruction, but Kafka also spoke and wrote in Czech. He studied the latter at the gymnasium for 8 years, and received compliments for his Czech, but he never considered himself fluent in Czech, though he spoke German with a Czech accent. He completed his final exams in 1901.
Kafka was admitted to the Deutsche Karl-Ferdinands-Universität of Prague in 1901, studying chemistry, but switched to law after two weeks. Although this field did not excite him, it offered a range of career possibilities which pleased his father. In addition, law required a longer course of study, giving Kafka time to take classes in German studies and art history. He also joined a student club, Lese- und Redehalle der Deutschen Studenten (Reading and Lecture Hall of the German students), which organized literary events, readings and other activities. Among Kafka’s friends were the journalist Felix Weltsch, who studied philosophy, the actor Yitzchak Lowy who came from an orthodox Hasidic Warsaw family, and the writers Oskar Baum and Franz Werfel.
At the end of his first year of studies, Kafka met Max Brod, a fellow law student who became a close friend for life (and was the one who had his MSS published posthumously). Brod soon noticed that, although Kafka was shy and seldom spoke, what he said was usually profound. Brod encouraged Kafka to read Plato’s Protagoras in the original Greek, and Flaubert’s L’éducation sentimentale and La Tentation de St. Antoine in French. Kafka considered Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Nikolai Gogol, Franz Grillparzer, and Heinrich von Kleist to be his “true blood brothers.” Kafka was awarded the degree of Doctor of Law on 18th July 1906 and performed an obligatory year of unpaid service as law clerk for the civil and criminal courts.
On 1st November 1907, Kafka was hired at the Assicurazioni Generali, an insurance company, where he worked for nearly a year. His correspondence during that period indicates that he was unhappy with his work schedule—from 8 am to 6 pm, 6 days a week—making it extremely difficult to concentrate on writing, which was assuming increasing importance to him. On 15th July 1908, he resigned. Two weeks later he found employment more amenable to writing when he joined the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the kingdom of Bohemia. The job involved investigating and assessing compensation for personal injury to industrial workers. Accidents such as lost fingers or limbs were commonplace at this time owing to poor work safety policies at the time. It was especially true of factories fitted with machine lathes, drills, planing machines and rotary saws which were rarely fitted with safety guards.
Kafka’s father often referred to his son’s job as an insurance officer as a Brotberuf, literally “bread job”, a job done only to pay the bills, and Kafka often claimed to despise it. Kafka was rapidly promoted and his duties included processing and investigating compensation claims, writing reports, and handling appeals from businessmen who thought their firms had been placed in too high a risk category, which cost them more in insurance premiums.He compiled and composed the annual report on the insurance institute for the several years he worked there, and they were received well by his superiors. Kafka usually got off work at 2 p.m., so that he had time to spend on his writing, although his father also expected him to help out at and take over the family fancy goods store.
In late 1911, Elli’s husband, Karl Hermann, and Kafka became partners in the first asbestos factory in Prague, known as Prager Asbestwerke Hermann & Co., having used dowry money from Hermann Kafka. Kafka showed a positive attitude at first, dedicating much of his free time to the business, but he later resented the encroachment of this work on his writing time. During that period, he also found interest and entertainment in the performances of Yiddish theatre. After seeing a Yiddish theater troupe perform in October 1911, for the next six months Kafka “immersed himself in Yiddish language and in Yiddish literature”. This interest also served as a starting point for his growing exploration of Judaism. It was at about this time that Kafka became a vegetarian. Around 1915 Kafka received his conscription notice for military service in World War I, but his employers at the insurance institute arranged for a deferment because his work was considered essential government service. Later he attempted to join the military but was prevented from doing so by medical problems associated with tuberculosis, with which he was diagnosed in 1917. In 1918 the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute put Kafka on a pension due to his illness, for which there was no cure at the time, and he spent most of the rest of his life in sanatoria.
Kafka never married, and his relationships with women can be called “complicated.” On 13 August 1912, Kafka met Felice Bauer, a relative of Brod, who worked in Berlin as a representative of a dictaphone company. A week after the meeting at Brod’s home, Kafka wrote in his diary:
Miss FB. When I arrived at Brod’s on 13 August, she was sitting at the table. I was not at all curious about who she was, but rather took her for granted at once. Bony, empty face that wore its emptiness openly. Bare throat. A blouse thrown on. Looked very domestic in her dress although, as it turned out, she by no means was. (I alienate myself from her a little by inspecting her so closely …) Almost broken nose. Blonde, somewhat straight, unattractive hair, strong chin. As I was taking my seat I looked at her closely for the first time, by the time I was seated I already had an unshakeable opinion.
Shortly after this, Kafka wrote the story “Das Urteil” (“The Judgment”) in only one night and worked in a productive period on Der Verschollene (The Man Who Disappeared) and “Die Verwandlung” (“The Metamorphosis”). Kafka and Felice Bauer communicated mostly through letters over the next five years, met occasionally, and were engaged twice. Kafka’s extant letters to her were published as Briefe an Felice (Letters to Felice); her letters do not survive. Kafka was later engaged to Julie Wohryzek, a poor and uneducated hotel chambermaid. Although the two rented an apartment and set a wedding date, the marriage never took place. Before the date of the intended marriage, he began an affair with another woman
Kafka was diagnosed with tuberculosis in August 1917 and moved for a few months to the Bohemian village of Zürau (Siřem in the Czech language), where his sister Ottla worked on the farm of her brother-in-law Karl Hermann. He felt comfortable there and later described this time as perhaps the best time in his life, probably because he had no responsibilities. He kept diaries and notes from which he later extracted 109 numbered pieces of text. They were later published as Die Zürauer Aphorismen oder Betrachtungen über Sünde, Hoffnung, Leid und den wahren Weg (The Zürau Aphorisms or Reflections on Sin, Hope, Suffering, and the True Way).
In 1920 Kafka began an intense relationship with Milena Jesenská, a Czech journalist and writer. His letters to her were later published as Briefe an Milena. During a vacation in July 1923 to Graal-Müritz on the Baltic Sea, Kafka met Dora Diamant, a 25-year-old kindergarten teacher from an orthodox Jewish family. Kafka, hoping to escape the influence of his family to concentrate on his writing, moved briefly to Berlin and lived with Diamant. She encouraged an interest in the Talmud, and at the time Kafka worked on four stories, which he prepared to be published as Ein Hungerkünstler (A Hunger Artist).
Kafka’s laryngeal tuberculosis worsened and in March 1924 he returned from Berlin to Prague, where members of his family, principally his sister Ottla, took care of him. He went to Dr. Hoffmann’s sanatorium in Kierling just outside Vienna for treatment on 10th April, and died there on 3rd June 1924. The immediate cause of death was malnutrition because the condition of Kafka’s throat made eating too painful for him, and at the time there was no way to feed him except orally (other medical methods were not developed until later). Kafka was editing “A Hunger Artist” on his deathbed, a story whose composition he had begun before his throat closed to the point that he could not take any nourishment. His body was brought back to Prague where he was buried on 11th June 1924, in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague-Žižkov. His tombstone was designed by architect Leopold Ehrmann.
It may seem macabre to celebrate a man who died of malnutrition with a recipe, but I think it is suitably Kafkaesque. Kafka was a strict vegetarian for most of his adult life, and food appears regularly in his writing. His vegetarianism rules out a recipe for tripe soup, which is a pity because the Czech version, dršťky polévka, is an old favorite of mine. I gave a recipe for another Bohemian soup, kulajda, here: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/jan-zrzavy/ Bohemia is justifiably famous for its vast array of soups, including many that can be made meatless quite easily. There are pea (hrachovka), bean (fazolová) and lentil soups (čočková polévka), mushroom soup (houbová polévka), tomato soup (rajská polévka), vegetable soup (zeleninová polévka), onion soup (cibulačka) and bread soup (chlebová polévka). Kyselo is a regional specialty soup made from rye sourdough, mushrooms, caraway and fried onion. You can choose any of these, and there are plenty of recipes online. I’ll give you potato and mushroom soup (bramboračka) which is quite complex, and regionally varied throughout Bohemia. Nowadays cooks use dried black mushrooms, but the soup was originally made from wild forest mushrooms. It is also common to serve the soup in a bowl made of hollowed out rye and caraway bread. I have had it this way once, and have to say it was good, but too filling for me. Czechs with me had no trouble scarfing down the soup with a whole loaf of bread.
500 gm potatoes, peeled and cut in large chunks
35 gm dried black mushrooms or 100 gm fresh wild mushrooms, sliced
200 gm peeled and diced carrot
200 gm peeled and diced celeriac root
200 gm shredded cabbage,
1 leek, white part only, sliced
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 tbs olive oil
6 cups vegetable broth
salt and pepper
1 tbsp dried marjoram
4 tbsp flour
If you are using dried mushrooms, soak them in a bowl covered with hot (not boiling) water for about 20 minutes.
Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed stock pot over medium heat and sauté the onions until soft. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the chopped vegetables and sauté for an additional 10 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon so that they take on some color evenly. (Do not add mushrooms at this point if you are using dried ones).
Add the stock to the pot along with the dried mushrooms and their liquid if you are using them, the marjoram, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a slow simmer and cook until the vegetables are soft. Mix the flour with a generous amount of cold water and whisk thoroughly. Then add a little hot broth to the flour and water mixture, and whisk again. Then pour this mixture back into the soup, stirring vigorously until it is well combined. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. Simmer another 10 minutes. Serve in deep bowls with rye bread, or in hollowed out dark bread bowls.