3 July 1883- 3 June 1924
Franz Kafka was born today. In the black-and-white Prague of his boyhood, the sun shone yellow on the gray pavement. Debates were held in the cathedral on Sundays. The rituals of life were celebrated with frankincense and myrrh. Every man had the right to a trial. Behind the mound above the hill on the outskirts of the medieval town stood a castle. Rumors of its existence encircled the turrets of the structure like swarms of hornets. Kafka listened.
Franz Kafka was born on July 3, 1883. When he began to compose the stories on which his enduring fame is based, he chose to write in German. He knew that he was born on the day before the day the United States was born. This, he joked to Jaspers on one of their walks, is what prompted him to write Amerika.
Franz had a father. His father had a store. It was three o'clock. The father's example made the son loathe himself. The castle existed in his mind like a bird on a branch, singing in the darkness.
Hermann and Julie Kafka did what they could. He was their first born. He arrived a year after they were married. Two other sons died as infants. What was the effect on young Kafka? "Difficult to assess," Professor Sonnenschein said. Three younger sisters survived. The brood was brought up by governesses.
Kafka was named after Franz-Joseph, monocled emperor of the German-speaking Austro-Hungarian Empire that spanned the ancient capitals of Prague and Vienna and Budapest. The drama of Kafka's life was the crumbling of that empire. Although he lived to be forty, he will always be twenty-five years old in the museum of fictional identity, thin as a shadow, with a haunted stare that girls liked. He took a job in 1907 with the Assicurizioni Generali Insurance Company. The hours were long, the work mind-numbing, the offices filthy, the girls unhappy, the boys guilt-ridden, the hypocrisy contemptible.
Then, in 1908, he found the ideal line of work for a man of his extraordinary temperament and imagination. He went to work for the Workers' Accident Insurance Institute. The head of the human resources department of an Ivy League university advises me that Kafka's practical expertise in workers' compensation issues of his era would have equipped him admirably to deal with our own. "Better than having two master's degrees," she said.
But there wasn’t enough time. There wasn’t even time enough in a lifetime to travel from one little Russian village to the next. “Where are you going?” they asked. “Away from here,” he would say. But every time he reached the train station, the man at the ticket booth wore a policeman’s badge. He chuckled benignly and told him to go home: “Give it up.” And he and the woman assigned to him would have to sleep in their clothes under their desks in the classrooms. Nothing was explained, but it never occurred to anyone to question the state of affairs, perhaps because they were too busy being questioned. The weekly interrogations were a little like IRS audits -- like having to endure an autopsy without the benefit of being dead.
You think of Kafka and the word they've now retired, Kafkaesque, and then you think of his stories as unconscious allegories, predictions of the modern bureaucracy, of sophisticated methods of surveillance and torture, but then they are also parables of the individual, lonesome and vulnerable, in relation to the family, the state, the cosmos. There was a time when Partisan Review typewriters were outfitted with a key that would punch out the word "alienation." In those days Kafka was king. "What do I have in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself." Luckily he had a sense of humor and saw the comic possibilities in a young man who is turned into a gigantic water-beetle. And there were days when the world made perfect sense. There was crime and there was punishment, equal and opposite forces in suspension, as in a law of mechanics. The state was an impartial executioner, killing the guilty and the innocent alike. But if words were spears, he had his store of weapons, too, and if there were time he would compose a petition impossible to refuse.
Kafka did not want to become famous. "Posthumous fame is not the best kind," he said. "It is the only kind."
That this prototypical Cancer with a Gemini moon has Leo for a rising sign has not escaped the notice of academic astrologists. At the annual ASAS (American Society of Astrologists and Seers) conference in New London, Connecticut, in 1989, Dr. Gustave Setz of Arnheim pointed out that there is far more air (42.8%) than fire (12.8%) in Kafka's chart. "It will surprise no one that the mutable outweighs the cardinal and the fixed among the modes in Kafka's nature, But I never expected to find a domination of 55 yang to 45 yin.” He paused for emphasis. “In a presidential election, that would be a landslide." There was much murmuring as of flies on summer eves.
In his diary Kafka wrote that coitus is "the punishment for being happy together."
-- David Lehman