Franz Kaf­ka

Sander L. Gilman
  • Review
By – October 18, 2011
What are we to under­stand about the man whose name gave rise to that term Kafkaesque,” which con­tin­ues to be used to char­ac­ter­ize the cru­el­ty and strange­ness and irra­tional­i­ty that exists in our world? How did he come to write such sto­ries and nov­els as Meta­mor­pho­sis, The Cas­tle, and The Tri­al, to name but a few? What were the sources of his world view? The author of this crit­i­cal biog­ra­phy seeks to define those aspects and issues of Kafka’s life that influ­enced his writ­ing, and then uses them to inter­pret and explore the mean­ing of his work.

All of this requires that a good deal of infor­ma­tion be jammed into each sen­tence, if one is to get it all into a book of 160 pages, which also includes pic­tures, quo­ta­tions, ref­er­ence notes, and a bib­li­og­ra­phy and fil­mog­ra­phy. Gilman’s prose, there­fore, is thick with facts, though quite readable.

He exam­ines the many con­flicts that exist­ed in Kafka’s life: his rela­tion­ship with his over­bear­ing father; his feel­ings about the women he knew and per­haps loved and cer­tain­ly toyed with; his dif­fi­cul­ty in decid­ing whether to write in his native Czech or the Ger­man in which he was edu­cat­ed, and his pur­suit of his acquired inter­est in Yid­dish and Hebrew; and the time he devot­ed to his career in the insur­ance busi­ness, ver­sus his absorp­tion in his writ­ing and the lit­er­ary and cul­tur­al life of his native Prague. And final­ly, Gilman also points to what was per­haps the cen­tral con­flict of his life, that Kafka’s Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and his sense of him­self as a writer are dou­bly linked, for as a writer he could both be and tran­scend being a Jew.” 

All of the fore­go­ing leads to Gilman’s analy­sis of Kafka’s impact on his lit­er­ary heirs and on the cul­tur­al scene in which they con­tin­ue to flour­ish. This com­pact biog­ra­phy has much to offer today’s read­er of Kafka’s work. 

Claire Rudin is a retired direc­tor of the New York City school library sys­tem and for­mer librar­i­an at the Holo­caust Resource Cen­ter and Archives in Queens, NY. She is the author of The School Librar­i­an’s Source­book and Chil­dren’s Books About the Holocaust.

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