John Kessel and James Patrick Kel­ly are the edi­tors of Kafkaesque: Sto­ries Inspired by Franz Kaf­ka. They will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing. Today, James Patrick Kel­ly writes about a man as puz­zling as his sto­ries.

Franz Kaf­ka was a man who strug­gled with his many con­tra­dic­tions. Although his writ­ing has come to be inten­sive­ly stud­ied, as a man he is hard to know, even giv­en all the scruti­ny of recent years. He was born in 1883 into an assim­i­lat­ed mid­dle-class Jew­ish fam­i­ly in Prague, the third largest city of the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an Empire. He had five sib­lings, two younger broth­ers who died in infan­cy and three sis­ters who sur­vived him, only to per­ish in Hitler’s camps dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. He was a mem­ber of the dom­i­nant Ger­man-speak­ing minor­i­ty, just three per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion of Prague at the time, but he was also flu­ent in Czech. As a young man, he was ath­let­ic, taller than aver­age, fond of swim­ming, row­ing, and bicy­cling. Yet for much of his life he was also a hypochon­dri­ac: it was not until 1917 that he was diag­nosed with the tuber­cu­lo­sis that would kill him sev­en years lat­er at the age of forty.

Of all the con­tra­dic­tions in Kafka’s life, two stand out for the mod­ern read­ers. Kaf­ka was a stu­dent of Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture, and in his youth cham­pi­oned Yid­dish the­atre, much to the puz­zle­ment of some of his lit­er­ary friends. He was sym­pa­thet­ic to Zion­ism and yet there are no overt allu­sions to Jews or Jew­ish­ness in his fic­tion. What have I in com­mon with the Jews?” he wrote. I have hard­ly any­thing in com­mon with myself, and should stand very qui­et­ly in a cor­ner, con­tent that I can breathe.”

But there are many things miss­ing” in Kafka’s fic­tion — often a sense of place, or of time or of his­toric­i­ty — because these did noth­ing to advance his artis­tic goals. Kaf­ka was not a real­ist and we ought not look to the work to under­stand his prob­lem­at­ic rela­tion­ship to Judaism. Of course, con­tem­po­rary ques­tions about Kafka’s Jew­ish­ness are informed by tragedies that occurred after his death. Not only did his sis­ters per­ish in con­cen­tra­tion camps, but his trans­la­tor and mis­tress Mile­na Jesen­ská did as well. The approach of the Nazis forced his friend and lit­er­ary execu­tor Max Brod to flee Prague for Jerusalem with a huge col­lec­tion of Kafka’s papers. Do the ter­ri­ble real­i­ties of the Holo­caust affect how we read the work?

Undoubt­ed­ly, but this is a prob­lem for us, and not for Kaf­ka. Sim­i­lar­ly, there are those who inter­pret The Tri­al and The Cas­tle as pre­dic­tions of the rise of total­i­tar­i­an states like Hitler’s Ger­many, Mussolini’s Italy, and Stalin’s Rus­sia. Kaf­ka, how­ev­er, was not try­ing to proph­esy some future world order but rather was attempt­ing to engage imag­i­na­tive­ly with a soci­ety he knew all too well.

Then there is the puz­zle of Kafka’s instruc­tions to Max Brod, which was to destroy his unpub­lished work. Brod claims that he told his friend plain­ly that he would do no such thing. After Kafka’s death, Brod found two notes which explic­it­ly stat­ed that all his papers were to be burned unread. How was Brod then to have exe­cut­ed these requests if he was to burn them unread? And why didn’t Kaf­ka burn the papers him­self, espe­cial­ly since he knew Brod was unlike­ly to do the deed? While we have no way to know his think­ing in this mat­ter, we do know that this was the request of a sick man whose finan­cial for­tunes had tak­en a rad­i­cal turn for the worse.

His mod­est pen­sion, tak­en when he retired after he was diag­nosed with tuber­cu­lo­sis, was near­ly worth­less in the hyper­in­fla­tion that plagued the defeat­ed and dis­in­te­grat­ing Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an Empire in the wake of World War I. It is clear that Kaf­ka was a depressed and often anx­ious man. Nev­er a risk tak­er, he suf­fered from feel­ings of infe­ri­or­i­ty that arose from the high stan­dards to which he held him­self as a writer. Frus­trat­ed that his reach con­tin­ued to exceed his grasp, at the end of his life he strug­gled with despair.

There is an odd and, yes, Kafkaesque post­script to Brod’s denial of Kafka’s request. Brod brought many of Kafka’s papers with him to Jerusalem in 1939. No one knows exact­ly what this cache con­tained, although reput­ed­ly there were let­ters, diaries, and man­u­scripts. On his death in 1968, Brod left these papers to his sec­re­tary and pre­sumed mis­tress, Esther Hoffe.

But was she intend­ed to be the execu­tor or the ben­e­fi­cia­ry? Brod’s will is ambigu­ous, since it also pro­vides that his lit­er­ary estate be giv­en to a pub­lic archive in Israel or abroad.” In any event, Hoffe retained pos­ses­sion of the Kaf­ka papers until her death in 2007, at which time they passed to her daugh­ters in accor­dance with her will. Pos­ses­sion of these papers is the sub­ject of a law­suit in Israel, unre­solved as we write this. It is like­ly, how­ev­er, that in the near future, Kaf­ka read­ers and schol­ars will have access to a trove of Kafka’s pre­vi­ous­ly unseen writing.

Per­haps they will help us unrav­el some of the con­tra­dic­tions that still puz­zle read­ers of this lit­er­ary genius.

John Kessel and James Patrick Kel­ly will be blog­ging here all week.