Kafka was born on 3 July 1883 into a Jewish German-speaking family in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He had two brothers, both of whom died very young, and three sisters. He grew up fearing his father to the point of stuttering in his presence, but, nevertheless, continued to live at home for much of his adult life. He trained as a lawyer at the University of Prague and then was employed by the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute, a job which he hated. Suffering from insomnia, he began writing at night. He was chronically ill with different complaints, including tuberculosis (diagnosed in 1917) which eventually killed him.
In 1902 Kafka met Max Brod and they would remain friends throughout Kafka’s life. He was engaged twice, to Felice Bauer and Julie Wohryzek, and, in the early 1920s, he fell in love with a married Czech writer Milena Jesenská Pollak. In the last year of his life, he met Dora Diamant, a Zionist and moved to Berlin to live with her. However, he returned to Prague, and then died in 1924, aged but 40, at a sanatorium near Vienna. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, The Kafka Project, The Modern World, or Kafka Online.
Though he was reluctant to publish his writing, and indeed published very little in his lifetime, Kafka is a giant in the literature world. His reputation stems largely from very few extraordinary novels - Der Process (The Trial), Das Schloss (The Castle), Amerika - which Brod published soon after his friend’s death. Kafka had left instructions for Brod to destroy all his written works, but Brod chose to ignore the request. Also among Kafka’s writings was a hoard of diaries. These were not translated and published in English until 1948-1949, when Secker & Warburg brought out two volumes (The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910-1913, The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1914-1923) as translated by Joseph Kresh and Martin Greenberg. A one volume edition was published in 1964 by Peregrine Books.
A bit about Kafka’s diaries can be found at The Modern World, and The Times Literary Supplement. A few extracts in English can be read online at Twitter. The full texts in German can be read at The Kafka Project and at University of Vienna web pages created by Werner Haas. Here are a few extracts taken from the first published editions of the diaries. (Brod, too, kept a diary, and these have been the subject of some mystery - see The Diary Review article, Brod’s diaries in Kafkaesque story.)
2 July 1913
‘Wept over the report of the trial of a twenty-three-year-old Marie Abraham who, because of poverty and hunger, strangled her not quite nine-month-old child, Barbara, with a man’s tie that she used as a garter. Very routine story.
The fire with which, in the bathroom, I described to my sister a funny motion picture. Why can I never do that in the presence of strangers?
I would never have married a girl with whom I had lived in the same city for a year.’
3 July 1913
‘The broadening and heightening of existence through marriage. Sermon text. But I almost sense it.
When I say something it immediately and finally loses its importance, when I write it down it loses it too, but sometimes gains a new one.
A band of little golden beads around a tanned throat.’
21 July 1913
‘Don’t despair, not even over the fact that you don’t despair. Just when everything seems over with, new forces come marching up, and precisely that means that you are alive. And if they don’t then everything is over with here, once and for all.
I cannot sleep. Only dreams, no sleep. Today, in my dream, I invented a new kind of vehicle for a park slope. You take a branch, it needn’t be very strong, prop it up on the ground at a slight angle, hold one end in your hand, sit down on it side-saddle, then the whole branch naturally rushes down the slope, since you are sitting on the bough you are carried along at full speed, rocking comfortably on the elastic wood. It is also possible to use the branch to ride up again. The chief advantage aside from the simplicity of the whole device, lies in the fact the branch, thin and flexible as it is, can be lowered or raised as necessary and gets through anywhere, even where a person by himself would get through only with difficulty.
To be pulled in through the ground-floor window of a house by a rope tied around one’s neck and to be yanked up, bloody and ragged, through all the ceilings, furniture, walls, and attics, without consideration, as if by a person who is paying no attention, until the empty noose, dropping the last fragments of me when it breaks through the roof tiles, is seen on the roof.’
13 August 1913
‘Perhaps everything is now ended and the letter I wrote yesterday was the last one. That would certainly be the best. What I shall suffer, what she will suffer - that cannot be compared with the common suffering that would result. I shall gradually pull myself together, she will marry, that is the only way out among the living. We cannot beat a path into the rock for the two of us, it is enough that we wept and tortured ourselves for a year. She will realize this from my last letters. If not, then I will certainly marry her, for I am too weak to resist her opinion about our common fortune and am unable not to carry out, as far as I can, something she considers possible.’
14 August 1913
‘The opposite has happened. There were three letters. The last letter I could not resist. I love her as far as I am capable of it, but the love lies buried to the point of suffocation under fear and self-reproaches.
Conclusion for my case from ‘The Judgement’. I am indirectly in her debt for the story. But Georg goes to pieces because of his fiancée.
Coitus as punishment for the happiness of being together. Live as ascetically as possible, more ascetically than a bachelor, that is the only possible way for me to endure marriage. But she?
And despite all this, if we, I and F, had equal rights, if we had the same prospects and possibilities, I would not marry. But this blind alley into which I have slowly pushed her life makes it an unavoidable duty for me, although its consequences are by no means unpredictable. Some secret law of human relationship is at work here.’
15 August 1913
‘Agonies in bed towards morning. Saw only solution in jumping out of the window.’
21 August 1914
‘Began with such hope and was then repulsed by all three stories; today more so than ever. It may be true that the Russian story ought to be worked on only after The Trial. In this ridiculous hope, which apparently has only some mechanical notion behind it of how things work, I start The Trial again - The effort wasn’t entirely without result.’
29 August 1914
‘The end of one chapter a failure; another chapter, which began beautifully, I shall hardly - or rather certainly not - be able to continue as beautifully while at the time, during the night, I should certainly have succeeded with it. But I must not forsake myself, I am entirely alone.’