A Crash Course on getting into Franz Kafka
Crash Courses are designed as an introduction to different topics and where to go next if you enjoyed them! If you want to know more about the series, check out our introduction.
Note: The editions of which I make reference are my preferred ones, but Kafka’s work has been published by multiple editorials, and most of his work can be find online in websites like https://www.kafka-online.info/
“In theory there is a possibility of perfect happiness: To believe in the indestructible element within one, and not to strive towards it”– Franz Kafka
Some weeks ago, I was talking with some friends from college about how when we first started our major (we all study philosophy), we all wanted to be the next big name of our field, but as time went on, we all realized that people who really leave a mark in history don’t do it with that intention. Most of them were just living their life. My friends gave some good examples of this like Isaac Newton or Immanuel Kant, but I decided to tell them a story that I keep in my mind at all times, a story I’m about to tell you.
When Czech writer, Franz Kafka, was dying of Tuberculosis, he asked his best friend Max Brood to burn all of his unpublished work, believing it was some of the worst works the written language had produced. Max Brood went against his friend’s wishes and instead published all that Franz couldn’t publish in life; some years later, Kafka would be considered one of the most important authors of contemporary literature (it’s important to note that Kafka’s most famous work The Transformation, better known as The Metamorphosis, was published during Kafka’s life, so not all of his success comes from this decision).
For many, the moral of this story is to trust yourself more. For me, it’s a bit different. I think this story has one message: Kafka was a fucking amazing writer.
For Franz, writing was what life was all about. He ate, worked and breathed only so he could read in the little free time he had. Was this healthy? No, no it wasn’t. In fact, it was probably the reason he died so young, but the truth is this unhealthy passion, this obssession, is reflected in his work. There are few other writers that write with the honesty and devotion with which Franz wrote. He poured himself into each of his stories and gave the world a new perspective that has influenced a lot of our culture.
I love Kafka because his work changes you, transforms you. Every time someone reads some of his stories they go through a process of metamorphosis, a process that is unique to each reader. Kafka’s passion is intoxicating, it absorbs you and introduces you into Franz’s own little domain, his castle if you may. Kafka didn’t write for the benefit of the reader, he wrote for his own good, just to keep going, and it’s that energy that makes each of his works an invigorating experience.
Most people will tell you that Kafka’s writing is depressive or pessimistic, some may tell you it’s just realistic. I believe it’s simply honest, not because it tells you the factual truth, but because it tells you his own truth in a really genuine way. I think that’s why you should read Franz Kafka’s work.
That being said, let’s get into some recommendations
“A cage went in search of a bird”- Franz Kafka
The Transformation (Metamorphosis):
When doing this list, I tried to ignore Metamorphosis for this list because when talking about Kafka, it’s the work most people talk about, but after thinking about it for a bit I realized something. People talk a lot about this book for a reason; it’s a wonderful work of art. While I don’t think this is Kafka at his best, I do think this is Kafka at his most kafkaesque. It’s sad, horrifying, and completely crushing in a beautiful way. As most of you might already know, the book is about Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman who one day wakes up as a giant bug-like creature, and the reaction of his family (and the world). I often describe this book like a horror coming of age book that shows the reader the horrors of growing up totally alone and being afraid of the world. If you are interested in how it feels to read Kafka, this is a great starting point.
Where to find: The Metamorphosis and other stories, part of the The Schocken Kafka Library of Penguin Random House
The Hunger Artist:
This might be one of Kafka’s most famous short stories, and for good reason. The tale of a man that fasted himself for the entertainment of others, this one is maybe one of Franz’s saddest tales. While Kafka is known for his novels, this tale proves his strength on shorter stories. The thing is that Kafka can be really intense and overwhelming, so his short stories, while being heavy, aren’t tiring. The emotions are there but you don’t need to go through much to get into the good stuff. The Czech author goes hard in this one, and explores some deep emotions, especially despair and obsession. The ending had me speechless. When people say Kafka is depressing this is what they are talking about, but it’s written in a way that won’t make you regret reading it. I feel that if you read The Hunger Artist and don’t want to read Kafka anymore, then he definitely isn’t for you.
Where to find: The Complete stories, part of the The Schocken Kafka Library of Penguin Random House
This book is just what the title announces, a collection of thoughts, short paragraphs and quotes of Franz Kafka. While I would normally never recommend a book of this style to new readers of any author, this collection of really short thoughts is a great introduction to who Kafka was. Filled to the top with beautiful and fascinating phrases, this book explores a surprising amount of topics, and gives the reader a complete picture of the way Franz saw the world. Even though none of the paragraphs are more than 15 lines long, each of Kafka’s little texts make the reader reflect and think. Some of my favorite Kafka phrases are from this book, and I try to quote them every time I talk about the author (all of the quotes I used in this article are from this book). A great introduction to Kafka’s way of thinking in a bite sized packaging.
Where to find: Aphorisms, part of the The Schocken Kafka Library of Penguin Random House
“His fatigue is that of the gladiator after the fight; his job was the cover up of a corner in the office” – Franz Kafka
The Process (The Trail):
The Process is one of three novels written by Kafka that were never finished and were published after the author’s death. Other than Metamorphosis, this might be Kafka’s most famous work and might as well be the origin of the term: “Kafkaesque”. Here Kafka tells the story of Josef K., a man that is put to trial for a crime unknown to him. The book follows the unexplainably hard bureaucratic process Josef has to go through as a consequence of the trial. This book is a maddening experience that pushes the protagonist and the reader to question the meaning of social norms and institutions. If you take into account that Kafka actually worked in a bureaucratic work space (an insurance company) this clearly reads as the screaming pleas of a man that has faced the absurdity of social life and wants everyone to see the light. This is probably one of those books everyone should read in their life.
Where to find: The Trail, part of the The Schocken Kafka Library of Penguin Random House
In the Penal Colony:
One of the short stories published by Kafka when he was alive, In the Penal Colony might be one of the densest and more violent of Franz’s stories. Penal Colony is the story of a machine used to punish prisoners. The machine is a complex collection of moving parts that writes the sentence of the criminal in their skin while they slowly die. In the Penal Colony is a masterfully written tale that goes through all the moments that we can find in suffering, and maybe even more importantly it details with some beautiful sadness the means authority will go through to make it’s subjects obey and suffer, consuming even those who are in power. The machine that takes a protagonistic role in this story might be one of the most horrible contraptions in the history of fiction and it shows just how powerful Kafka’s writing can be.
Where to find: The Complete stories, part of the The Schocken Kafka Library of Penguin Random House
Letter to the Father:
This might be the closest thing we might have to a Kafka origin story. As the title says, this book is a letter Kafka wrote to his father (which he never read) in which the author explains all the ways in which his upbringing affected him deeply and how his relation to his father created the damaged man that could find no joy in anything other than writing. This letter is an extraordinary exploration of who Kafka is and how he sees himself. There are notes of melancholy, and others of hatred, but mostly I see an incredible frustration, something characteristic to all of his works, and probably what drove him to write the way he did. This is definitely a must read for anyone who wants to understand Kafka’s work.
Where to find: Letter to the Father/Brief an den Vater, part of the The Schocken Kafka Library of Penguin Random House
The Special Sauce:
“Writing is a form of praying” – Franz Kafka
The Missing Person (Amerika):
Another one of Kafka’s unfinished novels, The Missing Person is a (not surprising here) sad tale of a young man that has just arrived to America and is looking for a new beginning there. The novel follows this young man through all of the ups and downs in his new life in the US. One of the most fascinating things about this novel is that Kafka never went to the USA, so the American portrait in this book is a unique and strange creation. It’s through the lenses of this America that we see Kafka’s view on freedom, second chances and the American Dream, spoiler alert, it’s not very reassuring. This novel can be slow at times but it is a fascinating exploration of what America is, but most importantly what it isn’t.
Where to find: Amerika: The Missing Person, part of the The Schocken Kafka Library of Penguin Random House
Report to the Academy:
Another of Kafka’s published short stories, Report to the Academy is a letter written by an ape to the academy that turned him into a civilized being retelling this transformation. In my opinion, this is a parallel story to The Metamorphosis. While Metamorphosis is a story about a man that becomes a creature, Report is the story of a creature becoming a man. Both are filled with the same sad irony. Report to the Academy is the perfect parody about modern society, the academy, and the high class. The small details on this one go to show Kafka’s more comedic side. This short story is probably one of the few of Kafka’s tales that goes over his initial frustration with the system and brings Kafka into the territory of irony and cynicism. A new experience for any Kafka fan.
Where to find: The Complete Stories, part of the The Schocken Kafka Library of Penguin Random House
Kafka’s diaries are just that: his diaries. A collection of notes from the author’s from day to day. The notes are extremely diverse and they could go from an observation from his day at work, to an incredibly profound thought about the ways of life. What differentiates this from the aphorisms is that each of Kafka’s aportations to his diaries are extremely personal, each entry is a window into his personal life. I’m not going to lie, Kafka’s diaries can be sad and disconcerting. All the emotions that are reflected in his narratives are exposed in these diaries in a more genuine and raw way. The diaries is not in any way Kafka at his best, or his smartest, but it’s definitely Kafka’s most honest work. If you have read any of the other recommendations on this article and have fallen in love with the writer, the diaries are your opportunity to get to know the person.
Where to find: The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1910-1923, part of the The Schocken Kafka Library of Penguin Random House