Born to a wealthy Jewish family in Prague in the on 3 July 1883, Franz Kafka was the eldest of six children. His father Hermann sold ‘fancy goods’ to the men and women of the city and employed over fifteen workers. He and his wife Julie worked long hours in the business so Kafka and his brothers and sisters were cared for by a succession of governesses and servants.
Kafka had a deeply troubled relationship with his father (the subject of numerous articles and even a play by Alan Bennett) whom he described as 'a true Kafka in strength, health, appetite, loudness of voice, eloquence and self-satisfaction'. The young Kafka was the opposite with a small build and a thoughtful, timid countenance. Kafka grew up speaking Czech, because of his father's desire for social advancement he also became fluent in German, the language of the Prague elite. His family was not particularly religious and he visited the Synagogue only four times a year until his Bar Mitzvah at 13. He attended the rigorous local ‘Gymnasium’, in the beautiful Kinsky Palace. Whilst he excelled at his studies, he was already developing a love of literature, writing plays for his sisters to perform.
It was whilst studying Law at Charles-Ferdinand University that he met his closest friends Max Brod and Felix Weltsch, who would one day be instrumental in bringing his works to the world. In his free time Kafka worked on stories and took classes in German studies and Art History.
After leaving University he worked first for an Italian insurance company, which he loathed as the long hours left him no time for writing. He left after little over a year and joined the ‘Workers Accident Insurance Institute’ where he had the unpleasant job of analysing injuries caused by industrial accidents and calculating the financial compensation required. This bureaucratic, yet often grotesque and surreal work clearly marked his writing style, with Franz Kafka books becoming well known to deal largely with the nature of the law and its often cruel absurdities. He would remain working for the company for most of his life and whilst he claimed to hate the work, he often proudly showed his financial reports for the company to friends and relatives. He lived alone throughout most of his working life in a small house near the castle in Prague. Though he wrote constantly, he only completed and published one book during his lifetime, The Metamorphosis published in 1915.
Kafka was not especially confident and was reputed to be extremely shy and self-conscious. However, he was romantically involved with several women during his lifetime. Felice Bauer worked as the representative of a German dictaphone company and met Kafka through Max Brod in 1912. The two corresponded for years and were engaged twice, though the relationship ended when Kafka began to develop tuberculosis in 1917. Kafka's novella The Trial was inspired by his relationship with Bauer, whose family held a meeting which Kafka described as a 'tribunal' attempting to pressure him into marrying her.
In 1920 he developed a close relationship with Milena Jesenska, a Czech journalist to whom he wrote in Czech (his only surviving writing not in German) but the relationship did not last. Whilst seeking treatment in Germany for tuberculosis he met Dora Diamant, a kindergarten teacher from Berlin. They fell in love and moved into a succession of flats together in Berlin. As Kafka’s health declined steadily, Diamant nursed him and was by his side when he was finally hospitalised in Berlin 1924.
Kafka went to a sanatorium in Vienna in spring 1924. On 3 June 1924 he died, reportedly in Diamant's arms. His death is said to have been by starvation, his illness having damaged his throat so badly that it was impossible for him to eat.
Before his death Kafka made his now famous request, that all his writing – stories, letters and diaries – be burnt upon his death. Kafka had only ever published a few stories; his work at the time was completely unknown. His best friend Max Brod, as his literary executor, took the decision to ignore his request and published the unfinished Franz Kafka books The Trial, Amerika and The Castle. Interest in Kafka grew as Brod published his notebooks and diaries, an arduous task as Kafka often began a notebook in the middle or at the end and wrote backwards, and as a result entries couldn’t be accurately dated.
By the start of the Second World War Kafka's fame was worldwide, inspiring a generation. His portraits of authoritarian regimes and individuals trapped by irrational and absurd powers chimed with the growth of fascism in 1930’s Europe. His works were banned, confiscated and burnt during the Third Reich whilst Kafka's own family and friends faced persecution. His three sisters and their families were sent to the Lodz ghetto and either died there or at Auschwitz in 1944. Max Brod and Felix Weltsch were forced to flee to Palestine when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia, never to return. Milena Jesenska died at Ravensbruck concentration camp whilst Dora Diamant escaped to Soviet Russia and later to London where she died in 1952.