Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 838

Kafka’s Lifetime
Though not widely recognized during his lifetime, Kafka was well-respected within his small literary, intellectual circle in Prague, the members of whom were aware of his considerable talents. Kafka published his first prose pieces at the age of 25 in Hyperion, a journal edited by his close friend Max Brod. Throughout his brief life, he continued to publish in journals, as well as several small volumes of his stories.

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Posthumous Publications
Kafka was one of those classic literary figures who lived and wrote in relative obscurity, only to be hailed as one of the foremost writers of his century years after his death. Shortly before his death, Kafka requested that his female companion, Dora Diamant, burn all of his unpublished writing, echoing a similar request to his close friend Max Brod. Brod, however, was wise enough to see the potential importance of Kafka’s work to international literature and subsequently acted against his friend’s dying wish. Brod spent years organizing and editing Kafka’s many manuscripts, which were generally in fragments and multiple drafts with chapters unnumbered and out of order, assigning them titles, and seeing that they were translated and published.

The Nazi Regime
During the Reign of Adolph Hitler, Kafka’s writing was both reviled and celebrated, depending on which part of the world one is referring to. In Nazi Germany, where Kafka’s three sisters and two of his lovers perished in concentration camps, Kafka’s surviving work was unavailable; anything which didn’t escape the Holocaust with Max Brod was destroyed or banned. Max Brod escaped the Holocaust in 1939, with Kafka’s work in tow, and eventually settled in Palestine. Many more of the late Kafka’s manuscripts, however, left in Prague with his female companion Dora Diamant, were destroyed in 1933 during a Nazi raid on her apartment. None of Kafka’s publications were available in Prague for ten years after his death. In France and the English-speaking world, meanwhile, Kafka was gaining international notoriety (thanks to Max Brod).

The Post-War Era
During the post-War era, Kafka’s work was once again available in Germany and Austria, where it became an important influence on German literature. But, under the communist regime that ruled Prague after 1948, Kafka’s work did not fare so well. The dominant artistic school of ‘‘socialist realism’’ dictated a style of writing which was completely ‘‘realistic,’’ in the sense of maintaining the values of socialist ideals. Of course, Kafka’s surreal parables did not conform to this aesthetic, and his work was accused of expressing bourgeois decadence. But for those living under this regime who managed to get a hold of a smuggled copy of his book The Trial, Kafka did indeed seem to be representing a realistic image of the nightmarish and oppressive bureaucracy which characterized the Russian system of government. This even furthered the government’s reasons for banning his work. Nonetheless, Kafka’s literary reputation throughout the world was becoming widespread and influential.

The 1960s
From 1963-1968, Kafka’s work did enjoy a brief period of renewed legitimacy in his homeland, based on the efforts of a group of intellectuals to redeem him in the eyes of Czech communists. In 1968, however, a series of events referred as ‘‘Prague Spring,’’ during which Russian tanks rolled into Prague against ardent protest by its citizens, once again lead to the banning of Kafka’s books.

The 1990s
With the end of the Cold War, signified by the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, Prague was released from communist rule and made the capitol of the newly formed Czech Republic. The city’s association with Kafka has since become a tourist attraction, and the area of the city which was once Kafka’s loved and hated Jewish ghetto has become an American-influenced tourist trap, complete with Kafka t-shirts, souvenirs and guided tours. As David Zane Mairowitz has cynically, although perhaps realistically, described this phenomenon, Kafka is now ‘‘finding his place amidst the KITSCH.’’ Zane Mairowitz goes on to explain that, ‘‘After years of ignoring him or treating him as a pariah, the new Czech Republic is finally discovering its strange Jewish son, no longer a threat and suddenly BANKABLE, as a tourist attraction.’’ He concludes, ‘‘the irony would not be lost on him.’’

International Literary Reputation in the Late 20th Century
Franz Kafka is indisputably one of the most important and influential writers of the twentieth century. However, as to the meaning of his stories, there is little in the way of critical consensus. As Franz R. Kempf explains, ‘‘Kafka critics only agree on one thing, and that is that they are not in agreement.’’ Perhaps as a result, there is no sign of retreat on the part of critics from adding to the mounds of published critical material on Kafka. A noteworthy addition to this stockpile is a series of new translations of his novels The Trial and The Castle, published in 1998, based on newly restored and re-edited editions of the original manuscripts and edited by Breon Mitchell.

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