The Google homepage Wednesday depicts an insect with a top hat and briefcase returning home from a long day at the job. The doodle, of course, is a wry homage to "Die Verwandlung," or "The Metamorphosis," Franz Kafka's chilling 1915 novella about a man – Gregor Samsa – who finds himself suddenly transformed into a giant, squirming insect.
So who was Franz Kafka, exactly? Only one of the greatest novelists in history, and the man who helped usher in a century of modernist fiction. As John Updike wrote in a forward to a 1971 collection of Kafka's stories, Kafka's writing was always marked – as is certainly true of "The Metamorphosis" – with a sensation of profound dread.
"In Kafka's peculiar and highly original case," Updike continued, "this dreadful quality is mixed with immense tenderness, oddly good humor, and a certain severe and reassuring formality. The combination makes him an artist; but rarely can an artist have struggled against greater inner resistance and more sincere diffidence as to the worth of his art."
Kafka was born 130 years ago this week, in Prague, as the oldest child of Hermann and Julie Kafka, who together operated a dry goods business. (Franz Kafka later said of his father that he was a "true Kafka in strength, health, appetite, loudness of voice, eloquence, self-satisfaction, worldly dominance, endurance, presence of mind, [and] knowledge of human nature ...")
From an early age, Kafka experienced both antisemitism and ostracism on account of his language. As one online biography notes, Kafka's "family was part of the German-speaking population, which found itself distrusted by the Czech speaking population of Prague."
He moved from German National and Civic Elementary School to the German National Humanistic Gymnasium, and finally on to Ferdinand-Karls University, where he studied law. He earned his degree from Ferdinand-Karls in 1907, and took a string of clerking jobs.
In his spare time, he struggled to write. He produced both short stories and eventually, three full-length novels: "Amerika," (which went largely unfinished); "The Castle"; and "The Trial." Almost all of his work revolved around what was clearly a profound feeling of alienation from the modern world; he wrote elegantly and darkly and repeatedly about guilt, and punishment, and soul-scouring authoritarian regimes.
He did not achieve much success in his lifetime. Only a string of pieces were actually published contemporaneously, by Kurt Wolff, including a fragment of "Amerika" and the short story "The Judgment." In fact, Kafka did not become famous until long after his death, in 1924, as more and more writers and critics came to comprehend the quality and intelligence of the writing he'd left behind.
"We are all of us conflicted, all of us trapped in situations we can’t escape, even (or especially) if others think we can," David L. Ulin of the Los Angeles Times recently wrote. "And Kafka remains our greatest chronicler of this ambivalence precisely because he understood it – and the way modernity offers little opportunity for it to be resolved."
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