I am a cage, in search of a bird.  ~ Franz Kafka

Today is the birthday of Franz Kafka. He has acquired a reputation of being a rather depressing person over the years. I can’t imagine that most people who know about him or his books would imagine a happy birthday party for Franz. That’s why I was pleased to hear Garrison Keillor read this morning on his Writer’s Almanac podcast a description of Kafka that goes against that downer bio that is usually attached to him.

Though there were definitely some bad days for Franz, he was a productive and well-liked employee at an insurance company. His job was to prevent workplace accidents in the lumber industry. He was a big fitness advocate because he had suffered from a series of illnesses (some probably psychosomatic). He loved being outdoors in the fresh air. He wrote, “I row, ride, swim, lie in the sun. Therefore my calves are good, my thighs not bad, my belly will pass muster, but my chest is very shabby.”

Even though Kafka was suffering excruciating pain from tuberculosis, having just turned 40, he finally found real love and happiness in the last year of his life, with a woman named Dora Diamant. She wrote later: “Everything was done with laughter. Kafka was always cheerful. He liked to play; he was a born playmate, always ready for some fun.”

Today, I’d like to think of that Kafka.

His surreal, dark, pessimistic stories are what came from a childhood ruled by a tyrannical father, illnesses, guilt and anxiety. He described himself as “peevish, miserable, silent, discontented, and sickly.”

I wrote a few years ago about an odd little biography of Franz Kafka, Kafka, done as a graphic novel by R. Crumb. I said then that in some ways he reminds me of Edgar Allen Poe – everyone seems to know about him, even if they haven’t actually read his stories or read the whole of his life.

There is the term “Kafkaesque” used generically to describe a situation that is surreal or odd.  If people know one story by him (again, often without having actually read it), it would be “The Metamorphosis.” That’s the story of a man wakes up to find he has changed into a cockroach.

That’s the story that introduced me to Kafka. I went on to his other short stories and then to the very challenging novels like The Trial.  My first reading of that novel was a failure. I was a sophomore in high school and it was too much for me. I read it again four years later for a college course and I saw the Orson Welles’ film version and moved on to his books The Castle and Amerika.

I learned that he was born in Prague (then Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic) which made me think of my grandparents. My father’s family was from there. My mother’s family from that Austro-Hungarian Empire. Some connection perhaps.

Dora was a 25-year-old kindergarten teacher and she became his lover. He would not marry her because he felt his worsening tuberculosis meant she would only become a widow soon.

He died June 3, 1924. His last request to his friend and literary executor, Max Brod, was that “Everything I leave behind me… in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread.”

Brod had told Kafka that he wouldn’t burn them and he didn’t. He arranged for the publication of most of Kafka’s work in his possession and it was well received.

I like this modern-day, colorized version of the portrait of him that you can find online because he looks like someone who might work in your office or ride the train with you every morning. I would have liked to have coffee with him