How to begin reading Kafka on the Czech-German author's 140th birthday

One of Prague's most famous residents, Franz Kafka was born in Prague on July 3, 1883.

Ioana Caloianu

Written by Ioana Caloianu Published on 05.07.2023 16:46:00 (updated on 05.07.2023) Reading time: 2 minutes

Prague's (arguably) most famous literary son was born 140 years ago this week. While references to his presence abound across Prague, both his life and work elude straightforward interpretations. An upcoming biopic from Oscar-nominated director Agnieszka Holland, which will start shooting in Prague later this year, could shed more light on his life and times. As for his work, there are ways to ease oneself into the Kafka(esque) universe.

Bust of Franz Kafka at náměstí Franze Kafky. Photo: Raymond Johnston.
Bust of Franz Kafka at náměstí Franze Kafky. Photo: Raymond Johnston.

A bit of café culture

For a truly immersive experience, take your Kafka book to one of the cafes that have been landmarks of Prague's intellectual elite since the start of the 20th century. Start with Café Louvre, whose elegant interiors with mirrors and high ceilings impressed not only the writer but also the physicist Albert Einstein.

For a cozy place off the beaten track, try Řehoř Samsa café bar & knihkupectví, which also hosts a bookshop and occasional film screenings. Its name likely rings a bell for those familiar with Kafka's work, given that its name comes from the main character in The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa.

A little help from online resources

If you're looking to delve into Kafka's works and gain a better understanding of his writing style and themes, here are some tips and advice based on recommendations from Goodreads and Reddit users.

  • Start with "The Metamorphosis": Considered one of Kafka's most iconic works, "The Metamorphosis" is a great starting point. It explores themes of alienation and the absurdity of human existence and encapsulates Kafka's unique style and his ability to capture complex emotions.
  • Dive into "The Trial": Another essential Kafka work is "The Trial." This surreal and haunting novel follows Josef K. as he faces an unknown crime and navigates a bewildering legal system. It delves into themes of guilt, powerlessness, and the struggle against an unknowable authority.
  • Explore "The Castle": To further understand Kafka's themes of bureaucracy and the search for meaning, consider reading "The Castle." Although unfinished, it offers a captivating exploration of a protagonist's attempts to gain access to a mysterious castle. It delves into the futility of the individual's quest in a seemingly incomprehensible world.
  • Supplement with short stories: Kafka's short stories provide valuable insights into his writing style and explore his signature themes. Consider reading "The Judgment," "Report to an Academy," and "Investigations of a Dog." These stories, along with excerpts from "The Trial" and "The Castle," can be found in collections such as "Essential Kafka" by Phillip Lundberg.
  • Explore the nuances of translation: Some Subreddit users discuss the translation of Kafka's works, highlighting that the word "Ungeziefer" in German (translated as "insect" in English) has a broader meaning, including small unwanted animals. Delving into different translations and interpretations can provide a richer reading experience.
  • Take an alternative route: For a shorter but attention-grabbing read, consider "The Penal Colony." This story is known for its grotesque elements and can offer a unique entry point into Kafka's writing.
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