The Last Days of Franz Kafka
Kafka’s last days were miserable. It shows in his writing. That’s why it works.
My last request: Everything I leave behind me (in my bookcase, linen-cupboard, and my desk both at home and in the office, or anywhere else where anything may have got to and meets your eye), in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches, and so on, to be burned unread.
In 1924, the illustrious Czech writer Franz Kafka wrote this to his friend before he passed away. The 40-year-old author had already burned ninety percent of all that he had ever written and trusted that his executor will do the same to his remaining novels and short stories.
Max Brod, the said executor, denied Kafka’s last request.
Two months after Kafka died of tuberculosis, Brod found a publisher that would print his deceased friend’s work. From 1925 to 1927, three of Kafka’s novels were published for the world to read. His works so deeply resonated with readers that they coined a word to honor the specific emotions he examined — “kafkaesque.”
Kafka’s bizarre and menacing stories explored themes of deep alienation and existential anxiety. Gradually, the self-loathing author became recognized as a monument in literary history.
For me, Kafka’s success largely comes from how his prose can make you feel his own personal misery. I felt his last days of suffering quite tangibly expressed in his short and final story entitled “A Hunger Artist.”
Kafka was a sickly fellow for most of his life. During his last years, he contracted laryngeal tuberculosis, a condition that made it very difficult for him to swallow and take in food. It was during this period of his life when he wrote the aforementioned piece.
The story is about a public performer who undertakes fasts to the delight of a paying audience. He would go on, exhibited in a cage, without food for a whole forty days in his most extreme displays of starvation.
Unfortunately, his audience was fickle. They soon grew bored of his performances, regardless of how hard the hunger artist would fast.
Because of declining interest, the performer is soon relegated to a coop with deplorable conditions. The years of fasting and malnourishment catch up to him, and his body withers.
At the point of death, the artist regrets ever being praised for his work and asks for forgiveness. He confesses that his performances were never actually genuine. He just never found anything that he liked to eat.
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. — Franz Kafka
With Kafka’s personal history in mind, the story becomes richer. Its descriptions of hunger are authentic and vivid, given his physical condition. The feelings of an alienated artist also come to life. Even the hatred for his own work is exemplified in the dying and bony performer.
Reading Kafka’s last story feels like you’re reading about his last days. Its power comes from the part of himself he left on the page.
All aspiring writers, such as myself, should hope to do the same.