Where to start with: Franz Kafka

Kafka has become such a cultural icon that even the most private, obscure, or fragmentary of his writings have reached huge audiences: diaries, letters, unpublished notes, mystifying aphorisms, or conversation slips he made while dying. Because so much of his work is available to readers (even a selection of documents from his day job at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute has been translated into English), it can be daunting to know where to begin if you want to try his work for the first time. Academic and Kafka expert Karolina Watroba suggests some good ways in.


The entry point

By the time he died on 3 June 1924 at the age of 40, Kafka had drafted three novels – The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika – but hadn’t finished or published any of them, aside from a couple of excerpts. Today, after some editorial interventions, all three are perfectly readable, and their fragmentary, enigmatic conclusions are intriguing. Start with The Trial: it’s one of Kafka’s most iconic stories of shadowy courts, cryptic judgements and inscrutable bureaucracy, and it draws the reader in by playing with the conventions of detective fiction. Both aspects are encapsulated in its famous opening sentence: in Mike Mitchell’s translation, “Somebody must have been telling tales about Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.”


Franz Kafka with his fiancee Felice Bauer in Budapest, July 1917. Photograph: Apic/Bridgeman/Getty Images

If you’re in a rush

Kafka wrote dozens of shorter pieces, varying in length from just a few lines to substantial novellas. Start with those published in his lifetime, conveniently collected in Penguin’s Metamorphosis and Other Stories. Here you’ll find famous stories such as The Judgement and In the Penal Colony, alongside numerous compelling, gently humorous one-pagers. My favourites, A Message from the Emperor and The Worries of a Head of Household, introduce two key themes in Kafka’s fiction – his fascination with cultural difference, whether Czech or Chinese, and mysterious anthropomorphic creatures.


Worth persevering with

Of Kafka’s three novels, The Castle is the hardest to get through, and not just because it’s the longest. Enclosed within an oppressive snowy landscape, its protagonist – known only as K. – seeks access to the titular castle, a nebulous institution enveloped in fog. The novel is circular and exhausting, but that’s the point. If you do surrender to this classic of claustrophobia, you’ll experience an interminable winter in an inhospitable village whose inhabitants have adapted to life in the shadow of an intricate bureaucratic machine.


If you’ve been put off by Kafka before

For a taste of something different from the “classic” Kafka titles, try Amerika, also known as The Man Who Disappeared. At times Dickensian, it follows its teenage hero on a perilous journey across the early 20th-century United States, as his fortunes rise and fall (mostly the latter – it is Kafka, after all). The setting is broadly realistic, with a few fantastical elements thrown in, allowing Kafka to channel his fearful fascination with modern technology and big city life.


The inside story

Kafka’s father was an old-fashioned, brusque man who had to fight his way out of poverty. He found the sensitive nature and literary ambitions of his only son bewildering and irritating. At 36, Franz wrote him a long letter, a blow-by-blow account of scarring childhood episodes and hurtful behaviours. His father never read this juicy case study in individual psychology and family dynamics – but you can!

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The TikTok favourite

For yet another facet of Kafka, follow the lead of Gen Z BookTokkers who idolise him as … the ideal lover. Kafka’s Letters to Milena have had teenage girls dub him their “bare minimum”: the attentive romantic who will send you thoughtful epistles. These were in fact the main draw if you were romantically involved with Kafka – he was so scared of the tight confines of a bourgeois marriage that he called off three engagements (twice to the same woman). Milena Jesenská deserves attention not just as Kafka’s lover, but also as a journalist, translator and political activist in her own right.


If you only read one

“When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed right there in his bed into some sort of monstrous insect.” Thus begins Susan Bernofsky’s translation of The Metamorphosis (one of many you can choose from). Tightly structured and visceral, this story has become a lens to examine all manner of personal, social and political crises. Burnout, motherhood, race, war, pandemic, dictatorship, Brexit – The Metamorphosis has been rewritten and adapted in countless ways by Lemn Sissay, Rachel Yoder, A Igoni Barrett, Haruki Murakami, Bruno Latour, Ian McEwan, Han Kang, and Yoko Tawada, among many others.

Metamorphoses: In Search of Franz Kafka by Karolina Watroba is published by Profile. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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