In his new book, But What If We're Wrong?, Chuck Klosterman explores the possibility that the greatest writer of our generation is yet unknown. In other words, it's quite possible that 20 years from now, the person who will be considered the greatest writer of their generation would be someone who isn't famous or even published, but in time becomes extremely well-known. Klosterman cites two examples of this actually happening: Herman Melville and Franz Kafka.

Although Melville published several novels, travel accounts, and volumes of poetry, he was not a popular author during his lifetime. The epic novel Moby Dick came to be recognized as a culturally important classic only after World War II.

On the other hand, Kafka, who was born on July 3, 1883, never published his own work. He never wanted to be recognized. He never wanted to be famous or culturally relevant. Indeed, he asked a friend to incinerate most of his writings after he died. Fortunately for us, the friend (and later biographer, Max Brod) abstained, instead publishing Kafka’s letters, short stories, and unfinished novels.

Next time you read The Metamorphosis, think of this guy

Perhaps Kafka wanted his life’s work burnt because he was ashamed of it. This would be fitting, since feelings of shame and guilt permeate his writing, passing on to us the traumas he suffered throughout his life. Kafka was raised by a domineering father who instilled shame and guilt into Franz from a young age. He described his father as "a true Kafka in strength, health, appetite, loudness of voice, eloquence, self-satisfaction, worldly dominance, endurance, presence of mind, [and] knowledge of human nature."

It's unfortunate that I even have to mention his father in this post. I in no way want to imply that a father's abuse crafted one of America's most influential authors. Yet, reading Kafka’s writing, there is an inescapable sense that perhaps it did.

Hermann Kafka, Franz's father

Kafka’s father deprived him of confidence, love, and for all intents and purposes, a home. The shame Franz felt nearly deprived us of some of his greatest work. His body of work was limited to a collection of short stories, the novella, The Metamorphosis, and three novels which he did not complete: The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika, originally titled The Missing Man.

The suffering Kafka endured as a child and a young man lent his writing a richly unsettling air of paranoia, guilt, alienation, and horror. Most interestingly, his work, surviving its intended cremation, lives on by request of the public at large (most, if not all of his works, are still in print), as well as in the mind of any one reader, as the force and potency of his writing leaves an indelible, and eerily personal, mark.

So here's to Franz Kafka, a man who believed that literature should be a tool for examining the ugly parts of ourselves that, though horrifying, need examined.  Or to quote the man himself:

"A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us."

And now to end this post on a much-needed positive note, the show Home Movies' rock opera about Kafka (and Louis Pasteur at the end for some reason).



So, what do you think?