The essence of Franz Kafka by Robert Crumb and David Zane Mairowitz

Robert Crumb & David  Zane Mairowitz, Kafka

Published 2007 bt Fantagraphics Books (First published 1990), 176p

American cartoonist and musician Robert Crumb together with David Zane Mairowitz managed to express the essence of Franz Kafka in a black and white illustrated biography that covers both the life and work of the Jewish writer.

I still remember my first contact with Kafka’s work, many, many years ago and the impact his books had on me; an alienated human being, Kafka, who lived in Prague but wrote in German, lived his life fighting his demons and fears, trying to control an eating disorder, resisting an abusive father and agonizing over his relationships with women. His novel, The Trial, turned Kafka into one of the major writers of the 20th century. His name became synonym with absurdity, isolation, totalitarianism, bureaucracy and guilt.


When Kafka was born in 1883, Prague was part of the Hapsburg Empire in Bohemia.

It goes without saying that for a Jew in this milieu, life was a delicate balancing act. You identified primarily with German culture, but lived among Czechs. You spoke German because it was close to Yiddish and was the Empire’s official language. Czech nationalism was on the rise against German predominance, and the Germans generally treated the Czech with contempt. And, of course, everybody hated the Jews.

An element caught in a historical agitation, Kafka began to feel anxious and without a sense of identity.

What do I have in common with the Jews? I don’t even have anything in common with myself.

He spent most of his life living in the same house with his parents and never married. His father, Hermann Kafka, was an abusive and vulgar giant man who had no understanding for his son.

But he never rebelled. Instead, he turned his fear into a self-abasement or psychosomatic illness. In every contretemps with authority, he made himself the guilty party. Moreover, as in the classical relationship between master and slave, between colonizer and colonized, he began to see himself through his father’s eyes.

Kafka used his father’s figure in many of his writings, including The Trial, The Castle and The Metamorphosis. He often thought to get married or to move to Palestine to escape the terror of his father and the German suppression. But he never did. His love life and the desire to build a family were shadowed by guilt and fear of sexual failure. In his lifetime he had significant relations with four women and three of them – with Felice Bauer, Grete Bloch and Milena Jesenska – were fueled mainly through letters.

“Letter writing”, he would later claim, “is an intercourse with ghosts, not only with the ghost of the receiver, but with one’s own, which emerges between the lines of the letter being written… Written kisses never reach their destination, but are drunk en route by those ghosts.”

The writer spent the last months of his life in poverty. He wanted to be happy together with young Jewish Dora Diamant, but his tuberculosis forced him to retire from his insurance job and the historical storm deepened his fear and depression. He died in 1924.


Transforming himself in a cockroach, an ape, a mole or a circus artist, Kafka not only created great literature pages but also wrote his testament; beyond his fantastic stories there is Kafka’s confession. He feared people would find him physically repulsive, he doubted his abilities and he often had suicidal thoughts; Crumb – Mairowitz team managed to capture the essence of Kafka’s work and life, so even the readers that are not familiar with him will be able to place Kafka in a cultural and historical context and understand the main directions in his work.


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