Franz Kafkaʼs Prague

The planned series Franz Kafkaʼs Prague corresponds to the conception of a specialized guiding tour through Prague City. In the following weeks we will present certain buildings or monuments, explain their connection to Franz Kafkaʼs life and work and give further background information to the time-context or the history of the place. Readers may be motivated to visit the described locations and to discover a special view on the golden City, which Kafka once called “a mother with claws”.

2nd stop: Oppeltův dům (The Oppelt House)

Staroměststké náměstí 5

The Oppelt House, an apartment building on the corner of Staroměststké náměstí/Pařížská ulice, was built in 1897 in the course of the sanitation of Prague’s Old Town. Its architects, Otakar Materna and Rudolf Kříženecký, chose a new baroque style to preserve the building’s former character. Franz Kafka’s father Herman moved into a flat on the fourth floor in November 1913 and his family stayed there until September 1932. From one of the windows Hermann could have a view over his fashion accessories shop in the Kinský-Palace on the other side of the Old Town Square. Franz lived with his family all his life, except for a short period from 1914 to 1917 and in the last two years of his life. He had his window on Pařížská Street with an outlook over the neighboring tower of St. Nikolas and even a little cutout of the Petřín hill (German: Laurentiusberg) on the other side of the river in Malá strana (German: Kleinseite, English: Little Quarter).

The fact that Franz spent nearly all his life in such a close personal and even physical relationship with his family was not without impact on his work. In his famous Letter to His Father (German: Brief an den Vater, 1919) he describes his ambivalent feelings and the difficulties to overcome his father’s shadow when he repeatedly tried to live his own life and especially to found his own family. Another well-known family story by Kafka is the novelette The Metamorphosis (German: Die Verwandlung, 1914). Here the hero of the story becomes overnight an animal, a beetle, something so totally different that his family is not willing to accept it – he gets isolated and dies alone.

It is obvious that many of Kafka’s motifs have a certain personal reason but it would be a big mistake to belittle his work on this when we are prepared to accept it as literature. The motifs of father-conflict and outbreak are typical not only for Kafka but the whole period of expressionism in the second decade of the 20th century. They can be taken as a symbol for many personal and social experiences. As any other great writer Kafka was first of all a player with words and, of course, it is difficult to find the specific key to his semantic gesture. Maybe, if we recognize that he was a builder of dreams and at the same time a radical realist, we come closer to an adequate understanding of his literature.

In the last days of World War II the Oppelt House was hardly damaged during the fighting between the Nazi occupation army and the rebelling people of Prague. After the war it was reconstructed, but the top floor with the flat of the Kafka-family was not. Today we can just recognize a new roof apartment on the same level. Other things changed too: At the beginning of the 20th century a certain Hermann Pollak sold new and second hand men’s clothing in the basement of the building, today it is the jeweler Cartier which rents this noble location in Prague’s most expensive avenue.

published: 30. 11. 2014