Throughout his life, Kafka was dogged by thoughts about his own body’s dismal future. These fears that his body was not adequately equipped for life were substantiated, in his view, by his insomnia, headaches and feelings of weakness and exhaustion.
He sought refuge in the healing powers of Nature: fresh air, walks and excursions, country holidays and spa treatment, a vegetarian diet, tried and tested physical exercises, cold baths and sport. At the same time he abhorred official medicine and its drugs. Eventually his hypochondriacal fears assumed the form of serious illness. In the autumn of 1917, when Kafka was 34, disease broke out in his body with full force. During the following seven years, his health was to be the central concern of his life. Illness put an end to his dismal efforts at marriage and solved the dilemma of how to reconcile employment and writing by obliging him to search the world for a cure that he did not believe in. Illness, which for years he had pondered on and described in many profound and farsighted texts, was now transferred from his life to his work as an incredibly truthful component holding in together.

Onset of illness

Lahmann’s sanatorium Weisser Hirsch near Dresden – summer 1903
© Archiv Klaus Wagenbach, Berlin
The onset of illness in mid-August 1917 marked an abrupt turning-point in Kafka’s life. A pulmonary haemorrhage in the middle of the night in a cold apartment rented since the spring by Kafka in the Schönborn Palace in the Lesser Town (now the U.S. Embassy) heralded the tuberculosis that he was to battle for almost seven years. The illness meant a change of lifestyle for Kafka. It forced him to spend most of his time away from Prague at guesthouses and sanatoria in his home country and abroad. On repeated occasions he had to request sick-leave from the management of the Insurance Institute and continually to ask for extensions. His requests for early retirement were refused several times; thanks to his excellent civil service record Kafka was considered an indispensable member of staff and was actually promoted during a period of sick-leave. His illness was to be one of the main reasons why he broke off his engagement with Felice Bauer and why they ended their relationship altogether. Kafka incorporated the phenomenon of illness, which he regarded as something more than simply physical, into his life struggle. According to Kafka, his illness was the result of a battle between good and evil within himself, in which Felice was also involved.