Franz Kafka: ‘The Meaning of Life is that it Stops’

A little-known attraction near Klosterneuburg marks the spot where the great writer died. The experience? Kafkaesque

On The Town | Nicholas K. Smith | October 2012

The house where Austria’s legendary writer took his final breath (Photo: Austrian National Library)

I’m into death – which is one of the reasons I love this town. Vienna is full of dark corners: There are the catacombs under Stephansdom; the Imperial Crypt not far away; Mozart’s unmarked grave in the Biedermeyer-era St. Marx Cemetery; the Funeral Museum complete with a corpse bell; and of course, the Zentralfriedhof, final resting place of Beethoven, Strauss, Salieri, Brahms, Schoenberg. "Where they’re all… ah…  de-composing," I’m always tempted to say, but never do; morbid tourism is a solitary activity.

But the Hoffmann Sanatorium was new to me. I came across it one Saturday during a late-night Wikipedia binge. You know the ones; you get hooked on clicking link after link in the online encyclopedia until, before you realise it, you’ve jumped from Wag the Dog to Franz Kafka in six moves.

I was surprised to find that Kafka died from tuberculosis nearly 90 years ago in a very small room at a sanatorium in nearby Klosterneuburg-Kierling. The sickly writer had checked in on 19 April 1924 and remained there until his death a month and a half later on 3 June.

Kafka is among the 20th century’s literary superstars, familiar to most people for his stories and short novels that capture the nightmarish absurdity of life under the faceless bureaucracy of late Imperial Austro-Hungary. In these bizarre tales – Metamorphosis, The Trial, and others – an individual is trapped in the grip of unseen forces and unsolvable problems in which he struggles to stay human, an existential dilemma we now recognise as "Kafkaesque".

There’s little acknowledgement of the writer in Kierling. The sanatorium itself has a few historical plaques next to the door and a bust of Kafka stands near the village church. Unless you knew exactly where you were going (bus 239 from Heiligenstadt), there was nothing to tell the casual visitor where the author of The Penal Colony had spent his last days. Although, a sign near the sculpture tells you that a Hofer supermarket is only 200m up the road, so at least there’s that.

In 1983, the Austrian Franz Kafka Society set up a memorial room here, which features the author’s books, letters and photographs, though across the hall from the room where he actually died. (For more on his manuscripts, see p. 6 Nov 2012 TVR) Last year, the room was nearly closed, as public funding was in short supply. Recently, though, outside funding was found and the room will stay open to the public. So I headed up to Kierling just in case the money problems return.

The memorial room was locked when I arrived, and I kicked myself for not calling ahead. Behind me, though, a door was open to a balcony outside. I peered around the corner to see the narrow balcony Kafka was fond of, looking down at the garden and the Vienna woods just beyond. Were these the same trees he saw on 2 June 1924, his last day out here? It was a warm one, exactly like today, according to records.

This was different, somehow, from visiting a grave. Bones may be buried below, but life had been here too, on this balcony, with this view, inhaling the moist, early summer air on an afternoon just like this.

I came back in and noticed two doors along the hallway, slightly ajar. These were toilets, the kind you still see in older, un-renovated buildings in Vienna, but that had been everywhere in Kafka’s time. There’s no documented proof (and believe me, I checked), but it’s a sure bet he used one of these.

There’s one more stop before I head home. I find the door to his old room, behind which he penned the last thing he ever wrote, a letter to his parents. Good manners keep me from knocking on the door (now a private apartment) to find out what’s inside, but it’s easy to picture what went on in 1924.

Kafka, now knowing that he is sure to die, is begging his doctor to give him a morphine injection to ease the pain on his larynx, which has swelled so much from the tuberculosis that eating and drinking was next to impossible. His beloved Dora is right by his side. She brings the roses in his room closer for him to smell. He sits up to sniff them, eyes wide with lucidity. He turns and winks at her before settling back into his pillow for the last time.

Kafka Memorial Room

Hauptstraße 187

3412 Kierling

Mon.-Fri., 9:00-12:00, 14:00-17:00

0676 411 7817

It helps to call ahead 

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