LA GRANGE, Wis. -- For the writer in search of seclusion, this township of cattle and corn will answer the call. An hour's drive southwest of Milwaukee, it's a back road off a back road off a narrow highway.
Among the residents is an author descended from one of the world's most famous writers. She lives in a converted farmhouse, built in the 19th century and enclosed by 12 acres, bare save for an occasional oak or maple tree.
The look inside is rustic, with exposed beams, oak floors and a brick fireplace. While volumes of Shakespeare fill a maple bookcase, the active life is honored more than the contemplative. That tan pelt spread over one of the living room chairs used to belong to a deer. On the walls hang watercolor prints of Alaska, black and white sketches of Maine and snow shoes webbed with rawhide.
The author's name appears at the bottom of one shoe, as unlikely a name in this setting as a portrait of William Faulkner in a Buddhist temple.
Kimberly Kafka is the first cousin-twice removed of Franz Kafka, and is herself a published writer of nearly 20 years. She has written short stories, journalistic pieces and also completed a novel, ''True North,'' set in the Alaskan bush and scheduled to come out this spring.
''Writing was always a passion. It seemed like the only thing I could do without too much of a struggle,'' the 42-year-old Kafka says. ''I started writing stories in kindergarten; I hadn't even made any connection to Franz Kafka.''
Kafka works out of a tiny attic office where the furniture is old, made of wood, and passed down from the non-Kafka side of the family. There's a desk, a scratched-up file cabinet and a rocking chair in which the tall author sits cross-legged, her knees extending slightly over the chair's arms.
Wearing jeans and a large purple sweater, Kimberly Kafka appears far more defined by her upbeat, American first name than her dark, haunted last name. She's energetic and articulate, with a healthy smile and a friendly, raspy voice. Cigarettes are her vice and, periodically, she'll step out into the afternoon cold for a ''burn one'' break, a phrase Franz Kafka surely didn't hear in the coffee houses of Prague.
But her life, in more ways than one, has been Kafkaesque. For years, her own background was as inscrutable as the Castle in her ancestor's classic novel. Only in college did she learn there even was a Franz Kafka. And only in the most unfortunate way did she discover they were related.
''I'm still trying to make sense of it,'' she said.
Franz Kafka was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1883 and died a month before his 41st birthday, having long suffered from tuberculosis. Although ''The Metamorphosis'' and other stories were published in his lifetime, he was little known until the posthumous release of such novels as ''The Castle'' and ''The Trial.''
As both his fiction and his diaries revealed, Kafka was the most tortured of artists, touched by everything from Jewish despair to the bureaucratic state. He never married and lived in terror of his overpowering father, a relationship made painfully famous by his once-private confession, ''Letter to His Father.''
In Kafka's first novel, ''Amerika,'' a teen-age European caught up in a sex scandal is shipped by his parents to the New World. He's a typically passive Kafka character, dragged through a variety of jobs and friends in the East before hitching up with a theater company and boarding a train to Oklahoma.
According to several biographies, ''Amerika'' was based in part on Kimberly Kafka's grandfather, Otto Kafka. He was Franz Kafka's first cousin and he apparently ran away from home as a teen-ager, worked on a ship and settled in the United States.
Franz Kafka never spent a moment in America and he didn't finish the novel. But imagine the story continuing. Suppose the immigrant marries a Christian and raises children. One of those children has his own children and raises them as a ''typical'' American family.
And suppose no one ever mentions the past.
Whatever Kimberly Kafka knows about her father's side of the family, she's learned from books. By the time her father, Philip Kafka, was born, the past had been wiped out with the savagery of a pogrom. They weren't immigrants or Jews. They were Americans, period.
''My grandfather was fleeing anti-Semitism,'' she says. ''There was this whole sensitivity to it, the fear of it. My mother was Christian and my dad was not born into any religion. He did not discuss religion in any way.''
Philip Kafka ended up in Jacksonville, Fla., where Frances Kimberly Kafka was born. (The first name comes from her mother's mother; all her life she has been called Kimberly). She was the youngest of three siblings and her parents, both pilots in World War II, were already in late middle age at the time of her birth.
When she was 8, her sister slipped her a family secret: Kimberly had been adopted because their mother no longer could have children.
Still, writing was in her blood, more than she realized. As a child, she was under the spell of words, even letters. Staring in wonder at the straight and curvy lines, she would arrange them in random combinations and show them to her sister.
No Franz Kafka books were in the house and at no time was it pointed out that her father had a cousin with a kindred passion. Neither her parents, her friends nor her teachers ever mentioned Kafka. Kimberly blames this on the family taboo against the past and on the schools in her small community.
''They did the best they could considering they had no money,'' she says. ''It was a nightmare. The teachers were hammered. It was pathetic. You just got your diploma and got out.''
But she was bright enough to be admitted to Bennington College, an elite liberal arts school in Vermont. There, she was initiated. A fellow student asked if she was related to THAT Kafka. Kimberly had no idea what he meant. After more students asked, she phoned her parents.
''My mom said there was no relation. She maintained for the longest time that there was absolutely no connection,'' Kafka says.
While home during her sophomore year, evidence emerged, its discovery right out of a bad novel. Kimberly Kafka was straightening out a bookcase in the living room when she came upon a packet of letters to her father at the back of a shelf. They were from a biographer, asking questions about Otto Kafka.
For more than a year, she learned nothing more. Her father, who apparently never answered the biographer, was already dead when the letters were found. Her mother, who died years later, didn't want to discuss it. Meanwhile, something else bothered her. She had a dream in which she stood in a tilted room and saw adjacent pictures of her father and herself. It was an omen, reminding her that people said they looked alike.
When an uncle came to visit, she got him to confess.
''Before I was born my mother wanted another child. And what I had been told was that my father had informed her that there was a woman who was pregnant and she was putting the baby up for adoption,'' she says.
''Much to my horror I found what really happened. Everybody loved my dad. He was tall and very attractive and he fooled around a little and got this woman pregnant.''
Kafka has never met her biological mother and doesn't want to. She didn't discuss it with her siblings and only briefly mentioned her father's affair to the mother who raised her. ''Do you suppose it's possible?'' she once asked when they were in the car together. ''Yes,'' she was told, ''I suppose it's possible.''
Had Kimberly looked carefully at a picture of the young Franz Kafka she might have suspected sooner. The resemblance is obvious: dark hair and deep, dark eyes; a wide, sensitive mouth and a wide, strong chin.
In college, she read her first Kafka book, ''The Trial.'' She didn't like it, or better to say she didn't like what he wrote about. Kimberly Kafka lives within as few boundaries as possible; her ancestor imagined a world of closed doors or doors that simply opened to other doors.
''I am claustrophobic,'' she says. ''And my heartbeat would go up and down during 'The Trial.'''
Out of obligation rather than pleasure, she read Kafka. But other authors spoke to her more: Jack London, whose Alaskan adventures were an inspiration for her own; contemporary writers such as Barry Lopez and George Garrett. Even among novelists from the Old World, she preferred others, notably Mann.
Kafka began working on ''True North'' in 1997 and completed her first draft the following year. Within days of being sent to publishers, the novel was sold to Dutton, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc., for $75,000.
''I thought she was wonderfully promising, regardless of the name,'' says Elisa Petrini, her editor at Dutton and now a free-lance editor. ''She's got a long career ahead of her.''
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