03 June 2024

Franz Kafka and the
transformation of
a writer in the 100
years since his death

The exhibition ‘Kafka: Making of Icon’ opened at the Bodleian’s Weston Library last Thursday and continues until 27 October 2024 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

While we were staying on the Left Bank in Paris a few months ago, my eye was caught by Les Metamorphoses, a shuttered and closed jewellery shop on Rue du Petit Pont, around the corner from the Shakespeare bookshop, forever associated with James Joyce, and across the river from Notre Dame.

Perhaps this shuttered, closed and forgotten shop, covered in spray paint and graffiti, took its name from the French translation of the Metamorphoses, a Latin narrative poem from 8 CE by Ovid and considered his magnum opus.

The trend-setting name sign was designed to be read in its mirror-like, reversed composition. Now it is part of a gray and deserted building, like part of the landscape of a wasteland. Perhaps, after all, it was named after a French translation of Franz Kafka’s novella, The Metamorphosis, first published in German as Die Verwandlung in 1915.

Les Metamorphoses in Paris … locked up and abandoned like Gregor Samsa? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Franz Kafka on 3 June 1924.

Few 20th century writers – apart from, perhaps, James Joyce and TS Eliot – receive as much attention as Kafka. Although he did not live to see his 41st birthday and worked for much of his life as an insurance clerk, Kafka is a giant on the stage of world literature.

His name has given the English language the evocative word ‘kafkaesque’ – a word that has its equivalent in other European languages but has no comparable parallel when it comes to the lives of other major literary figures: the adjectives Orwellian, Joycean, Dickensian, Shakespearean and even Chaucerian do not have quite the same descriptive force as Kafkaesque, which, in a bizarre way implies the dystopian, the verbiose, the antiquated, the dramatic and the ribald; and while similar bizarre worlds are created by TS Eliot in The Waste Land and Samuel Beckett in Waiting for Godot, no-one describes them as ‘Eliot-esque' or ‘Beckett-esque’.

‘The Metamorphosis’ and the pandemic lockdown … a cartoon by Tom Gauld in the exhibition ‘Kafka: Making of Icon’ in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Metamorphosis is one of Kafka’s best-known works. It tells of a travelling salesman, Gregor Samsa, who lives ‘in the quiet but completely urban Charlotte Street.’ He could have believed that from his window he was peering out at a featureless wasteland, in which ‘the gray heaven and the gray earth had merged and were indistinguishable.’

Charlotte Street is described as a desert, and Gregor feels less and less like himself as each day goes by. Looking out on Charlotte Street, he can no longer tell the difference between his happiness and his sadness. In his isolation, Gregor has lost his ability to relate to the outside world, bringing about severe loneliness.

He wakes one morning to find himself inexplicably transformed into a huge creature (whether vermin or nsect depends on your translation) and he struggles to adjust to this abject new condition. In popular culture and adaptations of The Metamorphosis, the insect is commonly depicted as a cockroach.

Gregor is locked away by his family in a room on his home, like the Golem was hidden away in the attic of the synagogue. When the starving Gregor hears music, he glimpses the way ‘to the unknown nourishment he longed for’. After his emaciated body is disposed of, his sister stretches her young body into the sun, full of life energy.

The statue of Franz Kafka Street beside the Spanish Synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today, Franz Kafka is Prague’s best-known writer, and one of the main selling opportunities for many of the tourist shops and outlets in the Czech capital. The Metamorphosis is one of his best-known novels. But many of his other acclaimed books were not published until after he died, including The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926) and Amerika (1927).

In Prague last year, Charlotte and I went in search of some of the places associated with Kafka’s life story. He was born in Prague on 3 July 1883; when he died near Vienna 100 years ago on 3 June 1924, a month shy of his 41sth birthday, he was buried in Prague.

In Prague, we visited the Kafka Museum and Kafka’s statue in Dusni Street, beside the ‘Spanish Synagogue’, and saw the streets named after him. On previous visits to Prague, I have seen the collection of items associated with Kafka in the Spanish Synagogue, close to where he was born.

The story of Dora Diamant and her tragic life is as intriguing and captivating as any story that Kafka has written (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Kafka lived with Dora Diamant (1898-1952) in Berlin. She is best remembered as Kafka’s lover and the woman who kept some of his last writings until they were confiscated by the Gestapo in 1933. She kept his papers against the wishes of Kafka, who had asked shortly before his death that they be destroyed.

The story of Dora Diamant and her tragic life is as intriguing and captivating as any story that Kafka could have written.

She was born Dwojra Diament in Pabianice, Poland, on 4 March 1898. Her father, Herschel Dymant, was a successful small businessman and a devout follower of the Ger Hasidic dynasty from Góra Kalwaria, once the largest and most influential Hasidic group in Poland.

When Dora’s mother died in 1912, her father moved with the family to Będzin, near the German border.

At the end of World War I, after helping to raise her 10 siblings, Dora refused to marry and was sent to Kraków to study to be a kindergarten teacher. But she ran away to Berlin, where she worked in the Jewish community as a teacher and as a seamstress in an orphanage. There she changed the spelling of her name to Diamant.

She was working as a kitchen volunteer in a children’s summer camp run by the Berlin Jewish Peoples’ Homes at the seaside resort of Graal-Müritz on the Baltic Sea in July 1923. There she met Kafka, who years before had commended this work to his first fiancée Felice Bauer.

Dora told Kafka she was 19, but she was 25; he was 40 and suffering from tuberculosis. It was love at first sight, and they spent every day of the next three weeks together, making plans to live together in Berlin.

He had just resigned from his post at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute in Prague, his writing career was shaky and his health was precarious. After returning briefly to Prague that September, Kafka moved to Berlin, where Franz and Dora shared three different flats, living through alarming inflation and material hardship.

Their means were minimal: they had no money for newspapers, at the worst of times they used kerosene lamps for lighting as they could not afford electricity, and the food they ate was often sent by his family in Prague. They used candle stubs to heat their meal on New Year’s Eve 1924. But still they had dreams: they thought of emigrating to Palestine, and opening a restaurant in Tel Aviv; she was to be the cook and he the waiter.

They continued to live together until tuberculosis of the larynx meant he had to receive hospital care. Dora stayed with him, and she moved in with him at the sanatorium in Kierling near Klosterneuburg, outside Vienna. At the point of death, Kafka asked Dora’s father for permission to marry her. However, on the advice of the local rabbi, her father refused.

Franz Kafka on the cover of a book in an exhibition in the Spanish Synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Dora remained with Kafka to the end, making sure he had everything he needed. He died in Dora’s arms in Vienna on 3 June 1924 and was buried in Prague, where he had been born in 1883. She first met Kafka’s parents at his funeral in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague. As his coffin was lowered into the grave, she let out an unearthly wail, and lay lifeless on the ground. Kafka’s father turned his back on her, disdainfully. No one dared to move and help her up.

In a letter to Kafka’s parents, describing their son’s last hours, Dr Robert Klopstock wrote, ‘Who knows Dora, only he can know what love means.’

Dora died at Plaistow Hospital in east London on 15 August 1952. She was 53 and she was buried in an unmarked grave in the United Synagogue Cemetery on Marlowe Road in East Ham.

Dora had been shunned by Kafka’s family and was all but forgotten until her living relatives from Israel and Germany – including her only living nephew Zvi Diamant, who was born in 1947 in the release camp at Dachau – gathered at her grave in East Ham for a stone-setting 25 years ago in August 1999. Her headstone reads ‘Who knows Dora, knows what love means.’

A ‘Kafkaesque’ experience best avoided with the airlines I usually fly with … part of the Kafka exhibition in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

One hundred years after the death of Franz Kafka, the University of Oxford is celebrating his life and work, with a series of academic and public events that explores his global appeal.

The #OxfordKafka24 programme includes a new free exhibition at the Bodleian’s Weston Library, ‘Kafka: Making of Icon’. The exhibition opened last Thursday (30 May), and I spent most of that at the exhibition. It continues until 27 October 2024.

The Bodleian Libraries have the world’s largest Kafka archive, and Oxford University is a leading centre for Kafka studies, led by the Oxford Kafka Research Centre.

The Kafka exhibition shows Kafka’s original notebooks, drawings, diaries, letters, postcards, glossaries and photographs. The highlights are the manuscripts of two of his unfinished novels, Das Schloss (The Castle) and Der Verschollene (Amerika), as well as a number of short stories.

To encourage students and the public to engage with his work, a new limited-edition imprint of The Metamorphosis from Oxford University Press is being given to every Oxford student and is being distributed to schools and libraries around Oxfordshire. I was generously given a copy in Pusey House later on Thursday evening.

Since the posthumous publication of most of his work and his ‘rediscovery’ in the middle of the 20th century, Kafka has become a truly global writer who embraced his own multicultural identity. His works offer profound insights into the human condition, alienation, relationships, and transformation, and his novels and short stories have been translated into multiple languages.

His notebooks show how his travels in Western Europe enabled him to practise descriptive writing, while his readings strengthened his fascination with remote spaces and made him aware of European colonialism.

A new collection of Kafkaesque stories, A Cage Went in Search for a Bird, with work by Ali Smith, Naomi Alderman, Helen Oyeyemi, Yiyun Li, Elif Batuman and others, was published last month by Abacus Books in partnership with the Oxford Kafka Research Centre. Other new books this year include Metamorphoses: In Search of Franz Kafka by Dr Karolina Watroba, and Kafka: Making of an Icon edited by Ritchie Robertson to accompany the exhibition at the Weston Library, both published last month (May 2024).

A public reading of The Metamorphosis is taking place in the Sheldonian Theatre today (3 June), engaging renowned literary figures, Oxford civic leaders and student societies. A Kafka street fair on Broad Street today was produced by the Oxford Cultural Programme.

Four Oxford professors have created a lecture and events programme exploring Kafka’s legacy from the perspectives of their different disciplines. Professor Karen Leeder focuses on Kafka’s writing and legacy, questions of race and his sense of humour. Professor Eben Kirksey discusses on Kafka and disability. Professor Tim Coulson looks at Kafka and insects. Professor Helen McShane introduces Kafka as a sufferer of tuberculosis.

It is curious that, at this stage, the programmes do not appear to address Kafka’s Jewish background, influences and legacy.

Professor Carolin Duttlinger, Co-Director of the Oxford Kafka Research Centre, is leading a major new research project, ‘Kafka’s Transformative Communities’, which brings together academics, writers and artists. Later this year (12 October), as part of the Oxford International Song Festival, she is giving a public lecture on ‘Kafka’s Prague’.

Jitterbug was an outdoor event in the University Parks last weekend (31 May to 2 June), created and presented by the award-winning producers Trigger in collaboration with the Cultural Programme. The ‘Jitterbug’ is an enormous 14-metre inflatable bug tent that was the setting for a free programme of activities, from talks, yoga and crafting to storytelling hosted by the Story Museum and a drag cabaret extravaganza.

‘Jitterbug’ was created in conjunction with academics from the University of Oxford, and was designed to highlight the importance of recognising beauty from within a person.

The international conference, Kafka Transformed, at Wadham College on 18-20 September, marks the launch of the newly formed Global Kafka Network, connecting scholars and artists from around the world.

‘Jitterbug’ was created in conjunction with academics from the University of Oxford and designed to highlight the importance of recognising beauty from within a person

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