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

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
26, 3 June 2024

Inside the chapel in Trinity College, Oxford, facing the Altar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

The week began with the First Sunday after Trinity (2 June 2024), and the Feast of Corpus Christi was celebrated yesterday in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles, Stony Stratford. Today, the calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship remembers the Martyrs of Uganda (1885-1887 and 1977).

In the week after Trinity Sunday, I illustrated my prayers and reflections with images and memories of six churches, chapels and monasteries in Greece I know that are dedicated to the Holy Trinity. I am continuing that theme this week with images from churches, chapels or cathedral in England that are dedicated to the Holy Trinity.

StonyLive!, a celebration of the cultural talent in and around Stony Stratford, began on Saturday and continues until next Sunday (9 June). There was a variety of cultural activities in venues around Stony Stratford at the weekend, with drama, music, comedy, art, dance and spoken word, and a Classic Car Show yesterday.

Later today, as part of the StonyLive! Programme, Carl Jackson, Director of Music at the Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace, is giving an organ recital (12:45-1:30) at Saint Mary and Saint Giles. This is the centenary year of the Irish composer, Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), and programme includes Stanford’s Celtica Sonata which ends with a movement based on Saint Patrick’s Breastplate. There is also music by Simon Preston, Florence Price and Louis Vierne’s ‘Carillon de Westminster’. Coffee and tea are being served beforehand, from 12 noon.

But, before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

The chapel in Trinity College, Oxford … the college was founded in 1555 by Sir Thomas Pope (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Mark 12: 1-12 (NRSVUE):

1 Then he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the winepress, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went away. 2 When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. 3 But they seized him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 4 And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. 5 Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. 6 He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 7 But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 8 So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. 9 What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. 10 Have you not read this scripture:

‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
11 this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?”

12 When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.

The tomb of Sir Thomas Pope in the chapel … Trinity College Oxford is the only college in Oxford or Cambridge to have the tomb of its founder (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Chapel, Trinity College, Oxford:

My photographs this morning are from Trinity College, Oxford. Its full or formal name is the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in the University of Oxford, of the foundation of Sir Thomas Pope (Knight). The college was founded in 1555 by Sir Thomas Pope, on the site of the former Durham College, home to Benedictine monks from Durham Cathedral.

Durham College was originally dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Saint Cuthbert, and the Trinity, and Trinity College takes its name from the last part of this dedication.

The main entrance to Trinity College is on Broad Street, between Balliol College and Blackwell’s bookshop, and opposite Turl Street. The rear of the college backs onto Saint John’s College, and has entrances on both Saint Giles’ and Parks Road. As well as its four major quadrangles, the college also has a large lawn and gardens, including a small area of woodland. Despite its large physical size, the college is relatively small, with about 400 students.

Durham Quadrangle, the oldest part of Trinity College, occupies the site of the mediaeval Durham College, founded in the late 13th century as a house of studies for Benedictine monks from Durham Cathedral. Durham College closed in 1544 and the buildings were bought by Sir Thomas Pope.

The four sides of Durham Quadrangle incorporate the Chapel, the Hall, the Library and an accommodation block. The Old Library, built in 1417, is the only surviving part of the original Durham College buildings. An effigy of Sir Thomas Pope looks down into the Quadrangle from above the Hall entrance.

Pope was a successful lawyer during the reign of Henry VIII. He amassed a fortune during the Reformation through his work as treasurer of the Court of Augmentations, which handled the revenues of the dissolved monasteries, including that at Durham. Pope was a prominent civil servant to Queen Mary I, and he founded Trinity College as a training house for Catholic priests.

Pope was married twice but had no surviving children. He intended that he, his parents, and both his wives would always be remembered in the prayers of Trinity’s members. Pope and his two wives Margaret and Elizabeth are buried in a tomb at the top left-hand corner of the chapel.

The chapel is relatively modest in size compared with its Oxford counterparts. It was built in 1691-1694 to replace the mediaeval chapel of Durham College. It was designed by Henry Aldrich, with advice from Sir Christopher Wren. It was consecrated in 1694.

The magnificent chapel interior is the product of a collaboration between the woodcarver Grinling Gibboris, the Huguenot artist Pierre Berchet, and a skilled but unknown plaster sculptor. It was the first chapel in Oxford designed on purely classical principles, and is a masterpiece of English baroque. The architectural historian Sir Niklaus Pevsner called the chapel ‘one of the most perfect ensembles of the late 17th century in the whole country.’

Five different woods are used inside the chapel: walnut, oak, pear, lime, and Bermuda Cedar. The exquisite woodcarvings by Grinling Gibbons are among his finest work. This work includes intricately carved fruits and flowers in the panels between the chapel and ante chapel and in the limewood swags behind the altar. The carved gospel writers are perched above the screen and gaze upwards taking inspiration from the figure of Christ at the centre of Pierre Berchet’s painting in the ceiling of the Ascension.

Opposite Pope’s tomb is a concealed pew where once the college president’s wife could see the services and receive Holy Communion without being seen in an otherwise all-male college.

The only changes to the chapel since 1694 have been the addition of the organ loft and the stained glass. A fine window of Munich glass was inserted in the antechapel in 1870 as a memorial to the theologian Isaac Williams, and the remaining windows were filled in 1885 with figures of northern saints associated with Durham College.

The four statues on the Tower are attributed to Caius Cibber, and represent Geometry, Astronomy, Theology and Medicine.

After a year’s closure, Trinity’s Grade I listed chapel was opened again in April 2016 and, after a great deal of painstaking work, is once again resplendent in its refurbished glory. The chapel remains at the heart of college life. Services are held regularly in term, and Evensong is celebrated with the college choir at 6 pm on Sundays. The Revd Joshua Brocklesby, the College Chaplain and Fellow, was appointed in 2022. The chapel is open to members and visitors for prayer and reflection, and is used regularly for musical events. Members of the public are welcome at Evensong.

Trinity Monday is the most important feast day in the life of Trinity College Oxford ever since the foundation of the college. As part of this there is a special service of thanksgiving for the College's benefactors. This year the event and service was last Tuesday (28 May) to avoid the Bank Holiday the day before. There is a pre-tour Choral Recital in the chapel, with choral and organ music at 4 pm next Saturday (8 June) to help raise funds for the choir’s summer tour to Lyon.

Pierre Berchet’s painting in the chapel ceiling of the Ascension (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today’s Prayers (Monday 3 June 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Volunteers Week.’ This theme was introduced yesterday by Carol Miller, Church Engagement Manager, USPG.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (3 June 2024) invites us to pray:

Lord, bring inspiration to those who take time to share your peace and mercy to others around them. Help them to use words of welcome and grace as they serve others through evangelism.

The Collect:

O God,
the strength of all those who put their trust in you,
mercifully accept our prayers
and, because through the weakness of our mortal nature
we can do no good thing without you,
grant us the help of your grace,
that in the keeping of your commandments
we may please you both in will and deed;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Eternal Father,
we thank you for nourishing us
with these heavenly gifts:
may our communion strengthen us in faith,
build us up in hope,
and make us grow in love;
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

God of truth,
help us to keep your law of love
and to walk in ways of wisdom,
that we may find true life
in Jesus Christ your Son.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Inside the chapel in Trinity College, Oxford, facing the ante-chapel and the organ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Front Quad in Trinity College, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)