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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
David Barnett

Franz Kafka’s dour image hid a much lighter side, a new exhibition reveals

Franz Kafka.
Franz Kafka. Photograph: Bodleian Libraries

As Franz Kafka awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into ... a funny guy, actually.

The Prague-born writer, who died a century ago on 3 June, aged 40, is less renowned for his humour in novels and stories such as The Metamorphosis, The Trial and The Castle, and more for his nightmares of ordinary people trapped in impenetrable bureaucratic mazes.

But an exhibition opening at Oxford’s Bodleian Library in May reveals, through rarely-seen documents, manuscripts and correspondence, a lighter side to Kafka.

Among the artefacts going on display are a postcard from Kafka to his brother-in-law, in which he jokes about his exceptional skiing skills (he was in poor health at the time), claiming the illustration of a skier on the card was him taking part in a ski race on the Kriváň mountain in the High Tatras range, in what is now Slovakia.

His friend Max Brod, who Kafka met at university where they both studied law, wrote in one document that during Brod’s readings to his friends, Kafka often “laughed uncontrollably”, at odds with the often dour image of the haunted-looking writer.

Perhaps the unintentionally funniest item in the exhibition is a letter that Kafka had sent to his boss at the insurance company where he worked around 1912, saying he was too ill to go into work. Kafka was essentially “pulling a sickie” because he’d been up all night writing the story which was to become his breakthrough work, The Judgment (also sometimes translated from the original German Das Urteil as The Verdict).

But the exhibition, Kafka: Making of an Icon, which opens on 30 May, is not just about the laughs. Launched to coincide with the centenary of Kafka’s death in 1924, it will feature original manuscripts of Kafka’s best-known works from the Bodleian’s collection and international loans.

The centrepiece of the free exhibition, which runs until October, will be the original manuscript of Kafka’s story The Metamorphosis, in which Gregor Samsa awakes to find he has been transformed into a giant insect.

Alongside the original manuscript of the novella, which was published in 1915, the exhibition includes entomology illustrations that explore the possibilities of what the creature that used to be Samsa might have looked like.

Prof Carolin Duttlinger, co-curator of the exhibition, said: “We are very excited about the upcoming exhibition, which will tell the story of Kafka’s life, times and works, including how his manuscripts ended up at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.”

That’s a story almost worthy of the label Kafkaesque itself: the author requested all his manuscripts be burned on his death, which came after a bout of tuberculosis, but Brod, who was also his editor, ignored Kafka’s wishes and the papers passed to Kafka’s four nieces.

The archive was stored in a bank vault in Zurich for many years, until 1961, when Sir Malcolm Pasley, fellow in German at Magdalen College, Oxford, negotiated with Kafka’s heirs for the material to be placed on permanent loan to the Bodleian.

In 2011, however, the descendants of Kakfa’s sister, Ottla, wanted to sell the letters that Kafka wrote to her. Knowing it could not afford to buy them at auction, the Bodleian brokered an eleventh-hour deal that saw the Oxford libraries and the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach co-acquire them and keep them in the Bodleian.

Other Kafka papers, including the manuscript of The Trial, are held in the Deutsches Literaturarchiv, while some of the manuscripts that form part of Brod’s archive are held by the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. Kafka’s letters to his fiancée, Felice Bauer, whom he never married, were bought by a private collector for around £500,000 at auction at Sotheby’s in 1987, and haven’t been seen since.

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