Diary: Kafka Argues with His Publishers
In a recent edition of Franz Kafka’s drawings, which are now being released for publication after long legal wrangling, editor Andreas Kilcher recounts the efforts of the original publisher of Kafka’s famous story “The Metamorphosis,” in which a salesman named Gregor Samsa awakens one morning to find himself transformed into a bug, to illustrate the story. The publisher, Kurt Wolff, later emigrated to the US and we wrote about his contribution to American letters last year.
Wolff had requested from Kafka the opportunity to read the narrative fragment “The Stoker,” which would become a part of Amerika, and “The Metamorphosis” on April 2, 1913, and by April 8 he had already responded with a concrete offer for “The Stoker,” while Kafka deliberated over sending “The Metamorphosis.” The typesetting, corrections, and printing of “The Stoker” were completed in short order: On May 25, 1913, Kafka was already writing to Wolff to thank him for sending his author copies of the book, which appeared as number three in the newly created series Der Jüngste Tag (Judgment Day). But his joy was tempered by an unwelcome surprise: a frontispiece with the caption “In the Harbor of New York.” It was clearly intended as an illustration of the first pages of Kafka’s text, in which the protagonist Karl Rossmann arrives in New York Harbor aboard an ocean steamer. Kafka objected to this in two respects, as he promptly wrote in his reply to Kurt Wolff: first, they had not agreed to have a frontispiece at all, and now he feared that the illustration might dominate the story; and second, what he himself had pictured was not a ferry arriving in a preindustrial harbor, but rather an ocean steamer arriving in the large harbor of a modern industrial metropolis. The letter remains polite, but it does not disguise Kafka’s displeasure. At the same time, though, Kafka forces himself to come to terms with the image and make it more palatable, at least to himself, in part through a surprising reference to their mutual friend, the artist Alfred Kubin:
Many thanks for the package. Of course I cannot venture to give a business judgment on Der Jüngste Tag, but in and for itself it strikes me as a splendid project.
When I saw the picture in my book, I was at first alarmed. For in the first place it refuted me, since I had after all presented the most up-to-date New York; in the second place, the picture had an advantage over my story since it produced its effect before my story did, and a picture is naturally more concentrated than prose; and thirdly, it was too pretty. If it were not an old print, it might almost be something of Kubin’s. By now however I have completely come to terms with it and am very glad that you surprised me, for had you put the matter to me, I would not have been able to agree and would have been robbed of this beautiful picture. I feel my book has been definitely enriched by the print and that already an exchange of strengths and weaknesses has taken place between picture and book. By the way, where did the print come from?
Kurt Wolff answered promptly on May 27, 1913, explaining the source of the image: William Henry Bartlett’s engraving “The Ferry at Brooklyn,” which appeared in 1838 in the book American Scenery. Not only does this mean that the scene depicted in the engraving differed significantly from that described in Kafka’s story; it is also notable that, according to Wolff, the editor Franz Werfel “would have preferred” to accompany the story with more “images of this sort.” Wolff deliberately overlooked Kafka’s concern that an introductory image might detract from the power of the text, and instead offered a defense of the publisher’s desire for images, citing design and commercial concerns:
I was very happy to receive your letter, and also that you said such a hearty “Yes” to the picture that I added to your story.—It is the reproduction of a steel engraving from 1850.—By the way, I must admit that I was not the father of this idea, but rather Franz Werfel, who would have preferred to decorate your story with a whole series of images of this sort, of the same character. But I think that this one picture was just right, and more would have seemed playful.
Two years later, when “The Metamorphosis” was being prepared for print, this conflict between author and publisher played out once again. Kurt Wolff had heard about Kafka’s “bug story” from Werfel in the spring of 1913, and from that point on he was no less interested in this story than in “The Stoker.” In this case, though, Kafka took explicit preventive measures when he heard that illustrations were also planned for the book. The publisher announced the series Neue Deutsche Erzähler (New German Authors) in 1915, a line of illustrated books that was conceived programmatically, with the intention of creating an emphatic aesthetic connection between literature and expressive art. These volumes, designed by the stage designer and graphic artist Ottomar Starke, featured highly expressive images on their covers, as an advertisement for the publisher announced: “All volumes feature cover images based on original lithographs by Ottomar Starke. These works, by writers of such dramatically different creative temperaments, share a raging passion for life, which is conveyed with intentionally new means of intensified representation.” Kafka was also offered an illustration by Starke, along the lines of the cover of the novella Napoleon (1915), for which the author Carl Sternheim received the Fontane Prize. Despite the success of Sternheim’s book, Kafka decisively rejected the use of such expressive and concrete illustrations for his story. In order to accommodate his publisher’s desire for an illustration nonetheless, he made a countersuggestion to Kurt Wolff on October 25, 1915—a sort of “flight forward”—in which he attempted to minimize the illustrative function of the image with respect to the text. The central subject, the “insect,” Kafka said, could not be shown:
You recently mentioned that Ottomar Starke is going to do a drawing for the title page of “Metamorphosis.” Insofar as I know the artist’s style from Napoleon, this prospect has given me a minor and perhaps unnecessary fright. It struck me that Starke, as an illustrator, might want to draw the insect itself. Not that, please not that! I do not want to restrict him, but only to make this plea out of my deeper knowledge of the story. The insect itself cannot be depicted. It cannot even be shown from a distance. Perhaps there is no such intention and my plea can be dismissed with a smile—so much the better. But I would be very grateful if you would pass along my request and make it more emphatic. If I were to offer suggestions for an illustration, I would choose such scenes as the following: the parents and the head clerk in front of the locked door, or even better, the parents and the sister in the lighted room, with the door open upon the adjoining room that lies in darkness.
Kurt Wolff took Kafka’s concerns into account: Starke drew an image for the cover page that does not show the insect, and that takes Kafka’s suggestion of a door opened into the adjoining room. Thus the image does not anticipate or encroach upon the text, as Kafka had feared.
Translated by Kurt Beals
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Roy Monk on Wittgenstein, David Leavitt on Andrew Holleran, Ange Mlinko on translating the ancients
This post is drawn from Andreas Kilcher’s accompanying essay in Franz Kafka: The Drawings, to be published in the US next week. Andreas Kilcher is a professor of literature and cultural studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich. Kurt Beals is associate professor of German and comparative literature at Washington University in St. Louis.
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I knew that FK did not want the bug illustrated, but I had never read the exchange itself with Wolff. Even in his letters, FK is so FK, recognizable in a phrase.