Visual evasiveness: portraits from Kafka’s notebooks. Credit: The Literary Estate of Max Brod, National Library of Israel

Franz Kafka’s dissenting bodies

Kafka’s drawings are as restless and uncomfortable as his fictional anti-heroes
October 6, 2022

“The insect itself cannot be depicted. It cannot even be shown from a distance.” So wrote Franz Kafka to his publisher in 1915, objecting to a proposed illustration to The Metamorphosis. The transformation of Kafka’s anti-hero Gregor Samsa into a monstrous bug may be among the most memorable images of modern literature, but the author took pains to ensure that its edges would remain blurred. Vladimir Nabokov was having none of it: in his teaching copy of the novella, he drew a sketch of a common beetle.

Kafka’s fugitive entomology is the most famous example of his writing’s visual evasiveness. To read his fiction is to feel one’s way through a world set to low resolution, in which the promise of sharper definition always hovers at a remove. What, if anything, do his characters look like? Or the castle that Josef K cannot reach? When it came to appearances, Kafka wrote with a calculated imprecision that evokes, even recapitulates for the reader, the perplexities that his protagonists face. “The objects and faces in [the Kafka world] may be vague,” WH Auden wrote, “but the reader feels himself hemmed in by their suffocating presence: in no other imaginary world, I think, is everything so heavy.”

Kafka’s ambivalence about concrete description is thrown into relief by his interest in the visual arts, and by his own endeavours in that field. As a young man, perhaps during law lectures at Charles University in Prague, Kafka drew dozens of figures and vignettes; his friend and eventual literary executor Max Brod collected Kafka’s discarded drawings and tried to promote him as an illustrator. Kafka attended seminars on art history, read numerous books on European and east Asian art, and eventually became acquainted with leading artists such as the Austrian expressionist Alfred Kubin. In his fiction he satirised artistic representation—think of the conformist painter in The Trial—but in his life he immersed himself in images.

These artistic contexts for Kafka’s writing have helpfully been assembled by Andreas Kilcher, the editor of Franz Kafka: The Drawings, a handsome new volume published by Yale that reproduces more than 240 drawings in his hand: “Kafka as a visual artist,” Kilcher writes, “has hardly seemed worthy of very serious consideration until now.” In the decades that followed Kafka’s death in 1924, Brod did trickle drawings into public hands, selling two works in pencil to the Albertina museum in Vienna in 1952 and reprinting others in editions of Kafka’s works. But Brod held back an entire notebook and scores of loose drawings, which he bequeathed to his secretary, Ilse Esther Hoffe, in the 1950s. Following a prolonged court battle between 2009 and 2016 that ended in the National Library of Israel acquiring ownership, these drawings have only now been published for the first time. They are, Kilcher writes, “the last great unknown trove of Kafka’s works.”

That statement might have bemused Kafka, not least because he had ordered Brod to burn the drawings along with his other papers after his death. When it came to his writing, Kafka was famously his own harshest critic, so his disavowal of the drawings should be treated with some caution. There is evidence, however, that as he began to write more intensively in his late twenties that he came to see this activity as a juvenile enterprise. “I was once a great draughtsman, you know,” he wrote to his fiancée, Felice Bauer, in 1913, perhaps partly in jest. “But then I started to take academic drawing lessons with a bad woman painter and ruined my talent…  One of these days I’ll send you a few of my old drawings, to give you something to laugh at.”

It is hard not to agree with Kafka’s assessment of the drawings as diverting ephemera. Most of the sketches are visibly hasty, if adeptly so. They have usually been made with but a few pencil or pen strokes, which coalesce into figures that are often caricature-like, with extended limbs and stretched or bloated torsos. Several unrelated images frequently appear on a single sheet—a face, a tower, a curlicue—in the manner of someone on a freestyle flight of fancy; elsewhere the same figure crops up multiple times on a sole page, as though Kafka were trying to perfect a doodle. That he drew on used envelopes, in the margins of books and alongside newsprint only reinforces the sense that drawing, for Kafka, was a pleasure indulged in idleness.

Kafka is one of those writers, however, whose paper relics inspire critical reverence and seem to crave interpretation. The unresolved or unfinished character of much of his writing has created the conditions for not only disparate readings, but also plentiful overreading, of his work. Even the idea of publishing all of Kafka’s drawings is to make a value judgement about the images, regardless of their aesthetic quality. One section is given over to “manuscripts with patterns and ornaments”—a frilly way of describing what largely amount to Kafka’s more enthusiastic crossings out.

Even so, it is impossible to resist the temptation to read these images prefiguring what Kafka would achieve in prose. The philosopher Judith Butler does so suggestively in an essay here, exploring how Kafka imagined bodies in space as often ill at ease or off-kilter. One sketch, for instance, shows a man whose walking stick contributes to his instability, as though he had fallen victim to a prank devised by Mr and Mrs Twit.

Certainly, the awkwardness of living in a body that is bent or broken—or that might morph into a grotesque form—is a recurrent theme in Kafka’s writing. For instance, the court usher in The Trial imagines crushing his wife’s suitor against a wall: “He’s squashed flat, here, a little above the door, his arms outstretched, his fingers splayed, his bow legs forming a circle.” And as K prepares for his execution, his body dissents: “Despite all the efforts [the executioners] made, and despite all the cooperation K showed, his posture remained very strained and unconvincing.” The figures in the drawings are as restless and uncomfortable as his anti-heroes.

Many authors have excelled as draughtsmen, of course, from those who have illustrated their own books, such as Thomas Hardy or Stevie Smith, to those like Victor Hugo or Tove Jansson, whose artistic idioms are so original as to have floated free from their writing. Harder to place are those drawings by writers that seem somehow incidental to their words—the doodles of Mark Twain or Samuel Beckett, for example—or that acted as a private diversion from writing, as with the pen-and-ink landscapes and still lifes of Sylvia Plath. (“I can close myself completely in the line, lose myself in it,” Plath wrote).

It is in this latter category that Kafka’s drawings belong. They are the ordinary, improvised digressions of an extraordinary writer. As artefacts they undoubtedly contribute to the Kafka legend; as drawings they might entice us to look at bodies and forms in his writing afresh. In one sketch, the skirt of a seated woman billows in front of her, summarised into two elliptical forms like a pair of wings. Is she, could she be, turning into an insect?