Every year, as summer rolls in, bookworms heading away on vacation face a timeless question: high literature or beach read? These precious free weeks offer a chance to finally dig into that highbrow tome that’s been weighing down your nightstand; but, then again, wouldn’t it be nicer to unwind with something humorous and short?
If you still can’t decide between high or low – between Goethe’s Faust or The Devil Wears Prada, between The Man Without Qualities or The Girl on the Train – then consider getting the best of both worlds from an unexpected source: Franz Kafka.
The Czech-German author (and one-time Berliner) Kafka has a rep for being gloomy and disturbed. But he is not as strange a summer companion as one might think. As Milan Kundera and others have argued, this image of Kafka the lonesome ascetic has been massively overblown, largely through the posthumous fiddling of his spießig friend/executor Max Brod. In fact, Kafka was a regular fixture at Prague’s gossipy literary cafés; he gave readings, attended the theatre, and loved going to the cinema. (He was also known to visit brothels and owned a collection of racy pictures.)
Kafka is not as relentlessly bleak as many believe. His fictions offer plenty of light – tenderness, beauty, and particularly humour – alongside the admittedly considerable darkness.
Kafka was something of a swimming enthusiast, too. One fabulous photograph from 1914 shows him on a beach in Denmark with his friend, grinning madly from ear to ear – not bad summer inspo from the dark prince of high modernism. In his work, too, Kafka is not as relentlessly bleak as many believe. His fictions offer plenty of light – tenderness, beauty, and particularly humour – alongside the admittedly considerable darkness.
The ideal beach read is something you can dip in and out of. Kafka was a master of short forms, from his famous stories like “The Judgment” to his even shorter fragments, one-liners and and sketches. Recently, Princeton University Press released a collection of these very-short works named The Aphorisms of Franz Kafka, edited and introduced by the biographer Rainer Stach. This portable volume presents Kafka’s prose miniatures in both the original German and Shelley Frisch’s English translations. The pieces are sometimes beautiful, sometimes wise, sometimes invigoratingly odd. They vary in length, but all are bite-sized – perfectly suited to getting distracted by refreshments, bugs and passers-by beside the lake.
Harder to carry, but no less delightful, is Franz Kafka: The Drawings. This new collection from Yale University Press presents over 240 of Kafka’s cheeky, grotesque, surprisingly skilful illustrations. These show off the range of Kafka’s talent, while also emphasising his fun side.
Pack these – along with the aphorisms – as you begin your own fun summer metamorphosis. Just make sure you don’t awake one morning from uneasy dreams to find you got a regrettable Kafka-themed tattoo.
Need more reading inspo? Check out Berlin Blues to Marzahn, Mon Amour: 20 years of Berlin in 20 books