In 1924, Franz Kafka, the writer who had sentenced so many of his characters to miserable deaths, died his own, starving after tuberculosis left him unable to swallow. Afterward, good fortune arrived with almost spiteful promptness, so that by the 1940s this sullen nobody had become one of the Western world’s most renowned writers. With renown came forests’ worth of books and combined millennia of contemplation—an endless, exhausting quest to decipher the indecipherable. All of which is to say, what’s happened to Kafka in the last hundred years is about as Kafkaesque as it gets.
Recently, though, the quest to interpret Kafka reached a point most decidedly un-Kafkaesque: a promising new development. Before he died, Kafka left his writings and drawings to his friend Max Brod with instructions to burn them. Brod refused, bless him, and arranged to publish the writings almost as soon as he could, but most of the drawings stayed in limbo, neither destroyed nor displayed, until Brod’s death in 1968, at which time they passed into the hands of his heir, Ilse Esther Hoffe. After Hoffe died in 2007, they became the subject of a legal scuffle between Hoffe’s descendants and the National Library of Israel (another of Brod’s heirs) that ended in 2019 with the Library acquiring 150 Kafka drawings only a handful of people had ever seen. (Here, one pauses to consider how much art lawsuits have kept from the public, and how many Kafka-level talents’ papers are currently feeding termites in somebody’s basement.)
One thing I should say up-front about these drawings, the subject of a new monograph published by Yale University Press: they’re not great. This is not the same as saying that they’re not worth your time. Not-greatness can help you understand the raw material from which greatness is built; it’s like visiting the Great Wall of China and looking down at the rock under your shoe, then looking up again and realizing that both are made from the same stuff. In the case of a discussed-to-death, hidden-in-plain-sight writer like Kafka, it’s a worthwhile exercise. The better you understand what’s missing from the drawings, the more you appreciate what’s piquantly present in the stories.
When this book was first announced, I pictured something like the following: stick-men (not women) with long, flailing limbs and tiny heads, adrift on empty pages lacking either color or warmth. This, as it turns out, is pretty much how the drawings do look. Every dozen pages or so, the artist attempts a full-fledged face complete with eyes, mouth, expression, etc., but most of the figures in this book have dark featureless heads that are no more or less expressive than their shoes or arms. The figures that are evidently male tend to have thick eyebrows, gnashing mouths, and dark, pointy beards, while their few evidently female counterparts have big hairdos and swishy dresses, more fluff than flesh—a child’s baffled view of the grown-up world. Kafka didn’t draw many animals, but he made human beings look so inhuman that, in a way, he did.
Kafka didn’t draw scenery, either; most of the bodies in these pages just float there, neither inside nor outside. This corresponds neatly to Kafka’s fiction, in which there is almost no scene setting, no paragraphs about weather or buildings or family trees. In general his drawings are so of a piece with his writings in theme and tone that it’s tempting to treat the one as a version of the other. In their essays for the Yale monograph, the book’s editor, Andreas Kilcher, and theorist Judith Butler surrender to this temptation so fully that you could almost forget the writings are triumphs and the drawings are trifles.
Forgetting this requires some curious mental contortions—reading Butler’s analysis in particular, you’d think Kafka sweated over each sketch for thirty years instead of thirty seconds. Of number 117, a man with a stick, she has this to say: “The feet balance the body with balletic precision—accompanied by a walking stick, a vertical line that does not reach the ground and, because it cannot possibly offer support, proclaims, as it were, its lack of utility.” Cannot possibly, proclaims, precision: if these keywords are any indication, the possibility of a coincidence doesn’t occur to Butler. Her hopes are too high. She wants Kafka’s drawings to be sites of resistance to “the laws of gravity” and “the laws of writing,” and perhaps they are—or perhaps Kafka was doodling one afternoon and his pen tip didn’t make it all the way to the bottom of the page.
And maybe it’s naive, with Bob Dylan’s matchbooks on display in a shiny new museum in Tulsa, to say that some ephemera is just ephemeral. But if you deny this, you’re ignoring one of the most important things about Kafka’s prose. The miracle of The Metamorphosis, the critic William Deresiewicz wrote, is that the author was able to commit wholeheartedly to his own ridiculous premise—if he’d lost his nerve for even one sentence, the whole thing would have fallen apart. There’s probably enough raw material in Kafka’s drawings to assemble into another Metamorphosis, but he doesn’t commit all the way: his lines shake or sputter out; he tries crosshatching here and reverts to stick-men there; he loses his nerve, or at least his interest. In short, he fails to convince us that each drawing couldn’t have looked any other way.
It strikes me that this sense of inevitability, missing from the drawings but unmissable in the writings, is as essential a part of the Kafkaesque as bureaucracy or giant bugs. Understood this way, Kafka’s gift wasn’t that he could imagine things the rest of us can’t (any jumpy eight-year-old can picture a giant bug). Once he’d imagined them, however, he believed in them so zealously he convinced the rest of us to believe, too. He never winked. This is why it’s worth being blunt about the mediocrity of his drawings, and why, mediocre or not, it was worth publishing them after all this time: they throw the brilliance of the stories into sharper relief. And if not even Kafka managed to be Kafkaesque all the time, there’s still hope for his imitators.