Kafka on the shore and other holiday recollections give new picture of writer

Foto: Judita Matyášová

Franz Kafka, the great Prague German writer, often comes across as a rather gloomy man, bound to his work in the office. For 12 years now, journalist Judita Matyášová has been trying to dispel this image of Kafka, taking pictures of places he visited and studying his travel diaries, to show that Kafka was in fact a very different man. Along with photographer Jan Jindra, she published a book on Kafka’s travels back in 2009. Now they are preparing a new project, an exhibition called Kafka on Holidays, which is to take place in a small village of Siřem. When I spoke to Judita Matyášová, I first asked her how the whole project was started:

Judita Matyášová, photo: Eva Dvořáková, ČRo
“In 2003 I met Czech photographer Jan Jindra who told me he was interested in unusual images of Kafka in Prague and he also wanted to take pictures of locations that Kafka visited outside of Prague.

“He showed me some pictures and I was really surprised because I never knew that Kafka visited Frýdlant, Liberec, and many other cities. I asked him how he found it and he told me I had to read Kafka's travel diaries. So that was just the beginning of our cooperation and together we searched place by place all around Europe.”

When you were trying to retrace Kafka's footsteps, did you only use his diaries or did you have some people with whom you consulted on this as well?

“Of course we had to study a variety of materials, not only books written by Kafka, his diaries, correspondence, but also books written by his friends, not only Max Brod, but also other people who used to know Kafka.

“I was very surprised that he visited really popular tourist sites, such as Merano or Stresa in Italy, near Lago Maggiore.”

“And once we had the locations, I started searching for experts from local museums and archives who could show us pictures and postcards and explain what the places looked like in Kafka's time.

“I was very surprised that he visited really popular tourist sites, such as Merano or Stresa in Italy, near Lago Maggiore, so at first we wanted to know what he saw and what he did there, but we were also interested in the history of the given locations.”

What drove Kafka to travelling. I guess most of the travels were work-related, but did he also travel for pleasure?

Franz Kafka in Siřem, photo: Facebook of the Kafka on holiday project
“Yes, of course. Actually, there are lets' say two reasons. One is because of his work. He was extremely active in his work. He was not sitting in the office all the time. He travelled a lot because of his job. And also, when he had free time, when all those business meetings were over, he enjoyed going to the cinema, he enjoyed vegetarian restaurants, but he also planned his journeys.

“They often travelled together with Max Brod or with both Max and Ottla. Their biggest journey around Europe took place in 1911, when they travelled to Switzerland, Italy, Paris and then back home. It was a three-week journey and both Kafka and Max Brod wrote about it in their travel diaries.”

When you studied the places that Kafka visited, and his travel diaries, was there something that really surprised you, that you didn't know about him?

“There were so many surprises for me. For instance I was wondering which locations he was interested in when he visited Paris. But his favourite place was the Metro, because he admired technical novelties and new inventions. He also saw an aeroplane in Italy and it was something incredible for him.

“So it was not only about seeing the monuments, but about encountering new things that only a few people from Prague had seen before him.

Kafka is often presented as this gloomy and solitary man. What did you discover about him?

“It always sounds a little bit funny to me. If you know so many things about him and if you know about all his interests, you think he must have been extremely busy, and he really enjoyed his free time.

“When you think about Kafka in Prague, you probably imagine his home and office, but he was also a very sportive guy.”

“When you think about Kafka in Prague, you probably imagine his home and office, but he was also a very sportive guy. He liked swimming and he liked being in nature so I don't think he was such a depressive guy. I think this is a very black and white image of him.”

How many pictures have you assembled to this date and do you still continue in your search?

“Altogether it is a collection of 70 photographs and 70 texts, which I wrote about these places. It includes locations in the Czech Republic and in many countries all around Europe. I have to say that we have already visited most of these locations.

“But right now we have a different mission, and that is to show a different image of Kafka, and that's why we launched the project Kafka on Holiday and we would like to show our collection of photos in one specific place, in a small village about an hour and a half from Prague.”

Photo: Judita Matyášová
Why have you chosen to exhibit the pictures in this particular place, the village of Siřem?

As I said Kafka visited several places in Europe but this is the place where he spent the longest time out of Prague. He spent eight months there so we had loads of material, not only photographs, but also his letters. He also wrote his aphorisms there and also this village, as several Kafka experts confirmed, was the inspiration for his famous novel Castle. So that’s the reason why we chose this village as a location for our exhibition.”

When will this exhibition take place?

“Now we are searching for sponsors and we are applying for several grants and we would like to open in autumn 2016.”

Are the pictures from the project Kafka on Holiday also available online?

Siřem, photo: Archive of Jan Jindra
“We have a Facebook page, called Kafka on Holiday, where we are showing a collection of photos not only from the village but also many photos from our archives and our research. So you can follow us and see Kafka on Aeroplane or Kafka on the beach and many others which you would hardly come across.”

What would you say is Kafka’s reputation today, especially among young people?

“I think it is not about young people. It is more about how Czechs regard Kafka and how he is regarded by foreigners. We presented our project all around the world and mostly people reacted by saying: ‘Tell me more about Kafka’ or ‘What is new about Kafka? ’ But Czechs would say: ‘Kafka? It will be something boring and depressive. ’

“So it is very strange that here in Prague, in the Czech Republic, we don't see him, or maybe we don't want to see him, in a different way. So it is a sort of a challenge for us to show Czechs, but also foreigners, that Kafka was not bound only to Prague.”