3) "This old crone has claws": Kafka's Prague

In today's episode of our series In Franz Kafka’s Footsteps we are back in Prague to visit places where the famous writer lived, worked and wrote, and also where he spent his free time.

“This old crone has claws. One has to yield, or else - we would have to set fire to it on two sides, at Vyšehrad and at Hradčany; then it would be possible for us to get away.”

This is how Franz Kafka described Prague to his friend Oskar Pollak. Today, the city has a square, a gallery and a museum named after the famous German-speaking Jewish writer. But his legacy can be found in many other, often unexpected places, such as the Botanical Garden in Troja or the Civic Swimming Pool on the banks of the Vltava River.

Historic photo of The building of the Assicurazioni Generali on the corner of Wenceslas Square and Jindřišská Street | Photo: public domain

In 1907, at the age of 24, Franz Kafka started his first job, which was located in an impressive, neo-Baroque palace on the corner of Wenceslas Square and Vodičkova Street. It was the Prague branch of the Italian insurance company Assicurazioni Generali. Journalist and publicist Judita Matyášová, author of a book called On the Road with Franz Kafka (S Kafkou na cestách), continues:

“This job was arranged for him by one of his uncles through various business contacts. Kafka took it very pragmatically. He was interested in the fact that the company had headquarters in Trieste, by the sea. He decided that if he was industrious enough and learned Italian, he might be sent to the headquarters of this insurance company.”

Franz Kafka between 1906-1908 | Photo: Po stopách Franze Kafky,  public domain

That plan didn’t work out, because Kafka stayed at Assicurazioni Generali for less than a year, but his study of Italian still came handy. Shortly after taking up his job, Kafka went on holiday to Italy. Among other things, he visited an international aviation show, which he found so fascinating that he wrote a report about it for the Prague daily Bohemia.

From the outside, the building of the former headquarters of Assicurazioni Generali looks more or less the same way as it did during Kafka’s times. Inside, however, it has been completely rebuilt. Luckily, just before the reconstruction, photographer Jan Jindra managed to track down and capture Kafka’s original office, says Ms. Matyášová:

“The building is quite large; there are several staircases and many corridors and passageways. My colleague Jan Jindra identified Kafka’s office based on his description. It was one of the few instances when we  managed to “capture” an authentic place linked to Kafka while it was still there.

The building of the Assicurazioni Generali on the corner of Wenceslas Square and Jindřišská Street | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

“Some other key places related to his life have disappeared in a similar way. For example, in the centre of Paris, just a few minutes from the Louvre, they demolished a hotel where Kafka stayed.”

At the time Kafka started his first job, he and his family lived on the fourth floor of an Art Nouveau house called U Lodi. It was built on the site of the former Jewish ghetto, just a few hundred metres from Old Town Square, at the end of Pařížská Street. Today, the house is no longer there. It was destroyed at the very end of the Second World War during the Prague Uprising. In the 1970s, it was replaced by the Brutalist-style Hotel Intercontinental.

In 1912, Kafka wrote his short story The Judgement in this house and in the same year, he also produced his famous Metamorphosis:

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and seemed ready to slide off any moment. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked. "What's happened to me?" he thought. It wasn't a dream.

The Metamorphosis is one of Kafka’s few works where we can tell for sure where it takes place, explains Judita Matyášová:

“Kafka never wanted to reveal where his stories take place. In fact, none of his literary texts, with one exception, disclose the name of a given place. Therefore, we do not know whether it is in Prague, in Frýdlant, in Siřem, or anywhere else. However, according to the German Kafkologist Reiner Stach, the apartment on the corner of Pařížská Street and the Vltava embankment is indeed the location where the story Metamorphosis takes place. Stach includes a description of the place, what was in the apartment, as well as a floor plan. It was definitely a large, very middle-class apartment with several rooms, including a maid's room, that looked out on the river.”

Civic Swimming Pool nowadays | Photo: Adam Čada,  Občanská plovárna

From the window of the family apartment U Lodi, Kafka could see the Civic Swimming Pool on the opposite bank, where he had been going since childhood. Not only did he love to swim, but he even had his own rowboat, which he used on the Vltava River, says Judita Matyášová.

“We have not yet been able to verify whether Kafka was a member of the rowing club in Podolí. Apparently, there were three clubs, one Czech and two Czech-German ones. As far as swimming was concerned, he definitely went to the Civic Swimming Pool, but he also made trips outside Prague, to Dobřichovice or Roztoky.

Judita Matyášová | Photo: Czech Radio

“A lot of people think Kafka was sickly all his life, but I would say that compared to his friends, for instance Max Brod, he was definitely much better off physically. He went for long walks, not only in Prague but also outside of Prague.

“He also enjoyed physical work. He had a part-time job in a garden shop somewhere in Nusle and he also went to the pomological institute in Troja. Not many people would associate Kafka with gardening, but I think it illustrates the diversity of his interests.”

Although most of Kafka's life is connected with the Old Town, we can also find his traces in Žižkov, specifically on Bořivojova Street, the site of a former asbestos factory. Judita Matyášová continues:

Kafka's parents Hermann and Julia around 1913 | Photo: Heron Books,  London,  1968/Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

“Just before the First World War, Kafka’s family bought this factory and decided that Franz would be a silent partner there. It sounded like a good plan, because it would give him a regular income and he could spend more time on his literary work.

“But then the First World War broke out and the family members who were shareholders had to enlist. Suddenly Kafka was left supervising the running of the factory, and that was certainly not something that suited him.”

Instead of the asbestos factory, Kafka spent the rest of his working life at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute on Na Poříčí Street, where he quickly gained the respect of his superiors, says Ms. Matyášová:

Workers' Accident Insurance Institute building | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

“Kafka got an interesting opportunity at the Workers' Accident Insurance Institute. He could have worked there for many years in some low clerical position, but because he was a perfectionist, he became interested in what the insurance business was all about and quickly rose up the career ladder. Based on his performance, he was put in charge of the Liberec and Jablonec regions in northern Bohemia where textile factories were located.”

One of the most famous places associated with Franz Kafka is the picturesque house in the Golden Lane, in the area of Prague Castle. Kafka’s sister Ottla rented the house in the summer of 1916 and from time to time she lent it to her brother. Contrary to popular belief, he didn’t sleep there, but often went there to work, says Ms. Matyášová:

“Ottla had a sweetheart, he was definitely not her husband yet, and they wanted to meet somewhere. In the family apartment, it obviously wasn’t possible. Once in a while she lent the tiny house to Franz. The place was very important to Kafka. He was very sensitive to noise, so he wrote mostly at night. That’s why he was very happy to take advantage of the opportunity to write in the house.”

House in the Golden Lane,  where Kafka's sister lived | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

In his diaries and letters, Kafka often describes how he would return home from the Golden Lane at night to his parents’ house:

Today it suits me completely. In every way: the beautiful path leading up, the silence there, only a thin wall separates me from a neighbour, but that neighbour is quiet enough; I carry my supper up there and usually stay until midnight; then the advantage of the way home: I have to decide to stop working, I then have a walk that will cool my head.

And life there: it’s something special to have one’s own house, to lock the door on the world, not the door of a room, not that of an apartment, but actually the door of a house, to step out the door of your living quarters into the snow in the silent street. The whole thing twenty crowns per month, furnished by my sister with everything necessary, looked after as little as needs be by the little flower girl [Ottla’s pupil], everything in order and nice.

Another well-known place where Franz Kafka briefly stayed is the Schönborn Palace in the Lesser Town, today the seat of the US Embassy. Kafka obtained an apartment in the palace from the city’s housing office following his return from Munich in the winter of 1916. He describes this in his letter to Felice Bauer:

The Schönborn Palace  | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

“About that time I came back from Munich with new courage, went to a rental agency, where almost as the first choice an apartment in one of the most beautiful city palaces was offered to me. Two rooms, an antechamber, whose one half was furnished as a bathroom. Six hundred crowns a year. It was the fulfilment of a dream. I went there. The rooms with high ceilings and beautiful, red and gold, a little like in Versailles. Four windows looking out onto a dreamy quiet courtyard, one window onto the garden. The garden! Entering through the gate of the castle, you can hardly believe your eyes.”

Kafka’s enthusiasm for his new home didn’t last for long. In the end, he got a different, smaller apartment in the splendid 17th-century palace:

“The first thing that comes to mind in connection with this place is that it was a very cold space with high ceilings. This was in 1917, when Kafka started suffering from health problems. And it was while he was living at this address that he was diagnosed with tuberculosis.”

Kafka stayed in the Schönborn Palace for just a few months, specifically from March to December 1917. After that, he returned to his parents’ apartment in the Oppelt House on the corner of Old Town Square and Pařížská Street.

Kafka in front of the Oppelt house,  the apartment building where his family lived. Prague,  around 1922 | Photo repro: Klaus Wagenbach,  'Franz Kafka: Pictures of a Life'/Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

When we talk about Kafka and Prague, we cannot fail to mention where he spent his free time. Thanks to a book by the German author Hanns Zischler, we know that Kafka was very fond of going to the cinema. He would go to Ponrepo, located in Karlova Street at the time, or to Lucerna. Judita Matyášová continues:

Café Arco | Photo: Juan Pablo Bertazza,  Radio Prague International

“I don’t know if it is general knowledge that Kafka was a sworn vegetarian. In his travel diaries there are mentions of visits to vegetarian restaurants. Of course Kafka also went to cafés. Perhaps the most famous is the Arco café near today’s Masaryk train station, but also the Café Louvre and other famous cafés. But to imagine Kafka as this intellectual with coffee or an alcoholic drink would probably not be accurate.”

You can also remember Kafka when taking a walk in Prague’s parks. During his short stay at Polská Street in Vinohrady, Kafka would stroll through Riegrovy Sady. One of his favourite places, however, was the Chotek Gardens in the vicinity of Prague Castle, where he had a magnificent view of the Prague skyline. He described one such walk in his diary:

Sat in the Chotek Gardens. The most beautiful place in Prague. Birds were singing, the castle with its gallery, old trees bedecked with last year’s foliage, the semidarkness...

The 100th anniversary of Franz Kafka's death offers the opportunity to look at Kafka's work and life from current and new perspectives. All events, exhibitions, lectures, literary links can be found on the Project Kafka2024 website.

Author: Ruth Fraňková


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