4) Franz Kafka Museum: a journey through the dark labyrinths of Kafka’s mind and novels

Franz Kafka Museum

The Franz Kafka Museum in Prague gives visitors an insight into the inner world of Franz Kafka, one of the most important writers of the 20th century. The exhibition portrays Kafka’s life and work, his fascination with Prague and how its atmosphere is reflected in his novels.

The Metamorphosis | Photo: Kateřina Ayzpurvit,  Radio Prague International

Facsimiles of manuscripts, documents, first editions of Kafka’s novels, photographs, drawings and memorabilia displayed in a dark and gloomy "Kafkaesque" setting that is evocative of scenes from the writer’s novels – all this draws visitors into the world of 20th century literary great Franz Kafka.

The museum, which opened in 2005, is located in the unique space of the Herget Brickworks in the Lesser Town on the bank of the Vltava River. Although one might expect a direct link to Kafka’s Prague, there is none, as museum guide Zlatina Novák Jeřábková explains.

“The place where the exhibition is located is not linked to Franz Kafka’s life in Prague. But I think it was fortunate that we could house the exhibition in this interesting building. It is a former brickyard, a place that allows us to successfully create the atmosphere of Franz Kafka's works, to create a certain gloominess, a darkness. And the way around the exposition is evocative of those characteristic labyrinths that are a typical trait of Franz Kafka's works.

At the same time, Herget's brickyard is located in a beautiful location, from where you can see the Vltava River, Charles Bridge, and the Old Town. So you get a fine view of Kafka's Prague. I think it was a really amazing stroke of luck that the museum could be located here.”

Sculptures made by David Černý are placed in the area of Herget's brickyard | Photo: Kateřina Ayzpurvit,  Radio Prague International

The exhibition has two sections. The first, entitled Existential Space, presents the main events of Kafka's life and the environment in which he lived in Prague. The second, entitled Imaginary Topography, shows how Kafka's life in Prague, the places he frequented and the atmosphere of the city, metamorphosed into his works. Visitors also get a closer look at Kafka’s personal life through private correspondence, diaries, manuscripts, photographs and drawings, some of which have never been published.

“Everything here is interwoven. In the Existenial Space section we see his family, we see his friends, we see the circle of Jewish German-speaking writers, the so-called Arconauts, who used to meet in the Arco café, we see videos of what Prague looked like in his time, maps tracing his journey to work or to school, so in a way we are intimately introduced into his environment, into his private life. We get to know his girlfriends, his complicated relationships, to better understand his personality and what molded it, whereas the Imaginary Topography section is more about how all these phenomena and the cultural environment in Prague are reflected in his works. “

The windowless halls and red-lit stairway, down which visitors descend, creates an oppressive atmosphere reminiscent of Kafka’s novels. Zlatina Jeřábková says the confined space, low-lit environment and spotlighting is intentional.

Photo: Kateřina Ayzpurvit,  Radio Prague International

“I would point out that Kafka’s literature is pretty grim, too. And I think when I read his work, the atmosphere is similar to what I feel when I'm in the museum. We're in a part of the exhibition right now where we show Kafka as a talented artist. He was equally good at expressing himself in drawings and here we see sketches and pictures that he drew to express how he felt at the workplace, the stifling atmosphere of the office and his despair over the long hours he spent there. And some visitors joke that they can easily relate to it –that the drawings reflects their own feelings.

But we also have a lighter section devoted to Kafka’s interest in theatre and the period when he also became interested in Judaism. We can see here the books that he read. He also had a period when he studied Hebrew, when he was trying to learn more about his roots. He was very fond of the cinema, he liked the theater and operettas.”

Zlatina Novák Jeřábková | Photo: Kateřina Ayzpurvit,  Radio Prague International

Another part of the exposition is devoted to Franz Kafka's love life and his complicated relationships. Museum guide Zlatina Novák Jeřábková says that he was torn between the desire to settle down and start a family and the fear that he would lose his freedom to write and do what he wanted.

“He was always trying to convince himself that the girl in question was not good enough for him, or that he was not good enough for her. I would say that he was doing his best to escape marriage, because he was afraid that then he wouldn't have time for his greatest love, literature. He wished to have offspring. I think that’s important for everybody, but he truly believed that one of the most important things in life was to have a child, which he never did. He was afraid that a family would rob him of the time he wanted to devote to literature.”

One of the most oppressive halls in the exhibition is one reflecting the atmosphere of his famous novel The Trial. There is a maze of documents, filing cabinets and drawers which seem to engulf the human being. Zlatina Jerabkova says visitors are fascinated by this section and how evocative it is of Kafka’s work.

Photo: Kateřina Ayzpurvit,  Radio Prague International

“This part of the exhibition actually represents for me personally the most powerful blend of his life and work. It recreates the atmosphere of the famous novel The Trial, where the main character Josef K. is navigating the labyrinths of bureaucracy, looking for information, for evidence, whether or not he has committed the crime he is accused of. And we know of course that Franz Kafka was familiar with the world of bureaucracy – he spent his workday in an office, was surrounded by bureaucracy, and this is the feeling it evoked in him. He didn't like all the noise, whether it was the constant sound of rubber stamping, the sound of typewriters, telephones. Noise made him nervous.  So I think that this space is where his everyday life and his work intersect beautifully.

Not surprisingly this is one of the parts that most fascinates visitors. I can say that I recently spoke with the lead singer of Iron Maiden, Bruce Dickinson, and I found that he was absolutely fascinated by this particular section of the museum. And he also pointed out to me that we don't really realize how many world artists are fascinated and inspired by Franz Kafka.”

Despite having become one of the 20th century literary giants, during his life Kafka doubted his own abilities and suffered from inner turmoil.

“Well, he never really had much confidence in himself as a writer. He was afraid that his work wasn't good enough or that people wouldn't understand it. He destroyed some of his works, and in fact we know that he asked his friend Max Brod, to burn without reading, all that he left behind after his death, including unfinished works and short stories. Fortunately his friend didn't. He felt guilty about that, because it was Franz Kafka's last wish, but we can be grateful for that, since thanks to him all those works actually came out.”

Kafka's drawings | Photo: Kateřina Ayzpurvit,  Radio Prague International

The museum has many foreign visitors who admire Kafka’s literary works and feel the need to understand him better as a writer by putting his life and work into context. Zlatina Jeřábková says she believes the key to understanding Kafka is to see him as a human being.

“I think the most important thing one realizes here is that to understand Franz Kafka, one really needs to know more about his life, that is the key to understanding him. I don't think we should put him on a pedestal. In order to understand him, we need to see his strengths as well as his weaknesses, and that will help us relate to him and also to identify more with his work. I think he's an author through whom we can gain a better understanding of ourselves, and a better understanding of what's going on in the world. And our exhibition is conceived so as to help us do that. “

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: Kateřina Ayzpurvit


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