Kafka Museum

Published Categorised as Czech Republic, Popular Posts No Comments on Kafka Museum

They weren’t keen on you taking photos of the museum and it’s fairly dark inside, so I’ve gone with more gener­al thoughts about Kafka.

The first time I encountered Kafka was when I was 15 or so and the local drama group I was in did a play of In the Penal Colony (yes, really). I actu­ally read one of his books for the first time in a univer­sity German class. The class was great, we read Kafka and watched Metro­pol­is and the Cabin­et of Dr Caligari. The other students were a pain, they complained everything was “weird” and “old” and just wanted to do gram­mar exer­cises. But I loved it.

Kafka is often presen­ted as the OG sad boy, a neur­ot­ic recluse who ordered all his own books burnt after his death, and just sort of sadly lay starving on his deathbed (he actu­ally TB, a death sentence in the 20s). A sad-sack like some of his char­ac­ters. Kavka/​kafka is a kind of crow in Czech. Susan Bernof­sky says “Gregor has only himself to blame for the wretched­ness of his situ­ation, since he has will­ingly accep­ted wretched­ness as it was thrust upon him. Like other of Kafka’s doomed prot­ag­on­ists, he errs by fail­ing to act, instead allow­ing himself to be acted upon. He has traded in his spine for an exoskel­et­on, but even this armor­like shell is no defense once his suddenly power­ful fath­er starts pelt­ing him with apples — an iron­ic­ally biblic­al choice of weapon.” Which isn’t true at all when you see about his actu­al life in the museum. He was attract­ive to women and engaged multiple times, gave public read­ings of his work, and was so good at his day job as a govern­ment Health and Safety Officer that every time he tried to quit to become a full-time writer, they begged him to stay.

“Kafka’s biggest prob­lems were always with himself, his self-doubt, his savage self-criti­cism, but there were moments even at the end of his life when he was half-recon­ciled to some of his work”. Relat­able.

His will­ing­ness to plunge in and exam­ine that self-doubt and criti­cism is what makes his writ­ing attract­ive to people however.

Kafka is a hard one to trans­late. He writes simple look­ing sentences, where half the words have double mean­ings in German, creat­ing an unset­tling, constantly shift­ing ambi­ence, like some­thing seen out of the corner of your eye, but writ­ten in a seem­ingly clear and simple way. As Michael Hofmann puts it “We obscurely feel, that there is some­thing more going on in the story, some­thing prob­ably to do with sex or viol­ence or famil­ies or meta­phys­ics, but we’re damned if we know what it is.”

For example, it’s never outright stated that Gregor Samsa is a cock­roach. He is an “unge­heures Ungez­iefer”. A monstrous piece of vermin. An Ungez­iefer is a nasty creepy crawly, what kind is vague.Everything about him is Un and wrong. You could altern­at­ively express it as “Gregor woke up feel­ing like a total piece of shit”. Those double mean­ings.

His char­ac­ters are plunged into confus­ing situ­ations that nobody will quite explain to them, and punished for not under­stand­ing them: Gregor just suddenly turns into the phys­ic­al cock­roach form of his own self-loath­ing with no explan­a­tion of how it happened and every­one is angry and disgus­ted at him, Josef K is being prosec­uted for some vague crime that nobody will quite explain to him, K the survey­or is just trying to do his job yet keeps coming up against the opaque feud­al bureau­cracy of the Castle and the villager’s scorn that he has some­how broken the rules.

Accord­ing to Hofman: “On the one hand, it is almost always too late in Kafka: in ‘Meta­morph­os­is’ Gregor Samsa wakes up as a cock­roach; the pris­on­er in ‘The Penal Colony’ is already in chains in front of the senten­cing-machine; Karl Ross­mann has been sent to Amer­ica by his distressed and disgraced parents — he is so far along in his partic­u­lar ‘process’, iron­ic­ally, that he is with­in sight of the Statue of Liberty. None of these things is going to be reversed. On the other hand, the end has not yet happened”

Here is a heav­ily abridged, fairly liter­ally trans­lated English text of the main gist of the story I prepared recently for handouts for a perform­ance (the audio was in German). The origin­al book is about 90k words and I reduced it down to two A4 sides/​20 minutes of audio- I didn’t have room for the parts where Gregor’s boss turns up and tries to get him out of bed, and when he sneaks in to watch Grete play the viol­in. Read the full book for those. There is a rundown from the Guard­i­an here of all the differ­ent English trans­la­tions on offer.

When Gregor Samsa woke up one morn­ing from troubled dreams, he found himself trans­formed in his bed into a monstrous piece of vermin. He lay on his armour-hard back and, when he lifted his head a little, saw his bulging brown belly, divided by arched rein­force­ments, which his bedsheet, ready to slide off completely, could barely cover. His many legs, miser­ably thin compared to their usual size, flimmered help­lessly before his eyes.

“What has happened to me?”, he thought. It wasn’t a dream. His room, a real human room, just a little too small, lay quietly between the four well-known walls. Above the table, on which was spread an unpacked sample collec­tion of textiles – Samsa was a trav­el­ling sales­man – hung the picture he had recently cut out of an illus­trated magazine and placed in a hand­some gilded frame. It repres­en­ted a lady, wear­ing a fur hat and boa, sitting erect and rais­ing up to the view­er a heavy fur muff in which her whole fore­arm had disap­peared.

No matter how hard he threw himself onto his right side, he always rocked back onto his back. He tried it prob­ably a hundred times; closed his eyes so as not to have to see his wrig­gling legs, and only let go when he began to feel a slight dull pain in his side that he had never felt before.

“Oh God”, he thought, “What a strenu­ous job I chose! Day in, day out on the road. So much pres­sure, and in addi­tion I have this nuis­ance of travel imposed on me, the worries about the train connec­tions, the irreg­u­lar bad food, and the constant ever- chan­ging, never-last­ing, empty-hearted human inter­ac­tions. To hell with it all!”

He felt a slight itch on top of his stom­ach, and slowly slid closer to the bedpost on his back in order to raise his head up better; and found the itchy spot covered in little white dots that he didn’t quite know how to judge; and wanted to feel the spot with one leg, but pulled it back imme­di­ately, because the touch sent chills down him.

“Gregor”, someone called – it was his moth­er – ,“It’s quarter past six. Didn’t you want to get away early?” That soft voice! Gregor was startled when he heard his answer­ing voice, which was unmis­tak­ably his earli­er voice, but which, as if from below, was mixed with a pain­ful squeak that couldn’t be suppressed.

At first he wanted to get out of bed using the lower part of his body, but this lower part, which he had not yet seen and could not really imagine, turned out to be too diffi­cult to move; it was so slow; and when at last, almost frantic, he reck­lessly pushed himself forward with all his collec­ted strength, he found he had chosen the wrong direc­tion, and was struck viol­ently against the lower bed- post, and the burn­ing pain he felt taught him that the lower part of his body was in fact perhaps the most sens­it­ive at the moment.

He came to the conclu­sion that he preferred to stay in bed.


It was only at dusk that Gregor woke up from his heavy, faint­ing sleep. At the door he real­ised what had actu­ally lured him there; it had been the smell of some­thing to eat. For there stood a bowl filled with sweet milk, in which little pieces of white bread were float­ing. He almost laughed with joy, because he was even more hungry than he had been in the morn­ing, and imme­di­ately he immersed his head in the milk almost up to his eyes. But he soon with­drew it, disap­poin­ted.

To test his new tastes, his sister Grete brought him a whole selec­tion of food, all spread out on an old news­pa­per. There were old half-rotten veget­ables; bones from supper surroun­ded by congealed white sauce; a few rais­ins and almonds; an old cheese that Gregor had declared ined­ible two days ago; some dry bread, and some bread smeared with salted butter. He ate the cheese, the veget­ables, and the sauce in quick succes­sion, his eyes water­ing with satis­fac­tion; he didn’t like the fresh food on the other hand, he couldn’t even stand the smell of it, and he even dragged the things he wanted to eat a little further away.


Gregor’s wish to see his moth­er soon came true.

During the day Gregor didn’t want to show himself at the window out of consid­er­a­tion for his parents, but he couldn’t crawl much on the few square meters of floor either, he found it diffi­cult to lie down quietly during the night, and eating soon didn’t offer him the slight­est pleas­ure any more, and so for amuse­ment he adop­ted the habit of crawl­ing all over the walls and ceil­ing.

He espe­cially liked hanging at the top of the ceil­ing; it was very differ­ent from lying on the floor; one breathed more freely; a slight vibra­tion went through the body; and in the almost happy absent- minded­ness in which Gregor found himself up there, it could happen that, to his own surprise, he let go and plopped onto the floor.

His sister imme­di­ately noticed this new amuse­ment that Gregor had found for himself – he also left traces of his mucus here and there when he crawled – and got it into her head to enable Gregor to crawl as much as possible, so the furniture that preven­ted it, above all the ward­robe and the desk, should be taken away.

Despite Gregor telling himself again and again that noth­ing out of the ordin­ary was happen­ing, just a little furniture being rearranged, he soon had to admit to himself that the women walk­ing back and forth, their little calls, the scratch­ing of the furniture on the floor, had an effect like a great commo­tion press­ing in on all sides, and he couldn’t help but tell himself, no matter how hard he pulled his head and legs into himself and pressed his body to the floor, that he couldn’t endure the whole thing for long.

And so he burst in to the room – the women were lean­ing against the desk in the next room to catch their breath – and changed direc­tion four times, really not know­ing what to save first. Then he saw the picture of the lady dressed in fur on the empty wall, hast­ily crept up to it and pressed himself against the glass, which held him tight and soothed his hot belly. At least this picture, which Gregor had now completely covered up, would certainly not be taken away by anyone. He cocked his head toward the living room door to watch the women return.

His moth­er stepped aside, saw the huge brown spot on the flowered wall­pa­per, and before she was actu­ally aware that what she was seeing was Gregor, she called out in a scream­ing, hoarse voice:”Oh God, oh God!” and fell over the sofa with outstretched arms, as if completely giving up, and didn’t move.

The sister ran into the next room to fetch some smelling salts to wake the moth­er from her faint; Gregor also wanted to help – there was still time to save the picture – but he was stuck to the glass and had to tear himself free; he then ran into the next room as if he could give his sister some advice, like in the old days; but then had to stand idly behind her while she rummaged through vari­ous bottles. She was startled when she turned around; a bottle fell to the ground and broke; a splinter cut Gregor in the face, and some caustic medi­cine flowed around him. Gregor was now completely cut off from his moth­er, who might have been close to death through his fault.

A little while passed, Gregor lay there exhausted, it was quiet all around, maybe that was a good sign.

His fath­er had come in. “What’s happened?” were his first words; Grete’s appear­ance must have told him everything. Grete answered in a muffled voice, evid­ently she pressed her face against her father’s chest: “Moth­er passed out, but she’s better now. Gregor escaped.” “As I expec­ted” said the fath­er “I’ve always told you so, but you women don’t want to hear it”

It was clear to Gregor that their fath­er had misin­ter­preted Grete’s all too brief message and assumed that Gregor had been guilty of some viol­ent act.

“Ah!” the fath­er cried out as soon as he entered the room, as if he were angry and happy at the same time. Gregor pulled his head back from the door and raised it towards his fath­er. He prob­ably didn’t know himself what he was up to; at least he lifted his feet unusu­ally high, and Gregor was amazed at the enorm­ous size of his boot soles.

So Gregor stayed on the floor for the time being, espe­cially since he was afraid that his fath­er might think it was partic­u­larly mali­cious to run to the walls or the ceil­ing.

As he staggered along to gath­er all his strength for the run, he scarcely kept his eyes open; in his dull­ness he never thought of any rescue other than by running – then he real­ised some­thing had been thrown at him, which rolled in front of him. It was an apple; imme­di­ately a second flew after him; Gregor stopped short in terror; it was useless to keep running because his fath­er had decided to bombard him.

His fath­er had filled his pock­ets from the fruit bowl on the side­board and was now throw­ing apple after apple without aiming in partic­u­lar. These little red apples rolled on the ground as if elec­tri­fied and bumped into each other. A weakly thrown apple brushed Gregor’s back, but slipped off harm­lessly. On the other hand, the one that imme­di­ately followed pain­fully penet­rated Gregor’s back; Gregor wanted to drag himself on, as if the surpris­ing, unbe­liev­able pain could pass with the change of loca­tion; yet he felt pinned down and stretched in complete bewil­der­ment of all his senses


Gregor’s severe wound, from which he suffered for more than a month – the apple remained in his flesh as a visible souven­ir because no one dared to remove it – seemed to have reminded even his fath­er that Gregor, despite his present sad and disgust­ing appear­ance was a family member who was not to be treated as an enemy, but towards whom it was a family duty to swal­low resent­ment and toler­ate, (noth­ing more than toler­ate). Now that Gregor had prob­ably lost his mobil­ity forever due to his wound, it took him long, long minutes to cross his room like an old inval­id – crawl­ing up high was out of the ques­tion.

In this over­worked and over­tired family, who had time to look after Gregor more than was abso­lutely neces­sary?

The main thing that kept the family from moving was complete hope­less­ness and the thought that they had been hit by a misfor­tune like no one else in their entire circle of relat­ives and acquaint­ances.

Dirty streaks ran along the walls, here and there there were balls of dust and rubbish. Gregor hardly ate anything any more. Only when he happened to pass the food would he take a morsel into his mouth, hold it there for hours and then usually spit it out again. At first he thought it was sadness about the condi­tion of his room that kept him from eating, but he soon made his peace with the changes in the room. People had gotten into the habit of putting things in this room that could not be accom­mod­ated else­where, and there were now many of these things since some rooms in the apart­ment had been rented out to three tenants.

These seri­ous gentle­men – all three had full beards, as Gregor once noticed through a crack in the door – were scru­pu­lous about order. They would not put up with anything useless or dirty. Moreover, they had brought their own furnish­ings with them.


“Herr Samsa!” shouted the man in the middle to his fath­er and, without wast­ing anoth­er word, poin­ted with his index finger at Gregor, who was slowly moving forward. They actu­ally got a little angry at the real­isa­tion that they had been living with a house­mate like Gregor.

“I hereby declare”, said one of the tenants, rais­ing his hand and also look­ing at the moth­er and the sister, “that with regard to the disgust­ing condi­tions prevail­ing in this apart­ment and family” – he spat on the floor with a moment­ary resol­ute decision –”I am giving notice of my room imme­di­ately”.

The whole time Gregor had been lying quietly on the spot where the tenants had spot­ted him. Disap­point­ment, but perhaps also the weak­ness caused by starving so much, made it impossible for him to move.

“Moth­er, Fath­er”, said his sister and slammed her hand on the table,”It can’t go on like this. I don’t want to say my brother’s name in front of that Thing, so I’ll just say we have to try to get rid of it.” “She’s right a thou­sand times over”, said the fath­er to himself. The moth­er, still unable to find enough breath, began to cough dully into her hand with an insane expres­sion in her eyes.

“It has to go”, stated the sister, “that’s the only way, Fath­er. You just have to try to get rid of the thought that it’s Gregor. The fact that we believed it for so long is our real misfor­tune. But how can it be Gregor? If it were Gregor, he would have real­ised a long time ago that it’s not possible for people to live with such a disgust­ing creature and would have left volun­tar­ily.”


When the clean­er came early the next morn­ing, she didn’t find anything out of the ordin­ary during her usual brief visit to Gregor. She got angry and pushed Gregor a little, and only noticed when she had pushed him from his spot without any resist­ance. When she soon real­ised what had happened, she widened her eyes, whistled to herself, but didn’t stay long, instead jerking open the door of the bedroom and call­ing out into the dark­ness in a loud voice: ‘Look, that thing has finally croaked; there it is, dead as a door nail!”

“At last”, said Mr. Samsa, “Thank God.” He crossed himself and the three women followed his example.

Grete, who never took her eyes off the corpse, said: “Look how skinny it was. It hadn’t eaten anything in a long time. The food just came out as soon as it came in” In fact, Gregor’s body was completely flat and dry, you could only really see it now that he was no longer lifted up by his little legs and noth­ing else distrac­ted the view.

Then all three left the apart­ment togeth­er, which they hadn’t done for months, and took the tram out into the city. They sat alone in a carriage completely lit up by the warmth of the sun.

As they talked, Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, look­ing at their daugh­ter, who was becom­ing more and more lively, almost simul­tan­eously remembered how lately, in spite of all the troubles that had made her cheeks pale, she had blos­somed into a beau­ti­ful and volup­tu­ous girl. Becom­ing quieter and almost uncon­sciously commu­nic­at­ing by looks, they thought that now would be the time to look for a good husband for her

They have a loop of cine­film of Prague in Kafka’s day. A lot of it looks like B-roll from Nosfer­atu.

The stairs descend you to base­ment hell. Aka the office.

The filing cabin­ets lurch at you and have vari­ous differ­ent letters from Kafka to his family and vari­ous girl­friends inside.

Much needed Kafka and Mucha merch.

Receive new posts via email.
Your data will be kept private.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.