Franz Kafka’s writings are often regarded as offering unsettlingly prescient visions of the 20th century. However, as his biographer Reiner Stach has pointed out, Kafka had no comparable foresight when it came to the afterlife of his own manuscripts: ‘No author at the beginning of the twentieth century – least of all Kafka himself – could have imagined that his written legacy would soon be measured, photographed, and described as though it were a set of papyrus rolls from an Egyptian burial chamber.’
Since his death, not only the marks Kafka made on the page but also the very materials of his notebooks, most of which are now at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, have been scrutinised for every possible clue as to his personality and writing process. Kafka used shop-bought notebooks of varying quality, with probably little thought as to the future of these items, tearing out pages, doodling in the margins and combining laundry lists and Hebrew homework with his writings, all the while assuming that few eyes would ever see these scruffy jottings.
Kafka famously left instructions to his friend Max Brod to burn all his manuscripts (‘preferably unread’), and so would be surprised to find not only that they survived to become world-famous fictional works, but also that they had become the subject of intense debate, examination and even veneration, fought over