Anglo-German deal secures Franz Kafka letters archive for Oxford University's Bodleian Library

By Richard Moss | 04 April 2011
a sepia toned photo of a young man in Edwardian period European dress with his arms folded
Franz Kafka (1906). Courtesy Bodleian Libraries
He’s one of the most enigmatic of 20th centuries literary figures and to some degree his life and times were almost as inscrutable as his fiction.

Now British and German scholars can get a little bit closer to the real Franz Kafka thanks to an innovative Anglo-German deal that has secured an important archive of his personal correspondence.

In a new model of international cooperation between libraries, a series of letters and postcards written by the author of Metamorphosis, The Trial and The Castle have been jointly purchased by The Bodleian Libraries and Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach.

Originally scheduled for public auction in Germany on April 19, the archive, which has resided on loan at the Bodleian for some years, was secured after a confidential agreement was reached between the two institutions and the sellers.

They will now remain available for academic and public consultation as part of the existing major Kafka archives already held by the Bodleian and Marbach.

Comprising more than 100 signed letters, postcards and picture postcards, they signify almost all the surviving correspondence sent by Kafka to his favourite sibling Ottla, the youngest of his three sisters.

a detail from a handwritten letter in German
A letter written to Ottla, Kafka's favourite sister, by Dora Diamant© Boldleian Library / Deutsches Literaturarchiv
An additional 32 new letters from Dora Diamant, Kafka’s last lover and Robert Klopstock, Kafka’s doctor and friend, are also included in the sale.

“The letters exchanged between Kafka and his sister Ottla are an essential source both for Kafka’s biography and for that of Ottla David, nee Kafka," explained Professor Ritchie Robertson, Taylor Professor of German at Oxford University.

"[She was] an unusual and courageous woman whose efforts at emancipation have never been fully recognized.”

They will be accessible at one or both of the principal sites for research into Kafka’s literary manuscripts and personal writings. Professor Taylor said both institutions “offer outstanding assistance to researchers.”

Researchers delving into the highly personal correspondence will discover the warmth and humour in Kafka’s personal family relationships.

In a postcard depicting Mount Krivan sent in 1922, his drollness has him allegedly skiing and photographing himself on a high mountain while fighting TB, diagnosed in 1917.

In another postcard, postmarked March 4 1921 and written in Czech rather than his usual German, he teases his brother-in-law, Josef David.

“Dear Pepa, You warn me rightly, but too late, for I have already participated in the great ski race in Polianka  - surely you’ve read about it in the ‘Tribuna’ […] I have had myself photographed on Mount Krivan, as you can see on the back of this card.”

Elsewhere the collection, which includes colour postcards as well as Kafka’s own drawings, reveals his perceptions of the historical and geographical context he lived in, the people he encountered, the books he read as well as his travels, diet and medical condition.

Poignantly, one of the later letters to Ottla, his favourite sister, is by Dora Diamant, Kafka's last lover, who nursed him in the final months of his life. Kafka adds a few sentences - this is possibly 1924, the year of his death.

Take a closer look at Kafka's postcards.
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