(Franz Kafka, and his sister, Ottla, in Zürau)
A hundred years ago, in the Autumn of 1917, Kafka started his stay in the small village of Zürau (as it was then known) a few hours train ride from Prague. He was there from September 1917 to April 1918, living with his sister Ottla, who was managing a farm. It was in this time he wrote the book which became known as The Zürau Aphorisms.
The Village is now called Sirem, and this month a permanent photographic exhibition has opened in a local house.
Here is a news article about the event, followed by the first of my fictional diary entries about Kafka’s stay in the village. Time certainly marches on
New Kafka exhibition opens in Czech village where he stayed
21 August 2017
Sirem, North Bohemia, Aug 19 (CTK) – A new exhibition on Prague-born Jewish German writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924) focused on his travelling has opened in Sirem village, where he stayed 100 years ago.
The permanent photographic exhibition shows less known sides of the writer. It presents him as a man in a good shape who liked rowing and preferred vegetarian diet.
Kafka arrived in Sirem in the summer of 1917 after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis.
“His relatives thought that he would choose some sanatorium, but he went to see his beloved sister Ottla who was running a farmstead in Sirem,” journalist Judita Matyasova, one of the display authors, told CTK.
She and photographer Jan Jindra were travelling to follow in the footsteps of Kafka for 14 years.
Kafka liked Sirem, the then German village, so much that he stayed there for eight months, which was the longest time he ever spent in the countryside.
Some literary historians are of the view that Sirem inspired Kafka’s novel The Castle (1926).
Kafka’s fans started visiting Sirem in the 1990s.
The new display is installed in a former oast of a farmstead. The first floor houses photographs taken during the trips of Matyasova and Jindra to the places where the writer stayed.
“This was a detective’s work. We were searching for how the sites looked like when Kafka visited them… and what he was doing there,” Matyasova said.
Works by young photography students inspired by Kafka’s short story The Burrow are displayed on another floor.
People can also visit the information centre near the church in Sirem to see old photographs of the village from the time when Kafka stayed there.
“(Former Czech president) Vaclav Havel also visited the village. He wanted to shoot a film inspired by Kafka’s novel The Castle together with Milos Forman,” Matyasova said.
The new exhibition is opened from 13:00 to 17:00 on weekends only.
A mini-brewery to make beer from a local hops sort might be opened nearby in the future, said David Herblich, whose parents own the farmstead where the Kafka display is situated
Excerpt From: Kafka In The Castle
16 September 1917
Sunday dinner is certainly different here. The food – of course. More staple perhaps, but also fresher and richer. But the atmosphere is free. No etched pattern to follow; no dullness of similar fare and similar talk; no tension bubbling underneath because of what father was going to say. Ottla laughs because something is funny, not because she’s prodded by family expectation. I have often thought that our dread of the Sunday dinner started sometime on the Monday morning.
17 September 1917
A whole week away from the office. F. will soon pay a visit.
20 September 1917
Dreamed a mixture. I walked – a desolate figure trudging the vast Steppes. Yet I rode wildly – a madman with my forehead pressed against the compartment window. And I saw myself as the train raced by, outlined by the yellow light of the coach; and then a slender body turning to stare at the racing train. We both hollered, but noise and distance obscured our voice. The vast Steppes turned into a castle, but the castle was displayed in the photos of a magazine, which I held on my lap in the flickering light of the compartment, as the train became engulfed by the large buildings on either side of the tracks. In the magazine there was a railway at the base of the castle, and as I looked out the window the stone walls filled the frame, each giant block wedged securely to the others, their facing protruding and rough. It was as if the train had entered a tunnel, except there was still light from the distant sky.
I turned a page, and had to squint to see the pictures. Along the whole bottom of the magazine pages, a train obscured part of the castle wall, almost becoming a part of the stones. Black and white, light and shade, blending into a sepia which smudged all the details. Was there a figure in the window?
23 September 1917
The trials of Felice. The trials of Franz. As they are put together in this obscure little village – with animals and harvest and the clatter of waggons without. Because of the war, her train journey an ordeal of thirty hours. Only to reach this destination. This lover who doesn’t “even have the grace to love another.” That is something F. can understand.
24 September 1917
The two days Felice spent here a trial of misery. A trail of misery. Even – I suspect – when she slept. It is fortunate that I am ill, for it lets her see me in life, the way I am in spirit. The`me’ she would have to fight against. The `me’ which is always opposed to her. We shared quiet meals, grateful and annoyed by Ottla’s constant chatter. As good a hostess as possible to this strange, sullen couple. She must have been thankful that her chores took her away as often as they did. I had no such excuses, yet could offer nothing in their place. F and I were truly left to each other, and any thoughts she might still have about us getting married must surely be removed.
When we did talk, it was about the change in seasons, the harvest (she took an interest), her work in Berlin. About my health when I seemed to tire (my weariness not all caused by being sick). We rarely held hands on our walks – just briefly, in the minutes as we returned. The few kisses were perfunctory. Not even for memories of things past.
26 September 1917
Two weeks away from the Institute. I should – for would not a normal man? – miss something. I’ve taken to feeding the animals.
27 September 1917
In Prague, I often wondered what to do with many of the empty hours. I would lie on the cot, or sit at the table, or walk the streets, but the boredom and despair clung to me like a tattered garment. There were many such days – many long afternoons with the dread of the torpid Sunday dinner damning the course of the day. But here in Zurau, though I spend hours just reclining in the fresh air (as I am supposed to do), often not even looking at the books which I have at my side, I feel comfortable and content. I suppose that I can not go without thought, but I find I can not even tell Ottla (for she asks me) what it is my mind has been doing over the course of the hours. Of its own volition, it must go to those places unknown to me.
30 September 1917
There was a knocking at the window this morning. A polite and concise rap rap rap. It awoke me while the room was barely light. Who could want me so early? And then again, an insistent rap rap rap. I was confused, wondering where I was. The panic of Prague weighted down the covers, and I was sorry I had opened my eyes. The room, the smells – even the bed – was not familiar, so I was both bothered and assured by the strangeness. When I realized I was not in Prague – for who could knock on my third floor window – I remembered I was in Zurau, where things were different. Here my window looked onto a yard, and anyone could be at it. Was there something wrong? Was Ottla after my help? I even wondered, as I searched for my slippers, if her young man had somehow arranged leave from the army, and after much travail had managed to reach the wrong room. I could understand that very well.
I walked hesitantly over to the window, and cautiously pulled back the curtain. Such a commotion ensued that I stepped back in some fright. A bird flew immediately past the glass, its wings frantic as it screeched in agitation. It had been perched on my window ledge, pecking away at the frame. Ottla says it may have been after insects or grubs settled in for the winter. “Insects in the walls of the house?” I asked. “Yes.” She was quite matter-of-fact. “It is a warm place for them during the cold months.” I was not inclined to argue with the logic, but neither had I thought I would be existing in such close proximity with the tenants of nature. Houses for warmth and bugs for food. It is a blend of the base and the subtle which I can appreciate. Much – I like to think – as does the annoyed bird.