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20.12.09

McCrum on Kafka's Manuscripts

On the archive at Oxford University

Robert McCrum recounts the troubled history of Max Brod's Kafka manuscripts, and shares his experiences of the archive at Oxford's Bodleian Library:
One of the most moving manuscripts is "Das Urteil" ("The Judgment"), a story of some 30 pages written – astonishingly – in a single sitting from 10 o'clock at night to six in the morning. Dated 23 September 1912, it is followed by a diary note expressing Kafka's joy at "the only way to write, only with such coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and the soul". Scholars say that this marks his creative breakthrough. Authorship is a mystery: to see the scratched ink on the flimsy paper of the cheap, brown-backed notebook is to glimpse something strange and magical.

The potency of such manuscript pages is impossible to convey. Quite apart from the electrifying aesthetic impact, it also raises many important issues of ownership and creativity. Where should Kafka's manuscripts be stored? Israel, Germany or Oxford? Would a digital version be a match for the actual manuscript? What do such documents add to our understanding of great literature? It's also a reminder that to start writing, only three things are needful: a cheap notebook, a pen or pencil and something to say that's new and original. The first two are easy to come by. If you happen to possess the third, you may find an audience, in many formats, to the end of time. [Read More]

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