At age six, Franz Kafka was an unsmiling lad in beribboned suit, his eyes recalling the gloom of Thomas Hardy's Father Time. At 10, he was big-eared and frail-looking, standing with his sisters in a sober-sided pose. At 40, he faced the day as a hollow- cheeked waif, a cardboard cutout in a shadow-gray coat. A year later -- June 3, 1924 -- he was dead.
Kafka, whose name has metamorphosed into a word for futility and perversity, is the subject of a photography show at the B'nai B'rith's Klutznick Museum. The show, titled "Kafka -- Prague," features the writer, his family, his women, manuscripts and letters, plus photos of the city where he lived and wrote his books.
It does nothing to dispel the widely held notion that the author of "Metamorphosis," in which a man becomes a bug, and "The Castle," in which the hero trudges pointlessly through a labyrinth of bureaucracy, was not a cheerful fellow.
What the show does do, artfully and carefully, is flesh out the life and times of this high priest of despair. Franz, it turns out, did have his moments of happiness: with Milena Jesenska, a young Czech writer with whom he fell in love, and with Dora Diamant, his teenage mistress who nursed him until he died of tuberculosis.
He also had moments of hope. Born to a well-to-do Jewish family, Kafka dreamed in his final years of emigrating to Israel. The collection, which came to town from the Jewish Museum of New York, originated in Tel Aviv, and much of it concerns Kafka's growing interest in Judaism and his deepening commitment to Zionism.
All of the above gets ample treatment, in a hundred-odd photos with accompanying text, including excerpts from Kafka's diaries, manuscript pages in his own hand and even a telegram -- WARUM KEINE ANTWORT ("Why no answer?") -- to his two- time fianc,ee, Felice Bauer. These bits of Kafka's papers in the expressive German that he wrote and spoke -- but also in the Hebrew he had started to learn -- were lent by Schocken Books of New York.
You can rush through "Kafka -- Prague" in a couple of hours. It's presented in digestible morsels -- childhood, Jewish identity, women, works -- with the old photos intermingled with pictures by Jan Parik. Parik, like Kafka, a Czech, took his camera to Prague to retrace the writer's steps.
Most of his shots -- a thoroughfare along the Fleischmarkt where Kafka attended primary school; the workers' district in Karlin, to which Kafka often trekked as an accident inspector for the government -- are framed by shadows and bleakly composed.
The many staircases he's recorded here -- at the Insurance Insitute where Kakfa worked, or at Kafka's apartment on Bilkova Street -- look endless and inaccessible. The corridors and streets seem infinite, the buildings big and frightful. After a while -- especially in the section dealing with Kafka's final years, wherein all the photos are night shots and the street lamps look like fallen stars -- you get the feeling that Parik became carried away with his subject.
No matter. Those who trouble to see this show will not find the effort futile.
KAFKA -- PRAGUE -- At the Klutznick Museum of the B'nai B'rith, 1640 Rhode Island Avenue NW, through January.