Completely Kafka by Nicolas Mahler

1208 4

Translated by Alexander Booth

Review by Karen Langley

2024 is the centenary of the death of author Franz Kafka and the year has seen a flurry of interest focusing on this. Many publications and tributes have appeared, and perhaps one of the most unexpected and enjoyable is the book Completely Kafka by Nicolas Mahler, with text translated by Alexander Booth. Mahler is an Austrian illustrator and cartoonist, and I don’t believe his name is particularly well know in this country, although a number of his works are available in English thanks to Seagull Publishers.

Completely Kafka is subtitled A Comic Biography, and the emphasis is understandably on illustration. In his distinctive style, Mahler undertakes to tell Kafka’s life story in 127 pages, starting with his father, a towering and oppressive presence for young Franz. Mahler’s foundation myth has Kafka senior created out of clay by Rabbi Low, the 16th century Hebrew scholar who is credited with having made the legendary Golem. Kafka senior is an imposing figure; his son an almost afterthought, created out of a tiny piece of leftover clay. Although this is of course apocryphal, it’s an entertaining way to begin a quirky story, as well as quickly establishing the dynamic between father and son.

Mahler takes the reader through Kafka’s life, picking out pivotal events to convey its trajectory. The images are wonderfully rendered in his idiosyncratic style, and his stick man Kafka is very appealing. These are accompanied by text, and the selections are particularly interesting. Mahler narrates Kafka’s life in what is often a deadpan style, but includes many quotes from Kafka himself and those to whom he was close. Max Brod, his best friend and literary executor, is by necessity a strong presence in the book; however, Mahler explores his relationships with women, particularly his on-off fiancée Felice, as well as Milena, one of his translators, with whom he was also smitten.

Kafka continued to write letters to his eternal fiancée Felice. What kind of woman wouldn’t have been charmed by the following?

I am not doing well, what with all the effort I need to keep myself alive and sane I could have built the pyramids. Franz”

Woven into the biography are sections focusing on some of Kafka’s major works,and I found the illustrations to these particularly entertaining. Those for The Metamorphosis are, by necessity, of a long-suffering bug for whom you can’t help but feel sorry. Kafka’s first major success, In a Penal Colony, brings forth some vivid drawings. The Castle and The Trial are featured, and, interestingly, some of Kafka’s short stories: ‘The Hunger Artist’ is a title which is very powerful, and his last story, ‘Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse People’, is remarkably moving.

All of these works are set against Kafka’s life, and Mahler skilfully explores how this affected his writing. As he reminds us, we are lucky to have most of Kafka’s writings, thanks to Brod ignoring his friend’s request to destroy all of his papers on his death; instead, Brod saved, edited and published works like The Castle and The Trial, ensuring Kafka’s posthumous reputation.

Telling the life of Kafka in comic book form might not seem the obvious way to do it, but the book is remarkably successful in portraying its pathos as well as allowing plenty of humour into the tale. The illustrations themselves are very funny, and Mahler allows a dry wit into his commentary which lifts what could have been a dark story of a writer doomed not to publish in his lifetime and to die young. Kafka indeed passed away of 3rd June 1924 from tuberculosis, and he can have had no idea of the influence his work would have.

As I mentioned, Mahler tells much of the story by the use of quotes, and these are all referenced in the back if the reader wants to investigate any of them further. It should be pointed out that, if you’ve not read Kafka, there are some spoilers when Mahler is discussing his works but if you’re already well versed in Kafka, this won’t be a problem.

For a book of its length, Completely Kafka really does capture the essence of the life and work of the great author and is a wonderful way to gain insight into his story. The drawings are a delight – I’m a huge fan of Mahler’s style – and the book brings Kafka to life in an entertaining and unforgettable manner. One hundred years after his death, it’s lovely to see a book which explores Kafka’s life showing both light and shade, and which gives a surprisingly rounded picture of the man and his work. Highly recommended!

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and feels that the world gets more
and more Kafkaesque every day…

Nicolas Mahler, Completely Kafka (Pushkin Press, 2024). 978-1805331582.
127pp., paperback.

BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)

4 comments

  1. This is so innovative! I’d never have thought an approach like this would work, but clearly, it does. And it does sound interesting and informative, too.

    1. It’s a very clever way to tell a life story, and the blending of his own words with Mahler’s illustrations and narrative works really well. It also conveys the essence of Kafka, so from my point of view it’s a real success!!

  2. I remember thinking that I didn’t necessarily believe that a graphic novel of The Odyssey but Gareth Hinds changed my mind, so I can see how this would win you over too. Maybe we are just too word focussed overall (which is understandable).

    1. Yes, I agree about our word focus, and I tent to be skeptical about graphic novels too. But they *can* work (Maus is a case in point). This book combines the visuals with the words beautifully, and as I love Mahler’s style it was perfect for me!

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