Kafka


Whenever I'm asked (and I'm asked with some frequency) which authors I'd most like to design jackets for, I always say Kafka (I mention others too, but Kafka is usually the first to spring to my mind).

There's just something about Kafka- and this something is so very hard to pin down.
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After all, what is it that makes Kafka,
Kafka? The economy; the dark humor; the teasing inscrutability; the brilliance of the thought-experiments; the hieratic and esoteric flavor of the constructions; the disorienting cadence of the prose; the impeccable, internal, magical logic that drives the mechanical toy theaters of his work; the much discussed
Jewishness (as if this was easy to parse); the "concrete abstractions" (in the words of Zadie Smith).... I suppose what some find most relevant and compelling in Kafka is his ability to inspire in them that paradoxical feeling that great literature always aspires to arouse in readers—the feeling of the universality of their own alienation. Kafka is the ne plus ultra of alienation- alienation being arguably the defining emotional condition of the 20th century.



Maybe loving Kafka means no more than admiring his downright peculiarity...he is just so anomalous and extraordinary a writer, so particular in his assets, so without precursor (despite what Borges would have us believe). Me, well, as the saying goes: I love that he makes me laugh. But I will get to humor later.


I had been periodically thinking about a Kafka redesign, but actually began work on the project in earnest when I officially took over the art directing duties over at Pantheon a month ago or so (I'm still the associate art director at Knopf, and, some other new things as well...busy times).

Schocken, which is part of Pantheon Books, has a long and storied relationship with Kafka.


Salman Schocken acquired the world rights to Kafka's works from no less than Max Brod himself in the thirties. Schocken (being a Jewish press, publishing books exclusively for, and by Jews) was exempted from the aryanization of the more generalized German presses, and thus was the first publisher to achieve wide scale distribution of Kafka in Germany. Later, during the war, Schocken published Kafka in its new home in Palestine (in Hebrew), and subsequently, when Schocken opened shop in New York in 1940, Kafka's works were put out in English translation in addition to the German editions Schocken was still publishing.


As it turns out, some of the Kafka rights had been sold in the intervening years, and Schocken was put in the position of having to reacquire them. Writes Pantheon managing editor and Schocken Editorial Director Altie Karper when asked if Kafka was on Pantheon's first list seventy years ago:
"Interestingly enough, no, because Salman Schocken had licensed the rights to The Trial to none other than Alfred A. Knopf* back in the mid-1930s, when Schocken was still in Berlin and could not have imagined that he would wind up publishing books in English in America. It took him (Salman Schocken) quite some time to wrest the English-language rights back from Alfred when he arrived here and started publishing in 1945.


(There is a) hysterically funny series of interoffice memos between then-Schocken-editor Hannah Arendt and publisher Salman Schocken, wherein Arendt flatly states that if Schocken wants those Kafka rights back from Alfred he'd going to have to jolly well get on the phone and speak to The Great Man himself, because Alfred considers her too low down on the totem pole to discuss the matter with her, and refuses to reply to her letters or return her phone calls."

Ms. Karper tells me she has in her possession the document, signed by Hannah Arendt, that gives Schocken the rights back "for a nominal amount of money." Needless to say, I am excited to see this document- and, as an aside, I hope to redesign the Hannah Arendt backlist as well some day.


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"Though during his lifetime he could not make a decent living, he will now keep generations of intellectuals both gainfully employed and well-fed"
—Hannah Arendt

The design:

So, as you can see, I've gone with eyes here (not the first or last time I will use an eye as a device on a jacket-book covers are, after all, faces, both literally and figuratively, of the books they wrap). I find eyes, taken in the singular, create intimacy, and in the plural instill paranoia. This seemed a good combo for Kafka- who is so very adept at the portrayal of the individual, as well as the portrayal of the persecution of the individual.



I also opted for color. It needs saying that Kafka's books are, among other things, funny, sentimental, and in their own way, yea-saying. I am so weary of the serious Kafka, the pessimist Kafka. Kafkaesque has become synonymous with the machinations of anonymous bureaucracy- but, of course, Kafka was a satirist (ironist, exaggerator) of the bureaucratic, and not an organ of it. Because of this mischaracterization, Kafka's books have a tendency to be jacketed in either black, or in some combination of colors I associate with socialist realism, constructivism, or fascism- i.e. black, beige and red. Part of the purpose of this project for me, was to let some of the sunlight back in. In any case, hopefully these colors, though bright, are not without tension.

The typography. The script is an amalgam of Kafka's own hand, and a wonderfully versatile typeface called "Mister K" (based on Kafka's own hand) by Julia Sysmäläine who works at Edenspiekermann in Berlin.


These editions will begin coming out in June and July- they are all paperbacks, with maybe a couple in hardcover as well- time will tell. I'm hoping we can do a box set for them after they all come out (which is already designed- and which has the complete parable "Before the Law" printed on the inside.)


As a final side note- as you can tell from looking at one of the spines from these new editions, there's a new Schocken logo (as well as a bunch of new Pantheon logos- more on these tk) This one springing directly out of this Kafka project:

Well, I hope you enjoy these- there are more updates, with more new book jackets, coming to the blog soon (I know, I keep promising- it's just that I have NO TIME!)

*Pantheon and Schocken are now imprints of Alfred A Knopf (which is a subsidiary of Random house, which is owned by Bertelsmann, which brings us, by commodius vicus of recirculation, back to German publishing and the Jews, but more on that some other day.)

Postscript!

Here's an interesting piece of ephemera, also involving Schocken, Hannah Arendt, and Kafka- this is the letter in which Arendt has Mr. Schocken personally take on the "Kafka Kerfuffle" (as I am now calling it) because, once again, the person in question (Kurt Wolff!) doesn't want to do business with her, a mere editor (and one suspects, a mere woman as well). In this case, the dealings are with New Directions for the rights to, I believe, Amerika (remember Alvin Lustig's cover?)


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Cutting


John Gall. Collage. Check it.

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