Franz Kafka, failed travel entrepreneur

by on January 7, 2017 at 2:48 am in Books, History, Travel | Permalink

How about calling the series “Lonely Planet”?

Years before penning Metamorphosis, considered by some to be the greatest short story ever written, Franz Kafka hoped to make his fortune writing a series of budget European travel guides.

Kafka conceived a business plan for the books, dubbed “on the cheap”, while travelling across the continent with his friend Max Brod in the summer of 1911. This detail was revealed in volume three of Reiner Stach’s biography, Kafka: The Early Years, published in translation (by Shelley Frisch) last month.

The ahead-of-its-time idea (considering the popularity of budget travel tips today) sought to take on the traditional Baedeker travel guides, which then consisted primarily of hotel and restaurant listings, but lacked the insider knowledge Kafka felt was truly valuable to a traveller.

Questions that his guides proposed to address are ones that tourists still seek answers for now. On which days do museums have reduced fees? Are there any free concerts? Should you travel by taxi or tram? How much should you tip? There was also a suggestion to include advice on where to find erotic and sexual entertainment for a fair price.

Stach writes: “Kafka and Brod were convinced that a travel guide that answered all these questions candidly and supplied a select few reasonable and reliable recommendations would instantly beat out the competition … With a series of this kind, they could earn millions, especially if it was published in several languages.”

Yet it seems they were a wee bit clueless on their own travels:

For example, after discovering that Zurich’s city library was closed on Sundays, the pair believed they could still gain entry by asking at the tourist office.


…the pair were so afraid that their idea would be stolen that they wouldn’t reveal the full details of their pitch to a publisher without first securing an advance.

I would have enjoyed hearing the Swiss travel office response.  Here is the full story, via Ted Gioia.

1 Nicholas Marsh January 7, 2017 at 3:40 am

I feel sure that Kafka would have had the book display the words “Don’t Panic” on the cover.

2 Thiago Ribeiro January 7, 2017 at 6:26 am

The ahead-of-its-time idea (considering the popularity of budget travel tips today) sought to take on the traditional Baedeker travel guides, which then consisted primarily of hotel and restaurant listings, but lacked the insider knowledge Kafka felt was truly valuable to a traveller.”

But the Baedeker travel guides informed that the Kaiser used to appear for the public on the evenings. Would Kafka’s guide be as useful as that? I doubt it. If I were travelling through Europe on a budget which kings would I be able to see spending less than 10 shillings a day?

3 Ray Lopez January 7, 2017 at 12:12 pm

Informing the public where royalty would stay, such as Archduke Franz Ferdinand, led to WWI.

4 Thiago Ribeiro January 7, 2017 at 12:18 pm

But who would have reason to hate the Kaiser?

5 Attila Smith January 7, 2017 at 12:26 pm

Bravo Ray, fantastically witty comment.

6 Just Another MR Commentor, King of the Komments January 7, 2017 at 6:33 am

I don’t know about in the early 20th century but those Baedeker guides are awful in this day in age.

7 Gavrilo Princip January 7, 2017 at 7:20 am

I need a travel guide that will let me know where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand will be and if he wears some kind of bulletproof vest I should be aware of or if there will be many guards around and if one can sneak explosives and guns near him. I happen to suffer from crippling shyness and a pathological fear of terrorists. I want… his Imperial Highness’ autograph. Yeah… That’s the ticket! I can’t rely on dumb luck to make my burning dream of meeting him come true. If you can help me, the people of the free, unified Yuguslav state will thank you. Any information on his itinerary would be most helpful.

I also would like to sell my things, I suspect I won’t have further use for them.

Yours sincerely;
Gavrilo Princip

8 The Other Jim January 7, 2017 at 8:54 am

Nobody actually says “That’s the ticket.” Not even in 1914.

You’re better than that, Gav.

9 Francis Scott Fitzgerald January 7, 2017 at 9:43 am

I will let you know it’s very hip slang. My wife Zelda and my friend Ernest used to it all the time when we were in Paris with Gertrude. Yeah, yeah, that’s the ticket. Gertrude Stein had fallen in love with me and Zelda was mad at her.

10 Zelda January 7, 2017 at 1:38 pm

I’m not being catty, Francis, but Gertrude’s a dyke. Sorry.

11 An impartial critic January 7, 2017 at 4:20 pm

I doubt Ms. Stein likes Mr. Fitzgerald just for his brilliant turning of phrase and the impressive paintings of society he has drawn with the masterful strokes of his pen. Mr. Fitzgerald is not only the most brilliant American writer, he is also, according to lots of women, the most virile, handosome and generous lover the American land has ever seen.

12 4ChanMan January 7, 2017 at 6:20 pm

F. Scott Fitzgerald is well known to have been a cuck

13 An impartial critic January 7, 2017 at 6:33 pm

It is a lie. Mr. Fitzgerald happens to be virile and widely desired for women of all ages, races and nationalities. He is awesome.

14 So Much For Subtlety January 7, 2017 at 10:25 am

I have a picture in my head now of one Adolf Schikelgruber using Kafka’s guide to navigate his way around the cheap hotels in Vienna.

15 Thiago Ribeiro January 7, 2017 at 10:57 am

The neighborhood was bad. First, they took Vienna, then they took the 20th Century.

16 Thiago Ribeiro January 7, 2017 at 10:58 am
17 Dan Lavatan-Jeltz January 8, 2017 at 12:16 am

The travel office would just have him wait outside in line for 24 hours until it opened Monday. It would be no problem for Kafka

18 Dave January 9, 2017 at 11:56 pm

Places to go without spider’s webs just in case you metamorphose into an insect?

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