helen maccormac

100 Years on: Kafka and the Glory of Life

Michael Kumpfmüller at the Literaturhaus Kassel © A. Gebhardt

By Helen MacCormac

This year marks the centenary of Franz Kafka’s death. Although he is one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, no one had ever heard of him when he died in 1924. Now, 100 years later, the man who brought us Gregor Samsa is being celebrated around the world. Events include everything from a “Kafka tram” to festivals, TV series and a brand-new film.

Oxford University has conjured up #OxfordKafka24. The campaign includes “Kafka: Making of an Icon”, a free exhibition at the Bodleian’s Weston Library, which runs from May 30th to October 27th 2024, and a series of academic and public events exploring Kafka’s enduring global appeal.

The Goethe-Institut will be hosting events in 36 countries and has also brought out a video game called “Playing Kafka”, which explores the world of the literary genius.

One person who started celebrating early is German author Michael Kumpfmüller. The new film Die Herrlichkeit des Lebens, which came out in March, is based on his novel of the same name. Seizing the opportunity to promote his 13-year-old book, Kumpfmüller contacted literary venues in towns where the film was due to be screened, and set off on a whirlwind reading tour of 40 cities as soon as the film came out. The tour has been a huge success. In Kassel, the Literaturhaus was packed and we could have sold twice as many books if we’d had them.

Kafka is synonymous with dark, nightmarish worlds, but although Kumpfmüller’s book focuses on the end of Kafka’s life, he sheds a bright, almost cheerful light on Kafka’s final year. In the summer of 1923, tuberculosis-stricken Franz Kafka meets 25-year-old Dora Diamant, and within weeks, they embark on a life together amidst the challenges of hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic. Despite the tumultuous times, Kafka and Dora remain inseparable until his death. Beautifully written and meticulously researched, Kumpfmüller’s novel delicately weaves together Kafka’s writings with Dora’s perspective, portraying a man who finds love and seizes control of his life before it’s too late.

Kumpfmüller, who was invited to accompany the filmmaking process, is a great storyteller on stage too. He shares anecdotes about how he discovered Kafka as a love-struck teenager or was inspired to write Die Herrlichkeit des Lebens when he saw a picture of Dora Diamant. Alongside, he reads passages from his novel, alternating between Dora’s and Kafka’s perspectives, and highlights the differences between writing and filmmaking. It’s a fantastic evening, and I’m sure everyone leaves feeling inspired to either read the book or watch the film!

If you missed the film or can’t read German, don’t worry – Kumpfmüller’s book Die Herrlichkeit des Lebens, translated into English as The Glory of Life by the late, great Anthea Bell in 2013, is still available in print ♡.

Michael Kumpfmüller, born in 1961 in Munich and now living in Berlin, is a German writer known for his celebrated novels such as Hampels Fluchten (2000), Durst (2003), and Nachricht an alle (2008). He has won numerous awards, including the Döblin Prize. Die Herrlichkeit des Lebens was published in 2011 and has been translated into 27 languages. Kumpfmüller’s recent novels include Tage mit Ora (2018), Ach, Virginia (2020), and Mischa und der Meister (2022).

The film Die Herrlichkeit des Lebens is directed by Georg Maas & Judith Kaufmann and stars Sabin Tambrea and Henriette Confurius. 

Meet Caroline Wahl – and Literaturhaus Kassel

Caroline Wahl, behind a table in her pink jumper at the event
Caroline Wahl @ Literaturhaus Kassel

Two sisters, a dysfunctional family, and a bit of romance.
Helen MacCormac on Caroline Wahl and her debut novel, 22 Bahnen

I work for Literaturhaus Kassel and get to invite amazing writers to talk about their books and the ideas that inspire them. If you have never heard about “Literaturhäuser” before, you can read Susan Bernofsky’s take on the ones in Berlin here and there’s another article in The Dial that I found really useful.

BTW, we have just moved to this amazing location!!!

Literaturhaus Kassel
Palais Bellevue © Literaturhaus Kassel

We wanted to start the new season with a bang, so we booked Caroline Wahl for one of our first readings at our beautiful new venue. 22 Bahnen shot straight onto the bestseller lists when it came out in April and has remained there ever since. Caroline’s readings are sold out, and her audiences love her.

Our reading very nearly didn’t happen, though. Caroline got caught up in some German Bahnchaos and couldn’t get to Kassel. When she did finally arrive (at the end of October because everyone kept their tickets 😊), we weren’t sure what to expect audience-wise:

22 Bahnen is a coming-of-age story. 25-year-old Tilda is running on a tight schedule. She lives in a boring town where she looks after her 10-year-old sister and her alcoholic mum, and works at a supermarket to fund her maths degree. The best part of the day is swimming 22 lengths at the local pool. This is where she meets Viktor – and life seems full of possibilities all of a sudden. But Viktor is fighting his own demons.

It turned out that most of the audience were women in their fifties or sixties, as surprised as us that there weren’t more younger people there.

Caroline read three moving and gripping passages from 22 Bahnen, answering questions in between, and pre-empting a few more: No, she didn’t go swimming every day, and no, this was definitely not an autobiographical novel. She explained that she found characters from difficult backgrounds like Angelika Klüssendorf’s Das Mädchen inspiring, and had wanted to invent somebody who was strong and resilient but still had hopes and dreams, despite her situation.

As she talked, Caroline reminded me of Tilda. Tough, funny. Smart, with the same taste in clothes: pink fluffy jumper, long flowery skirt and chunky boots. We chatted about how the book came about. Caroline revealed that she’d been living in Zurich at the time, unhappy in the city and her job and had started the book project to cheer herself up. She wrote the first draft in just three months, and I wondered if that was part of its appeal? It is a captivating read: happy-sad feel-good escapism with a touch of kitsch. Caroline said she hadn’t expected the kitsch to happen, but added that it’s good kitsch, and she’s right.

Despite garnering a whole bunch of awards, 22 Bahnen hasn’t been nominated for any of the major literary prizes. Germany still likes to distinguish between E (serious) and U (entertaining) literature. I don’t think Caroline minds. With her debut, she has achieved more than most writers manage in a lifetime, able to give up her day job to focus on her writing. Her next novel, Windstärke 17, set on Rügen island, is due out in May.

My favourite line: “Hey Siri, call the police!”

German nuggets: Abendbrot, Freibäder, Provinzroman

Editor’s note: If all this has you curious but you don’t read German, the publishers have an English sample available here, translated by Gesche Ipsen.