Alt Kafka – Franz Kafka in Alternate History

Franz Kafka
Cover of Franz Kafka

This blog post is written by Séamus Sweeney. Séamus is the author of Dublin Can Be Heaven from Alt Hist 3.

Writers often write about writers and writing.  This is hardly surprising for many reasons. One is the simple fact that writers generally like books, and that books therefore feature prominently in stories. Another is the postmodern turn of literature in the last number of years, in which allusion, reference, and even recapitulation of texts play a more prominent role in modernism or in the traditional realist novel. And specifically in alternate history, as the genre is by definition a literary rewriting and subversion of the historical record, literature and its power to reshape reality is a theme with a clear appeal and relevance.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, literature and literary figures feature prominently in alternate history fiction. In Bruce Sterling and William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, the great romantic poets of the early 19th century Keats and Shelly  do  not die young of consumption or drowning, but live on as a “kinotropist” (an operator of pixelated magic-lanterns) and a Luddite  respectively. The Man In The High Castle prominently features Hawthore Abendson’s The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in which Roosevelt is not assassinated in 1940 (as in the reality of  Dick’s novel) and the Axis is defeated (although not quite in the manner of our own history).

John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly’s Kafkaesque (which I did a general review of here: is a sparkling anthology of stories inspired in various ways by the works of Franz Kafka. Some stories are “Kafkaesque” in the literal sense of Kafka-like. Some echo specific Kafka stories, or are rewrites of them. Some stories are from now-deceased, writers highly-influential beyond speculative fiction, such as  Jorge Luis Borges and J G Ballard

Several of the stories concern themselves with alternate history. These play upon themes of Kafka’s own life and work to thought-provoking effect. I personally found the stories never strayed into irritatingly clever-clever allusion, even though many postmodern tics were on display.  For instance Johnathan Lethem and Carter Scholz’s “Receding Horizon” features Kafka surviving his tuberculosis, crossing the Atlantic (which the author of “America” never did in his own life), writing scripts for his near-namesake Frank Capra under the name “Jack Dawson (Kafka/Capra . This story could easily have tipped over the edge into arch literary knowingness; “kavka” is Czech for “jackdaw” and  Lethem and Scholz insert themselves into the narrative. There is a punch to the story, an emotional resonance in what becomes a sort of mirror of Capra’s most celebrated film.

Carter Scholz’s “The Weight To Carry” again brings Kafka to America, this time to attend an insurance convention. The image of Kafka as self-torturing neurotic is somewhat belied by his known competence at his day job. In Scholz’s story, Kafka is not the only conference delegate whose later fame extends far beyond insurance; the poet Wallace Stevens and the composer Charles Ives also attend.

Philip Roth of course is the author of the alternate history novel of recent years most respected by the literary establishment, The Plot Against America, and here another excursion into the shifting of historical timelines, “”I Always Wanted You To Admire My Fasting’, or Looking At Kafka” explores familiar Rothian themes, with the twist of Kakfa moving to America rather than dying in Europe. Personally I find a little Roth goes a long way as he is rather one-note writer, but there is no doubting his craft.

Paul di Fillipo’s “The Jackdaw’s Last Case” is the wildest reimaging. Yet again we have Kafka in America, this time as a mild mannered reporter by day, crime fighting superhero (“The Jackdaw”) by night. Kafka writers for one of the papers of Bernarr MacFadden, media mogul, proponent of physical culture, muscle man and generally a historical figure I had never heard of whose acquaintance I was very glad to make.

The word “jew” never occurs in Kafka’s writing, yet his work has been seen by many as foreseeing the fate of European Jewry. Tamar Yellin’s “Kafka In Brontëland”, which may or may not be fully alternate history , but does locate a mysterious Mr Kafka in the English countryside , is the most explicit treatment of this theme (which is present in many stories here, especially Roth’s). Once again, however, this is primarily an excellent and affecting story whose literary concerns do not overwhelm the narrative effect.

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