The Entrepreneurial Kafka



These two excerpts from Reiner Stach’s Is That Kafka? 99 Finds reveal a new side to Kafka—and new shades of meaning for the Kafkaesque.

Is that Kafka?

How Kafka and Brod Almost Became Millionaires

During a trip that they took together in August and September of 1911, traveling to Paris via Lugano and Milan, Kafka and Max Brod hit on the idea of creating a new type of travel guide. “It would be called Billig (On the Cheap),” Brod remembered. “Franz was tireless and got a childlike pleasure out of elaborating all the principles down to the nest detail for this new type of guide, which was supposed to make us millionaires, and above all wrest us away from our awful office work. Then I engaged in a very serious correspondence with publishers about our ‘Reform of Guidebooks.’ The negotiations failed because we didn’t want to disclose our precious secret without an enormous advance.” 

In fact, a letter that Kafka wrote to Brod almost a year later shows that even after so many months, the two of them were still thinking about how to realize their plan. After Brod had spoken to Ernst Rowohlt about various publication projects and reported to Kafka about his discussions, Kafka complained: “you didn’t say anything about On the Cheap.”

Kafka and Brod drafted the following memorandum in Lugano, presumably in the early days of September. It is written on stationary from the Hotel Belvédère au Lac, in Brod’s hand:

Our Plan to Make Millions: On the Cheap

A business venture worth millions.

On the Cheap through Italy, On the Cheap through Switzerland, On the Cheap in Paris—On the Cheap in the Bohemian Spas and in Prague

Can be translated into every language.

Motto: Just Dare.

Our democratic age has already provided all of the conditions for easy, universal travel, but this has gone practically unnoticed. Our task is to collect this information and make it known in a systematic fashion.—Until now, practical inquiries and practical advice (Berliner Tageblatt [Berlin Daily]) from friends: stray comments, off-hand, quickly forgotten—a few very useful things, as we can all attest. Very little about this in the guides. A weak effort in this regard is the * in Bädeker and the rating “praised”—often disappointing.

What does “on the cheap” mean.—Many nuances. We distinguish ourselves from the palatial hotels and the gaudy, gauche middle class.— Also from below.—We address ourselves to those who consider travel too expensive, either mistakenly or because they have received poor advice, and who remain in the regions near their own cities (which are pretty in and of themselves, but already familiar). We want to provide information about other destinations that are just as affordable as these summer resorts—possibly even including transportation costs.

And to those who dare to travel, but whose travels are spoiled by the math and calculations—and (pardon!) to those who are ripped off.—Until now, the risk of accidentally falling for a scam has always had to be taken into account, and that has often been blamed on the country. Italy, Paris. So we will also improve the reputations of the countries.—Better relations between nations.

The educational aspect—energizing the whole person.
Only poorly oriented travelers are ripped off.
The same pleasure for less money. Consommation in Monico.

Precision, limitations. Travelers should be spared the choice.—A route for 400, 500 francs, etc.

Principle of group travel, but solo. Compare to “Teach Yourself” pamphlets.

No comprehensive geography, only routes.

We only name one hotel, and others in descending order in case this one is full.

If tramway is available, we do not include the carriage. We recommend a precise time for the trip.
Equally simple: Doctors …

[The following in Kafka’s hand] Not quick or slow travelers, but a certain middle group. Detours are easier, since additions can always be made to a precise plan.

Exact tipping amounts.

[In Brod’s hand again] Not pedantic: e.g. we recommend tipping the lifeguard—telescope on the Rigi—

About the routes: nothing is repeated. Only one cable car ride, but the best one!

Excerpt from the Railway Courier. What to take on the trip?

We offer more. The brief “General Section” in other guides.


Bordellos. Warnings against con men. (N.B. The candor of our guide.)


Shopping on the cheap e.g. silk in Italy; pineapples, madeleines, oysters in Paris.

No fear of the wrong currency.
Free concerts.
Cheaper days (e.g. art galleries) figured in after expensive voyages. Where to get free tickets like a local.
Steamers, second class.
No fear of the 3rd class in Italy. Local color.
Reform of country and city maps?

Explanation of casinos, losses.

Free maps in travel bureaus, criticism of them in our guides, the rest can be believed.

III. cont.
What to do on rainy days. Or possibly on the last day.
Art gallery, on the cheap day. Only a few important pictures.
But in thorough detail (like Kunstwart magazine), educational.
Good theater seats on the cheap, otherwise only known to habitués. Disembarking from the steamer.

Recommended hotels checked by an organization.

We take care of training the authors, reviewing their texts, doing spot checks.

N.B. How is Baedeker organized?

Brochures with updates for 10 pfennig, ever other year or so, 5 vouchers in the books.

Caution against postcards, limited to the 12 enclosed (?)

Language guide, because knowing the language saves a lot of money.

Editions with and without language guide, for people who know the language.

Our principle: It is impossible to completely learn a language. One should be content to learn a sufficient amount with a minimum of effort. More sufficient than speaking the language poorly after studying it in depth and having to think about rules.—Infinitives paired together.—200 words.—A sort of Esperanto.—Hand gestures in Italian.—Pronunciation in depth.—No barriers to further learning.—French by us.—The most important things about Swiss dialect.

Buy one On the Cheap.



Kafka Invents the Answering Machine

The invention of a cross between a telephone and a parlograph, it really can’t be that hard. Surely by the day after tomorrow you’ll be reporting to me that the project is already a success. Of course that would have an enormous impact on editorial offices, news agencies, etc. Harder, but doubtless possible as well, would be a combination of the gramophone and the telephone. Harder because you can’t understand a gramophone at all, and a parlograph can’t ask it to speak more clearly. A combination of the gramophone and the telephone wouldn’t have such great significance in general either, but for people like me, who are afraid of the telephone, it would be a relief. But then people like me are also afraid of the gramophone, so we can’t be helped at all. By the way, it’s a nice idea that a parlograph could go to the telephone in Berlin, call up a gramophone in Prague, and the two of them could have a little conversation with each other. But my dearest the combination of the parlograph and the telephone absolutely has to be invented.

ANSWeringmachineAlthough Kafka was timid and skeptical in his interactions with the latest technical gadgets—particularly when they intervened in social communication—he was always fascinated by people who knew how to handle these devices as a matter of course. That included his fiancée Felice Bauer, who worked in the Berlin offices of Carl Lindström AG, where she was in charge of marketing for the “parlograph,” a dictation machine. Bauer even appeared in an advertising film that Lindström produced and distributed as a flip-book. In this film, which is only a few seconds long, she can be seen working with the parlograph and the typewriter simultaneously. (See the photo at left.)

Felice Bauer never had a chance to make a profit off of Kafka’s 1913 idea, because the combination of a telephone and a dictation machine had already been invented and patented—including the functions of an answering machine. The engineer Ernest O. Kumberg had invented the “Telephonograph” in 1900, and the 1909 edition of the dictionary Meyers Konversationslexikon describes the “Telegraphon,” produced in Denmark. However, these devices were quite labor-intensive and never enjoyed widespread popularity. The first answering machine suitable for household use, the “Isophon,” became available in the 1950s.

Translated from the German by Kurt Beals.

Reiner Stach, born in 1951 in Saxony, is the author of the definitive biography of Kafka.

Is That Kafka? will be published by New Directions on March 21.