Enter the Franz Kafka Caption Contest for a Chance to Win a New Book of the Author’s Drawings (Until June 13)

Imag­ine if Franz Kaf­ka were charged with pick­ing the win­ning entries in The New York­er’s week­ly car­toon cap­tion con­test.

The punch­lines might become a lit­tle more obscure.

If that idea fills you with per­verse plea­sure, per­haps you should tod­dle over to Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press’s Insta­gram to con­tribute some pos­si­ble cap­tions for eight of the inky draw­ings the tor­tured author made in a black note­book between 1901 and 1907.

The intend­ed mean­ing of these images, includ­ed in the new book, Franz Kaf­ka: The Draw­ings, are as up for grabs as any uncap­tioned car­toon on the back page of The New York­er.

In Con­ver­sa­tions with Kaf­ka, author Gus­tav Janouch recalled how their sig­nif­i­cance proved elu­sive even to their cre­ator, and also the frus­tra­tion his friend expressed regard­ing his artis­tic abil­i­ties:

I should so like to be able to draw. As a mat­ter of fact, I am always try­ing to. But noth­ing comes of it. My draw­ings are pure­ly per­son­al pic­ture writ­ing, whose mean­ing even I can­not dis­cov­er after a time.

Kaf­ka seems to have gone eas­i­er on him­self in a 1913 let­ter to fiancée Felice Bauer:

I was once a great drafts­man, you know… These draw­ings gave me greater sat­is­fac­tion in those days—it’s years ago—than any­thing else.

Artist Philip Har­ti­gan, who ref­er­enced the draw­ings in a jour­nal and sketch­book class for writ­ing stu­dents nails it when he describes how Kafka’s “quick min­i­mum move­ments … con­vey the typ­i­cal despair­ing mood of his fic­tion in just a few lines.”

You have until June 13 to make explic­it what Kaf­ka did not by leav­ing your pro­posed cap­tion for each draw­ing as a com­ment on Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press’s Insta­gram, along the hash­tag #Kafka­Cap­tion­Con­test.

Win­ners will receive a copy of  Franz Kaf­ka: The Draw­ings. Entries will be judged by edi­tor Andreas Kilch­er of and the­o­rist Judith But­ler, who con­tributed an essay that you might con­sid­er min­ing for mate­r­i­al:

Was it a muf­fled death? Or per­haps it was no death at all, just a tum­bling of inter­course, a sex­u­al flur­ry?

Yes, that might go nice­ly with Kafka’s draw­ing of a seat­ed fig­ure col­lapsed over a table, below.


Some alter­nate pro­pos­als from con­test hope­fuls:

I need­ed to bathe my bat­tered knuck­les with my tears.

He stud­ied his new­ly acquired rare stamp with a pow­er­ful loupe.

How can I make sure that all my let­ters and papers will be destroyed after my death? I know — I’ll ask my clos­est friend to take care of it!

This last is a ref­er­ence to Kafka’s lit­er­ary execu­tor, Max Brod, who defied Kafka’s explic­it wish that all of his work be burned upon his death, save The Meta­mor­pho­sis, and five short sto­ries: The Judg­ment, The Stok­er, In the Penal Colony, A Coun­try Doc­tor and A Hunger Artist.

Brod cut Kafka’s draw­ing of the stand­ing fig­ure, above, from his sketch­book and kept in an enve­lope with a few oth­ers. Some of the cur­rent cap­tion sug­ges­tions for this haunt­ing, nev­er before seen image:

my face is an umbrel­la to my tears

I could­n’t face myself.

I am the Wal­rus goo goo g’joob


Of the eight draw­ings in the cap­tion con­test, Drinker, may offer the most nar­ra­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties. A rep­re­sen­ta­tive sam­pling of the inven­tive­ness that’s come over the tran­som thus­far:

I, peri­od

Angered by the impu­dence of the caber­net, i had only the courage to berate its shad­ow

Wait­er! There’s a roach in my wine.

Enter Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press’ Kaf­ka Cap­tion Con­test (or get a feel for the com­pe­ti­tion) here. Entries will be accept­ed through June 13. Full con­test rules are here. Good luck!

Explore the draw­ings and oth­er con­tents of Franz Kafka’s black note­book here.

Pur­chase Franz Kaf­ka: The Draw­ings, the first book to pub­lish the entire­ty of the author’s graph­ic out­put, here.

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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