Peter Kuper: Kafkaesque

Kafkaesque FINAL FINAL COVER

[Image: (c) 2018 Peter Kuper]

Kafkaesque is a new book by graphic artist Peter Kuper featuring stories by Franz Kafka. Kuper, whose previous graphic novel Ruins won an Eisner Award in 2016, has produced black-and-white woodcut-style illustrations for 14 stories by Kafka. Kafka wrote stories in different forms. There were lengthy allegories, stories in the form of dreams and short parables which were as honed as parables of Biblical character. Kafka was the sort of visual writer whose stories lend themselves to illustration – ones with lots of strong images but not overly descriptive or detailed. Interestingly enough, when Kafka discussed with his publisher the illustrations for his famous “Metamorphosis” (wherein Gregor Samsa woke one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect) Kafka was categorically insistent that the insect Gregor not be depicted. Kuper has elected not to illustrate “Metamorphosis” – but only because he has already made his version of it.

Kuper decided to work on scratchboard, which is an inked board or paper which is scratched away with a tool. This is working in negative, a reverse of the ink-on-paper positive approach. This gives the images a starker, rawer feeling. The slight irregularities of the scratching – combined with the unreliable fidelity of the scanning technology which records it – add to the slight wavering quality of the images. This softens what might otherwise be a rather harsh mono style without mid-tones. The style also works against cross-hatching, which tends to abrade scratchboard unpleasantly and erratically. The primacy of black gives the panels an omnipresent atmosphere of impending darkness, where daylight or electric light are only brief reprieves from the natural normality of a dark universe. In Kafka’s writing, one feels the standard is ignorance, unfairness, oblivion, coldness and isolation. There is much humour in Kafka – which Kuper brings out – but that does not invalidate his bleak outlook. Humour is the spark of humanity in the cosmic expanse of indifference and darkness. It is deliberate that blank pages between stories are black rather than white.

Extracts of Kafka’s text are used as narration and dialogue. The stories are changed from Kafka’s neutral or naturalistic settings to a heightened setting, often in modern America, though never explicitly contemporary. Kuper’s art blends uses imagery of mid-century America, populated by people, drawn in a consistent and stylised manner. The stylisation is in line with the Expressionist printmakers that Kuper admires.

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[Image: (c) 2018 Peter Kuper]

The artist describes his drawn stories as translations and conversations with the original stories. Sometimes Kuper has adapted freely and imposed a distinct personal approach. For example, “The Trees” becomes a depiction of homeless rough sleepers on New York streets. “Before The Law” becomes an allegory of racial injustice, where a black man awaits admittance to the chambers of the law, guarded by a white man. To be fair to Kuper, he leaves this matter open to our interpretation but our knowledge of current political narratives suggests a political intention. “In The Penal Colony” needs no alteration to make it a criticism of the severity of judicial punishment. The story is rather complex. Kafka undercuts the obvious message extolling humanist compassion by portraying the prisoner, condemned to die on an elaborate machine, as a hardly better than an animal, a comic stooge and a fool who is both an impediment and willing participant in his execution. There are many other elements, not least of which is the story functioning as a parable critical of society. The story leaves us in some doubt about the apparent moral that capital punishment is cruel and unusual.

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[Image: (c) 2018 Peter Kuper]

Overall, Kafkaesque balances the humour and seriousness of the original stories. One thing that Kuper has not been able to replicate is the eeriness of Kafka’s prose and scenes, which fluctuate between the ordinary and uncanny. However, these graphic stories are translations not exact parallels or recreations and one should not expect that full richness of the sources to be present in these partial re-presentations. Kuper’s understanding of the limited capacities of art is apparent in his choices of stories. He has naturally been attracted to the ones that are most absurd, slapstick and dramatic. For example, “Gracchus the Hunter” is a personal favourite of mine but it would clearly have been unsuitable for Kuperisation.

Most of the stories are six pages long. Some are longer, such as “The Burrow” at 22 pages and “In The Penal Colony” at 46 pages. “The Burrow” is an example of effective use of double-page spreads. The cross-sections of the timid and inventive burrow-dweller’s underground network of passages and chambers incorporate multiple scenes in two-page panels. The multi-directional passages allow text and action to be broken into sequential fragments. In one image we see the burrow-dweller inhabiting the labyrinthine recesses of his own brain, hiding from potential intruders real or imagined. Kuper’s creative freedom allows him to create a parallel pictorial system which mirrors the burrow-dweller’s tunnels made with such industriousness and ingenuity.

One can say that the spirit of the originals is partially captured and enjoyably transmitted in these new versions. Kafka (who had a habit to making ludic stylised drawings) would have found many panels in Kafkaesque to admire and amuse.

 

Peter Kuper, Kafkaesque: Fourteen Short Stories, W.W. Norton & Company, 19 October 2018, £13.99/$19.95, hardback, 160pp, mono illus., ISBN 237 0000 441 560

Peter Kuper’s website: www.peterkuper.com

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my art and books here: www.alexanderadams.art

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Franz Kafka: a Life Beyond Literature

“There are few writers as highly regarded as Franz Kafka (1883-1924). Even people who have not read Kafka understand his blend of the sinister and absurd. Despite the reputation of being a high-brow, intellectual author, Kafka wrote bewitching tales in clear prose. Indeed, his stories are often short and ostensibly easy to understand even if the allusions and implications. And his writing is often shot through with humour – not just absurdity, but also comic misunderstandings and dry irony.

“A recently completed three-volume biography by Reiner Stach, superbly translated from German by Shelley Frisch, uses newly discovered sources to capture Kafka’s life and reflect on the origins and meaning of many of his writings. Stach takes time to correct previous biographical misconceptions, and observes that while there are mountains of academic, theoretical and literary overviews of Kafka, there are few biographies.

“Stach attempts to be scrupulously fair to Kafka’s parents. Hermann Kafka was a self-made proprietor of a fancy-goods store in Prague, selling fabrics, clothes, household goods and toys…”

Read the full review of the new 3-volume Reiner Stach biography online at Spiked Online (28 February 2017) here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/kafka-a-life-beyond-literature/19511#.WLWjhfl_s5k