“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a TikTok sensation.” This is not — blessedly — how Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis begins. But almost exactly a century after his death, the Bohemian writer would be astonished to find that not only had his friend and literary executor Max Brod disobeyed his instructions and published works of his that included The Trial and The Castle, but that he had become, of all things, a social media sensation.
It was reported recently that Kafka has become the unlikeliest of sex symbols. One breathless news story announced that “for literature-loving Gen Z-ers, the Czech novelist may as well be Harry Styles,” citing the way in which the hashtag #kafka now has 139 million uses on TikTok. The platform hosts suitably earnest “fancams,” short films that eulogize the writer both for his writing, including his love letters to the Czech journalist Milena Jesenská, and his apparent good looks.
Space and good taste do not allow me to fully reproduce the excitement with which the young have taken an interest in Kafka. But a couple of representative comments include “Kafka is my bare minimum and I won’t date a man until he is Kafka” and “Knowing that Kafka died thinking he was a failure, wanting for all of his work to be burned, hurts me more than anything.”
It’s easy to mock the emotional response from these Kafka addicts, but it is nothing new. Chekhov, so often associated with a kind of straw-hatted melancholy in his wistful drama, recently saw a picture of him as a young man, smoldering at the camera, leading to his being christened that strangest of things, a “historical hottie.” And there have been many other writers who attract similarly uncompromising attention. From Sylvia Plath to Ernest Hemingway, those who are thought to combine integrity with extraordinary good looks — as well as, in the last two cases, suicidal intent, but you can’t have everything — have become lust objects with an IQ.
Writers throughout the ages have often attracted sighing attention for their looks as much as their books. There was perhaps no more notorious example than the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” Lord Byron, who cut a swath through early nineteenth-century literary London, besieged by women (and men) desperate to make his acquaintance and more.
Many succeeded. The most persistent of these would-be lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb, went to drastic lengths to secure Byron’s attentions, including turning up at his lodgings dressed as a boy and sending him clippings of her pubic hair stained with blood, where she had cut too deeply. The relationship, unsurprisingly, did not work out, and Lamb later took her revenge by writing a roman à clef entitled Glenarvon, in which Byron was portrayed as the eponymous, vampiric character of whom it is said “his love is death.”
Such a fate will hopefully not befall Kafka’s new tribe of admirers. Perhaps what a disaffected and anxious generation are responding to is his psychologically demanding literature, which explores paranoia, social disaffection and uncertainty with one’s place in an ever-shifting world. But I fear that their interest in the former insurance clerk lies in a rather more basic appreciation, too. As one TikTok user pithily put it, “Kafka is my boyfriend he just doesn’t know it because he is not alive.”