The Bodleian Libraries and Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach, jointly to purchase Franz Kafka 'Letters to Ottla' archive

4 April 2011

Photograph of KafkaThe Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford and Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach (German Literary Archive) will today announce the joint purchase of a collection of letters by Franz Kafka (1883-1924), one of the most influential writers of the 20th century and  one of the fathers of literary modernism. These letters had been scheduled for public auction in Germany on 19 April but an agreement has been reached between the two institutions and the sellers. It is thought to be the first time that a literary archive has been purchased jointly by two institutions in different countries with the intention to share access and scholarly activities. As a result of this historic collaboration the archive will remain available for academic and public consultation as part of the existing major Kafka archives already held by the Bodleian and Marbach. The purchase price will remain confidential.

This important series of more than 100 autographs (comprising letters, postcards and picture postcards) contains almost all the surviving correspondence that Kafka sent to his sister Ottla, the youngest of his three sisters and the family member to whom he was closest. It also includes an additional 32 new letters, included by the family in the sale, from Dora Diamant, Kafka’s last lover and Robert Klopstock, Kafka’s doctor and friend.

Richard Ovenden, Associate Director and Keeper of Special Collections of the Bodleian Libraries said, ‘The joint purchase of Kafka’s Ottla Letters is a cause for celebration for international scholarship. It recognises that the pursuit of academic collaboration crosses national boundaries. We are delighted that the two institutions that already preserve the majority of Kafka’s material can now work together with this innovative arrangement: instead of competing, we are collaborating. With the proposed partnership with Marbach, the University of Oxford will strengthen its position as an important centre for studies of German and Jewish literature and culture. Over the past forty years we have overseen the preservation, stewardship, and scholarly availability of the Kafka Archive, much of which was gifted to the Bodleian as a result of generous donations by descendents of Franz Kafka.

Ovenden continued, ‘Sharing the costs equally with Marbach will guarantee the retention of integrity with the Kafka collection already in the Bodleian. This collection comprises the vast majority of all the Kafka autographs that miraculously survived through the turmoils of the twentieth century. Our collaboration with Marbach will go beyond the actual purchase and extend to a partnership with a programme of exchanges of academic fellows and exhibitions as well as other research activities related to Kafka and beyond. It promises a new, exciting departure in Kafka studies.’

Professor Dr. Ulrich Raulff, Direktor des Deutschen Literaturarchivs Marbach said, ‘The joint purchase of Kafka's letters to Ottla by the Bodleian Library and the German Literature Archive is good news for the literary community. It puts an end to an exciting chapter in the ever moving and dramatic story of the afterlife of one of the most famous writers of the 20th century. Two eminent institutions dedicated to literary tradition are working together, acquiring the archive jointly and by doing so are forming a model of future international cooperation in the field of humanities. Beyond the Kafka collections we shall use the newly created connection to install a platform for future projects of research, publication and exhibition from which the scientific community and Kafka's reader shall profit. Our thanks go to all those who have made possible this great step, especially to our friends in Oxford, the heirs of Ottla and all our donors and benefactors.’

Professor Ritchie Robertson, Taylor Professor of German at Oxford said, ‘The letters exchanged between Kafka and his sister Ottla are an essential source both for Kafka’s biography and for that of Ottla David, nee Kafka, an unusual and courageous woman whose efforts at emancipation have never been fully recognized. The letters need to be accessible at one or both of the principal sites for research into Kafka’s literary manuscripts and personal writings: the Bodleian Library at Oxford and the Deutsches Literaturearchiv at Marbach, both of which offer outstanding assistance to researchers.’

The Ottla letters had previously been on deposit at the Bodleian Library (i.e. placed there for safe-keeping) but had remained in the ownership of Kafka’s descendants. The family, who has enjoyed a warm relationship with the Bodleian, (see notes) is extremely supportive of this innovative collaboration between the Bodleian and Marbach and agreed to a pre-auction sale to enable the partnership to happen. They have also included additional unpublished material in the sale.

The letters were preserved by Ottla’s daughters in Czechoslovakia and ultimately arrived at  the Bodleian due to the efforts of Sir Malcolm Pasley, Professor of German at the University of Oxford. They comprise a very important source of biographical information: an insight into the relationships within the Kafka family (including his prospective but never actual wives), his not-so-guarded perception of the historical and geographical context he lived in, people he encountered, titles he read, his travels, diet, medical condition as well as his sense of humour. This material is often visually attractive as it contains colour postcards as well as Kafka’s own drawings. These papers form an integral part with a set of similar letters already in the Bodleian Library.

Kafka remains a cultural icon inspiring writers (Alan Bennett), composers (Philip Glass), film directors (Steven Soderbergh), theatre producers and of course scholars.

The Bodleian has funded the purchase with support from private donors. Marbach funding has been provided by donors to Deutsches Literaturarchiv, federal and state funding from Baden-Wuerttemberg and the Cultural Foundation. The Bodleian and Marbach are each providing 50 per cent of the purchase price and will be joint co-owners.

The agreement will be formally announced at a press conference on Monday 4 April at the Kultur Stiftung der Länder.

(Portrait of Kafka aged 23 (1906): Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Image Gallery: all images protected by copyright - please do not use without permission.)

Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach

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