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The Very Online Afterlife of Franz Kafka

The Very Online Afterlife of Franz Kafka
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Arts|The Very Online Afterlife of Franz Kafka

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A black cockroach with a smartphone for a body crawls on a yellow surface.
Credit…Photo illustration by Ricardo Tomás

Critic’s Notebook

One hundred years after his death, the Czech writer circulates as a pop idol of digital alienation.

On TikTok, a collection of objects sits atop a stack of books: a string of pearls, a Diptyque candle, a Sylvanian Families rabbit figurine in a scallop-collared dress. A woman’s hand brushes them aside. She pages through the pile of books below. We see “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh and “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath. Also, “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka, a fat black bug on its cover. A question typed over the scene asks: What do you conclude about me?

The video’s creator is 25-year-old Margarita Mouka — @aquariuscat444 on TikTok, where she frequently posts about Kafka, integrating his work, his likeness and his life story into her online persona of romantic intellectualism. When her account was publicized last year, alongside those of a handful of other young Kafka-heads, media outlets were not quite sure what to conclude about her.

“Franz Kafka becomes an unlikely HEARTTHROB on TikTok — where Gen Zers are swooning over the Czech novelist nearly 100 YEARS after his death,” ran a Daily Mail headline. The article surfaced fancam-style compilations that use Kafka’s pictures as well as melodramatic readings of his letters. Baffled reactions followed in The Spectator and Literary Hub: Did they think he was … hot? Did they know he had a kind of body dysmorphia? Was Kafka the Harry Styles of the Austro-Hungarian Empire?

To Mouka, the appeal was obvious.

“I felt like that bug,” she said.

On BookTok, where a flashed book jacket conveys a glimmer of a user’s inner life, a classic text can leave a durable impression. It plays like a deep cut, reaching back through time to ground a TikToker’s content in a more enduring human experience.

Besides, the personas of dead authors are more fun to play with than those of the living. Some literary TikTokers style their feeds in Dostoyevsky’s melancholy (“I now refer to him as my Russian man”), others in Nabokov’s mischief (“Such a snarky queen”). Kafka has become shorthand on the app for alienation, which has become the backdrop of a digitally mediated life.

Telling the internet that Harry Styles is your boyfriend is a fantasy. Telling the internet that Franz Kafka is your boyfriend — that is a thesis statement.

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