Clean room, no beetles wanted: how a young Kafka hoped to write budget travel guides

Before writing his best-known works, Franz Kafka hoped to make millions with a series of on the cheap guides to European travel

Years before penning Metamorphosis, considered by some to be the greatest short story ever written,Franz Kafka hoped to make his fortune writing a series of budget European travel guides.

Kafka conceived a business plan for the books, dubbed on the cheap, while travelling across the continent with his friend Max Brod in the summer of 1911. This detail was revealed in volume three of Reiner Stachs biography, Kafka: The Early Years, published in translation (by Shelley Frisch) last month.

The ahead-of-its-time idea (considering the popularity of budget travel tips today) sought to take on the traditional Baedeker travel guides, which then consisted primarily of hotel and restaurant listings, but lacked the insider knowledge Kafka felt was truly valuable to a traveller.

Max Brod, pictured here in 1937, was Kafkas travelling companion across Europe in 1911. Photograph: Getty Images

Questions that his guides proposed to address are ones that tourists still seek answers for now. On which days do museums have reduced fees? Are there any free concerts? Should you travel by taxi or tram? How much should you tip? There was also a suggestion to include advice on where to find erotic and sexual entertainment for a fair price.

Stach writes: Kafka and Brod were convinced that a travel guide that answered all these questions candidly and supplied a select few reasonable and reliable recommendations would instantly beat out the competition With a series of this kind, they could earn millions, especially if it was published in several languages.

Inspiration struck during a tour of Switzerland, the lakes and cities of northern Italy and the Adriatic, during which their relative naivety when it came to travel was exposed. As Stach puts it: They knew quite a bit, but often not what they needed to know.

For example, after discovering that Zurichs city library was closed on Sundays, the pair believed they could still gain entry by asking at the tourist office.

Meanwhile, a swimming trip to Lake Zurich to go swimming meant Kafka having to uncomfortably undress in a public changing area, while Brod got attacked with a hose by the pool attendant and a group of boys.

Lake Zurich where Kafkas plan for a swim didnt go smoothly. Photograph: Anthony Anex/EPA

Despite this, Kafka retained a relative loftiness, looking down on traditional souvenir-collecting tourists. He poked fun at amateur photographers, a hobby he felt could never compare with writing as a means of documenting a trip, which raises the question: what would Kafka have thought about selfie sticks and Instagram?

But perhaps it was the pairs own arrogance that explains why the book series never came to fruition. Despite writing a five-page business plan, as well as extending the idea for each book in the series to include a conversation guide, the pair were so afraid that their idea would be stolen that they wouldnt reveal the full details of their pitch to a publisher without first securing an advance.

This, writes Stach effectively sealed the fate of their ambitious plan, and the millions in earnings returned to the realm of the imaginary.

Read more: