Covering Kafka with colour

Peter Mendelsund is a book cover designer at Alfred A Knopf in New York and recently became the art director of Knopf imprint, Pantheon. He documents his design work on his blog, Jacket Mechanical, and in his most recent post he ran through a new series of unusually colourful Kafka titles, set to appear in the US in June…

In the post, Mendelsund writes about the fascinating history of publishing Kafka’s work and describes the design process he went through in creating a new look for the forthcoming series, which adamantly forgoes the traditional take on marketing the writer with bleak, dark colouring and unsettling imagery.

“I suppose what some find most relevant and compelling in Kafka,”  writes Mendelsund on Jacket Mechanical, “is his ability to inspire in them that paradoxical feeling that great literature always aspires to arouse in readers – the feeling of the universality of their own alienation. Kafka is the ne plus ultra of alienation – alienation being arguably the defining emotional condition of the twentieth century.

“Maybe loving Kafka means no more than admiring his downright peculiarity – he is just so anomalous and extraordinary a writer, so particular in his assets, so without precursor (despite what Borges would have us believe). Me, well, as the saying goes: I love that he makes me laugh. But I will get to humour later.

“I had been periodically thinking about a Kafka redesign, but actually began work on the project in earnest when I officially took over the art directing duties over at Pantheon a month ago or so (I’m still the associate art director at Knopf, and, some other new things as well … busy times).

“So, as you can see, I’ve gone with eyes here (not the first or last time I will use an eye as a device on a jacket – book covers are, after all, faces, both literally and figuratively, of the books they wrap). I find eyes, taken in the singular, create intimacy, and in the plural instill paranoia. This seemed a good combo for Kafka – who is so very adept at the portrayal of the individual, as well as the portrayal of the persecution of the individual.

“I also opted for colour. It needs saying that Kafka’s books are, among other things, funny, sentimental, and in their own way, yea-saying. I am so weary of the serious Kafka, the pessimist Kafka. ‘Kafkaesque’ has become synonymous with the machinations of anonymous bureaucracy – but, of course, Kafka was a satirist (ironist, exaggerator) of the bureaucratic, and not an organ of it.

“Because of this mischaracterisation, Kafka’s books have a tendency to be jacketed in either black, or in some combination of colours I associate with socialist realism, constructivism, or fascism – ie black, beige and red. Part of the purpose of this project for me, was to let some of the sunlight back in.

“In any case, hopefully these colours, though bright, are not without tension. The typography [is a] script based on an amalgam of Kafka’s own hand, and a wonderfully versatile typeface called Mister K (itself based on Kafka’s own handwriting) by Julia Sysmäläine who works at Edenspiekermann in Berlin.

“These editions will begin coming out in June and July – they are all paperbacks, with maybe a couple in hardcover as well – time will tell. I’m hoping we can do a box set for them after they all come out (which is already designed – and which has the complete parable, Before the Law, printed on the inside.)”

For those interested in the complex history of publishing Kafka, Mendelsund also offers a knowledgable take on the subject as part of the post on the new covers.

“Schocken, which is part of Pantheon Books, has a long and storied relationship with Kafka,” he writes. “Salman Schocken acquired the world rights to Kafka’s works from no less than Max Brod himself in the thirties. Schocken, for various reasons, was exempted from the laws governing the aryanisation of the German presses, and thus was the first press to achieve wide scale distribution of Kafka in Germany. Later, during the war, Schocken published Kafka in its new home in Palestine (in Hebrew), and subsequently, when Schocken opened shop in New York in 1940, Kafka’s works were put out in English translation in addition to the German editions Schocken was still publishing.

“As it turns out, some of the Kafka rights had been sold in the intervening years, and Schocken was put in the position of having to reacquire them. Writes Pantheon managing editor and Schocken editorial director, Altie Karper, when asked if Kafka was on Pantheon’s first list seventy years ago: ‘Interestingly enough, no, because Salman Schocken had licensed the rights to The Trial to none other than Alfred A. Knopf* back in the mid-1930s, when Schocken was still in Berlin and could not have imagined that he would wind up publishing books in English in America. It took him [Schocken] quite some time to wrest the English-language rights back from Alfred when he arrived here and started publishing in 1945. There is a hysterically funny series of inter-office memos between then-Schocken editor, Hannah Arendt, and publisher, Salman Schocken, wherein Arendt flatly states that if Schocken wants those Kafka rights back from Alfred he’d going to have to jolly well get on the phone and speak to The Great Man himself, because Alfred considers her too low down on the totem pole to discuss the matter with her, and refuses to reply to her letters or return her phone calls.’

“Ms. Karper tells me she has in her possession the document, signed by Hannah Arendt, that gives Schocken the rights back ‘for a nominal amount of money.’ Needless to say, I am excited to see this document – and, as an aside, I hope to redesign the Hannah Arendt backlist as well some day.

*Pantheon and Schocken are now imprints of Alfred A Knopf (which is a subsidiary of Random House, which is owned by Bertelsmann, which brings us, by commodius vicus of recirculation, back to German publishing and the Jews, but more on that some other day.)”

Thanks to Peter for the permission to reblog this slightly rearranged version of his original post. More at You can even check out his desk, here.