In the summer of 1911, on holiday in Switzerland, Franz Kafka was working on a string of bestsellers. With his friend Max Brod, the 28-year-old writer devised the plan for a quintessentially modern set of books, which could be “translated into every language,” would “energise the whole person” and would provide their creators with “a business venture worth millions.” None of them would contain the man-sized insects, opaque legal machinations, ghastly bureaucratic punishments or anything else for which the name Kafka later became famous. Instead, they were to be a series of stripped-down travel guides for tourists on a budget, which Kafka and Brod intended to call Billig, or On the Cheap.
Armed with a volume of Billig, frugal travellers would enjoy straight talk from Kafka and Brod about decent hotels, fast trains and clean brothels as they travelled “On the Cheap Through Italy,” “On the Cheap Through Switzerland,” “On the Cheap in Paris” or “On the Cheap in the Bohemian Spas and Prague.” “NB the candour of our guide,” wrote Brod in his business plan, next to excited notes on buying “pineapples and madeleines” in the French capital and blagging free exhibition tickets “like a local.” Kafka, meanwhile, promised in his cautious, spidery handwriting that “exact tipping amounts” would be noted throughout.
The “On the Cheap” books were never written. Brod mangled the publishing negotiations, and his friend Franz soon had other things to distract him. The following year he would write The Judgment, his first mature story, and meet Felice Bauer, a tango-dancing marketing rep with whom he pursued a bizarre epistolary courtship that lasted five years; it produced more than 500 letters, two broken engagements, a bare handful of meetings and some of the most famous literary works of the 20th century. Those who regard Kafka as a prophetic writer, however, may care to note that a travel book called Across Asia on the Cheap, published 62 years later, was the first of what we now know as the Lonely Planet Guides.