Who was Franz Xaver Kappus? When one asks oneself this question the answer is always the same: “the guy Rainer Maria Rilke corresponded with“. In the article “Must one write? Patience is a virtue“, the matter was never discussed. Yes, “Briefe an einen jungen Dichter” (“Letters to a Young Poet“) collects the letters between German poet Rainer Maria Rilke and Franz Xaver Kappus dated 1903 to 1908 and yes, Kappus was a humble man seeking guidance over his literary aspirations; something which always overshadowed his abilities and prevented his career from being remembered. Born in Timisoara (formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) in 1883, he was attending the Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt at the time of his correspondence with the famous German writer. As he was working as an officer in Vienna, Bratislava and Dalmatia for the Empire, he wrote poems, humorous sketches and got published in his own country and in Germany.
While being employed at the literary office of the Imperial War Ministry in Vienna, he started publishing his works regularly: the comedic play “Der Lieblingskönig” (in English, “The King’s Favourite“) with K. Robitschek, the one-act comedy “Ihr Bild” (in English, “Your Picture“) with K. Robitschek, and military satires “Ha! Welche Lust…” (in English, “Oh! What a Joy…“) and “Durchs Monokel” (in English, “Average Monocle“).
Any writing activity was halted at the break out of World War I, which saw him wounded in the Eastern front. 1916 meant a return to life for him: he got married with nurse Alexandra Malachovska and published “Blut und Eisen” (in English “Blood and Iron“), a collection of stories based on his experience at the front. In the following years he mostly worked at newspapers, such as the Belgrader Nachrichten and later on at the Temeswarer Zeitung, but more importantly it was in 1918 that his first novel saw the light of day: “Die lebenden Vierzehn” (literally, “The Surviving Fourteen“). It is described as a ‘representation of the old, desperate world and a depiction of utopia‘ and is categorised as ‘literary Expressionism‘, although it has been criticised for favouring long dialogues and departing from the dynamism that Expressionism requires. It wasn’t a success. Despite the many titles in his bibliography, only another novel can be seen as one of his major works: “Der rote Reiter” (in English, “The Red Rider“), which was published in Berlin in 1922. A decade later, this novel was brought to the big screen by film director Rolf Randolf, and Kappus actively collaborated in the adaptation from novel to screenplay. A step which perhaps brought Kappus closer to the world of entertainment: in fact, the song “Mamatschi“, made popular by Oskar Schima, was written by Kappus himself.
After World War II he mainly focused on his work as a journalist, but he did publish more novels in the meantime and after: most notably “Flammende Schatten” (in English “Blazing Shadows“, 1941) and “Flucht in die Liebe” (in English “Escape into Love“) in 1949.
It seems then that Kappus has been a prolific author, a man who has been able to put his aspirations into the concrete and that has tried to express his passions through various means. Then why do we always just remember him as the one who wrote to Rilke?
Why do we not speak of his novels (of which little is known and whose plots are almost impossible to find) and his world, his poetry, his contribution to the European and German literatures? Kappus died in 1966, but he certainly is an author who belongs to the 1920s and 1930s. A period of which we now know all varieties of colours. Let’s then find that new shade by looking for Kappus, taking his name away from dust of the shelves and giving him the attention he deserves.