There are two references to literary canons in Cantata. The first is when Severus is reading a Kafka short story when Hermione finds him by the Quidditch pitch after their argument in the library(Chap. 36 Oct 26 -31). The second is when Hermione pulls a paperback copy of Little Women out of her bag when hiding the book on memory charms that Severus lends her after discussing her memory alteration(Chap. 39 Sun 15 Nov).
The two occurrences differ in that we are specifically told what Severus is not reading when Hermione asks him if the story is Metamorphosis - “that's the guy who turns into a cockroach, right”, but we don't find out what he is reading nor his motivation in reading it. In contrast not only do we find out what Hermione reads, but she also alludes to what she draws from it. Now Hermione's given reason for having a copy of Little Women - “I read it sometimes when I’m upset” is not hard to believe. It's also a novel that you would expect a bookish English middle class schoolgirl born before the Internet age to have read.
But Hermione didn't go to an English secondary school at eleven where she would have been exposed to novels such as Little Women along with other classics and of course Shakespeare through the standard English Literature syllabuses. She went to Hogwarts and given the wizarding world's general aversion to things Muggle it's hard to believe Hogwarts library carried an English Literature section.
This is not such an issue given her much referenced affinity for books and one suspects she would have as voracious an appetite for fiction as she is said to have for text books. We know that Hermione visits the local municipal library in her holidays, from her discussion with Severus about the book Exit to Eden(Chap. 7 4th Sep). She is likely to have been taken regularly by her parents from an early age, probably once a week on a Saturday, like her parents before her, to borrow books. A middle class ritual which had its heyday in 1950s, 60s and 70s Britain. And we know from the same passage that she was still going with her mum in her late-teens as it is implied she was with her when she encountered Exit to Eden.
Her parents would likely have encouraged her to read from an early age and indeed it is not difficult to imagine the bookshelves in her bedroom holding such novels as Little Women, Emma and Tess of the D'Urbervilles alongside childhood books such as Anne of Green Gables, The Railway Children and no doubt, well I like to imagine it anyway, her mother's candy paper covered copies of Mary Poppins.
From canon one doubts there were many books in Severus' childhood home. Although one should not rule out what Severus might have come across in Lily Evans' house. We do know he grew up in a working class district in a mill town in northern England. Like Hermione, Severus didn't attend secondary school. but rather went to Hogwarts. Even if he had you wouldn't have found Kafka in the English Lit syllabuses although an enthusiastic teacher may have drawn his or her pupils' attention to the author. So where could he have discovered Kafka?
One thing there almost certainly would have been in Severus' family home is a television. While they were in no way universal televisions were fairly common even among working class families in the sixties due to the widespread availability of rentals. If you're under forty imagining what British television was like in the sixties and seventies will be difficult. The past really is another country. There were only three channels. One of which didn't arrive until 1964. Colour only arrived in 1968. Only one of them carried adverts. Schedules ended at midnight and didn't start until mid-morning. What you could find among other things and generally done well were adaptations of well known English fiction both, children’s and adult, classic and modern. And this was not limited to English Literature but included European Literature too.
From memory (plus a little research) during Severus' formative years he could have seen on TV Jane Eyre, The Woodlanders, Emma, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Blithe Spirit, Eyeless in Gaza and Cold Comfort Farm along with Scrooge the 1951 film adaptation of A Christmas Carol that visited the schedules every Yuletide. Or it seemed to when I was growing up. He could also have seen Flaubert's Madam Bovary, Zola's Nana and Germinal and Sartre's The Roads to Freedom.
Along with literary adaptations from the end of the sixties Severus could also have accessed a rich catalogue of foreign language and avant garde films that BBC2 carried in its late night schedules. Ones I can recall include in the former category A Knife in Water, Le Samourai, Repulsion, Peppermint Frappe, Alphaville, Closely Observed Trains and If and Blow Up in the latter. Now the classic English Lit adaptations would have been on at a time deemed suitable for family viewing. In contrast the modern English fiction and the European novels would all have been scheduled as adult viewing after 9pm. Likewise the films on BBC2.
While canon has Severus' childhood an unhappy one fan-fiction generally takes this further and often postulates Tobias as an alcoholic, an abuser and absent from home. If we go with the flow, and Cantata nods to the meme during the description of the first year masturbation ritual and Severus' prior experience with Muggle pornography partially blamed on his father's indifference (Chap. 32 3 Oct 98), then it's unlikely there was much supervision over what he might have watched on TV before he went to Hogwarts and during his holidays spent at home later on.
It's not difficult to imagine that Severus, being the clever inquisitive boy he is described as, would have lapped up the offerings on late night television. And let's be blunt, the opportunity of seeing some tit and bum in the foreign language films and adult literary adaptations is unlikely to have been passed up. Even though there may have been base motives at play in the desire to watch these adaptations and films they would still have introduced a whole world of ideas beyond the grey northern town of his everyday experience. Given his liking for books, would, for example, watching Germinal or Nana have inspired him to seek out Zola in the local library. Having tasted this fruit would one not then look further.
There could be a closer link though to Kafka than coming across him accidentally while browsing the shelves holding European literature at the municipal library. A drama-documentary aired on BBC in the early seventies examining Kafka's work through the medium of his novel The Castle. Maybe inspired by other adaptations he'd seen Severus chose to watch this. If he did, he may also have felt some affinity with 'K' the land surveyor seeing parallels in K's fruitless struggles with the castle bureaucracy and his own fruitless wars with the Marauders shielded by the Hogwarts hierarchy and thus intrigued sought out the author's work.
And now we come to what led me to these musings. I think as demonstrated above, there is in Cantata both a case for Hermione's possession of Little Women and Severus' reading Kafka to be in keeping with their characters and histories. However, there seems to be an anomaly here, which nags at me every time I read the story. Severus asks Hermione if the novel is a “Muggle marriage manual” appearing not to recognise the book. But is a man who reads Kafka likely not to have heard of Little Women? Maybe not read it, but surely would know the title. In contrast Hermione recognises Kafka's name when Severus tells her what he's reading and knows enough to ask if it is his most famous short story, though she doesn't recall the title. And it's no surprise that Hermione will have read widely enough to recognise the author's name as along with the fiction she reads, she most probably reads literary criticism and reviews as well. Witness her behaviour among Severus' bookshelves in the same passage and his comment about courting her in a library. It's also no surprise given her reason for reading Little Women that she doesn't read Kafka as if there is one thing Kafka is not going to do it's lift your spirits.
Is he teasing Hermione? That might be in keeping with his more playful side that is revealed as their relationship develops in Cantata and it is an enchanting idea. It's also hard to believe that a glance at the synopsis on the back cover of the book would be enough to make the connection to marriage guidance without a greater knowledge of the text. The author doesn't give an indication that Severus is teasing and as he accepts Hermione's offer to borrow the book that doesn't seem to be the case.
Thus, it remains a mystery and will continue to nag at me. It has given me a great deal of satisfaction pondering particularly on how Severus might have come to be reading a Kafka short story in Cantata and recalling my own mind opening education derived from the foreign language films and literary adaptations shown on British TV during my youth. Since I too grew up in a grey northern English town in the sixties and first half of the seventies. I should also confess to being taken by my parents along with my siblings to the local library. A weekend family ritual throughout my childhood and early teens.
There is one one further nag. What is the story that Severus is reading by the Quidditch pitch? He tells Hermione it's not Metamorphosis. We also know it's not one of the novels The Castle or Trial as he says it's a short story so that rules out Kafka's three best known works. So which of the short stories is it? If I were to pick one I would favour The Burrow. A dark and demented tale of lifelong paranoia and obsessive behaviour without an ending which one thinks might have been right up Severus' street.
I'll complete this brief essay by making one last observation. If you accept the premise of Severus' literary education birthed through the late 1960's and 70's television schedules, there is another pointer in the lists of films shown on BBC2 I remembered above. If you wonder, like Hermione (Chap. 36 Oct 18-26 pt 1 of 2 Dungeon Girl’s Toilets), where his interest in the BSDM lifestyle may have first awakened, notwithstanding the image in the first year porn mag, you could do worse than consider Closely Observed Trains. Look up the scene between Hubicka the station dispatcher and Zdenicka the telegraphist involving the station master's rubber stamps.