Franz Kafka’s Kafkaesque Love Letters


It’s easy to think of Franz Kaf­ka as a celi­bate, even asex­u­al, writer. There is the notable lack of eroti­cism of any rec­og­niz­able sort in so much of his work. There is the promi­nent bio­graph­i­cal detail—integral to so many interpretations—of his out­sized fear of his father, which serves to infan­tilize him in a way. There is the image, writes Spiked, of “a lone­ly seer too saint­ly for this rank, sunken world.” All of this, James Hawes writes in his Exca­vat­ing Kaf­ka, “is pure spin.” Against such idol­a­try, both lit­er­ary and qua­si-reli­gious, Hawes describes “the real Kaf­ka,” includ­ing the fact that he was “far from an infre­quent vis­i­tor to Prague’s broth­els.” Though “tortured”—as his friend, biog­ra­ph­er, and execu­tor Max Brod put it—by guilt over his sex­u­al­i­ty, Kaf­ka nonethe­less did not deny him­self the fre­quent com­pa­ny of pros­ti­tutes and a col­lec­tion of out­ré pornog­ra­phy.

But a part of the myth, Kafka’s extreme dif­fi­dence in roman­tic rela­tion­ships with two women in his life—onetime fiancé Felice Bauer and Czech jour­nal­ist Mile­na Jesen­ská—is not far off the mark. These rela­tion­ships were indeed “tor­tured,” with Kaf­ka “demand­ing com­mit­ment while doing his best to evade it.” His courtship with Felice was con­duct­ed almost entire­ly through let­ters, and his per­son­al cor­re­spon­dence to both women, pub­lished in sep­a­rate vol­umes by Schock­en Books, “has all the ear­marks of his fic­tion: the same ner­vous atten­tion to minute par­tic­u­lars; the same para­noid aware­ness of shift­ing bal­ances of pow­er; the same atmos­phere of emo­tion­al suffocation—combined, sur­pris­ing­ly enough, with moments of boy­ish ardor and delight.” So writes the New York TimesMichiko Kaku­tani in her review of Let­ters to Felice in 1988.

A March 25, 1914 let­ter to Felice exem­pli­fies these qual­i­ties, includ­ing Kafka’s ten­den­cy to “berate” his fiancé and to “backpedal” from the seri­ous pos­si­bil­i­ty of mar­riage. In answer to her seem­ing­ly unasked ques­tion of whether Bauer might find in him “the vital sup­port you undoubt­ed­ly need,” Kaf­ka writes,” there is noth­ing straight­for­ward I can say to that”:

The exact infor­ma­tion you want about me, dear­est F., I can­not give you ; I can give it you, if at all, only when run­ning along behind you in the Tier­garten, you always on the point of van­ish­ing alto­geth­er, and I on the point of pros­trat­ing myself; only when thus humil­i­at­ed, more deeply than any dog, am I able to do it. When you post that ques­tion now I can only say: I love you, F., to the lim­its of my strength, in this respect you can trust me entire­ly. But for the rest, F., I do not know myself com­plete­ly. Sur­pris­es and dis­ap­point­ments about myself fol­low each oth­er in end­less suc­ces­sion.

The frus­trat­ed mys­tery, self-abase­ment, vague and fear­ful hints, and ref­er­ence to dogs are all ele­ments of the so oft-invoked Kafkaesque, though the frank procla­ma­tion of love is not. Not long after his 1917 diag­no­sis of tuber­cu­lo­sis, Kaf­ka would break off the engage­ment. In 1920, he began his—also heav­i­ly scripted—affair with Jesen­ská, his side of which appears in the col­lect­ed Let­ters to Mile­na. In these mis­sives, the same set of per­son­al and lit­er­ary impuls­es alter­nate: ten­der expres­sions of devo­tion give way to dark and cryp­tic state­ments like “writ­ten kiss­es… are drunk on the way by the ghosts” and “I have spent all my life resist­ing the desire to end it.” One let­ter seems to have noth­ing at all to do with Mile­na and every­thing to do with Kafka’s project as a writer:

I am con­stant­ly try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate some­thing incom­mu­ni­ca­ble, to explain some­thing inex­plic­a­ble, to tell about some­thing I only feel in my bones and which can only be expe­ri­enced in those bones. Basi­cal­ly it is noth­ing oth­er than this fear we have so often talked about, but fear spread to every­thing, fear of the great­est as of the small­est, fear, par­a­lyz­ing fear of pro­nounc­ing a word, although this fear may not only be fear but also a long­ing for some­thing greater than all that is fear­ful.

Pas­sages like these war­rant the redu­pli­ca­tion in Kakutani’s review title: “Kafka’s Kafkaesque Love Let­ters.” It is almost as if he used these let­ters as a test­ing ground for the tan­gled inter­nal con­flicts, doubts, and obses­sions that would make their way into his fic­tion. Or that, in them, we see these Kafkaesque motifs dis­tilled. It is dur­ing his engage­ment to Felice Bauer that Kaf­ka pro­duced “his most sig­nif­i­cant work, includ­ing The Meta­mor­phoses,” and dur­ing his rela­tion­ship with Mile­na Jesen­ská that my per­son­al favorite, The Cas­tle, took shape.

Although it has long been fash­ion­able to resist the “bio­graph­i­cal fal­la­cy,” read­ing an author’s life into his or her work, the exis­tence of hun­dreds of Kafka’s let­ters in pub­li­ca­tion makes this sep­a­ra­tion dif­fi­cult. Elias Canet­ti described Kafka’s let­ters as a dia­logue he was “con­duct­ing with him­self,” one which “provide[s] an index of the emo­tion­al events that would inspire ‘The Tri­al’” and oth­er works. Kafka’s unex­pect­ed bouts of roman­tic pas­sion notwith­stand­ing, these let­ters add a great deal of sup­port to that crit­i­cal assess­ment.

via Michiko Kaku­tani/New York Times

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Vladimir Nabokov Makes Edi­to­r­i­al Tweaks to Franz Kafka’s Novel­la The Meta­mor­pho­sis

The Art of Franz Kaf­ka: Draw­ings from 1907–1917

Four Franz Kaf­ka Ani­ma­tions: Enjoy Cre­ative Ani­mat­ed Shorts from Poland, Japan, Rus­sia & Cana­da

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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