Kafka in Love by Jacqueline Raoul-Duval, translated by Willard Wood
Few writers have left as vivid a paper trail of their amorous adventures as Franz Kafka. The German-language writer, famous for the dark, mischievous stories that influenced Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and scores of other writers not nearly so famous, was also, according to a new biography by Jacqueline Raoul-Duval, Kafka in Love, an epic Casanova. Where other men might rely on charm or looks to attract women, Kafka's main tool of seduction was his literary voice. Over the course of his life, he wrote hundreds of love letters to multiple women. Almost a century after his death, Raoul-Duval mines these letters for clues into the private life and passions of one of the modern world's most influential authors.
The first woman to capture Kafka's attention is Felice Bauer, whom he meets through a friend. He will later describe her as plain and unimpressive, but this doesn't stop young Kafka from beginning a feverish, impassioned correspondence. Kafka's daily letters to Felice are dramatic, unsettling, deeply romantic. He writes, "You are a part of me." But the lovers rarely meet, and when they do, he puts her off with vague promises. Felice, faced with this unpredictable specter, struggles to reconcile the flesh and blood Kafka with the man of his letters. It's an uphill battle. Twice, they get engaged; twice, it falls apart. She refuses to comment on his literary efforts. He flirts with other women. This state of affairs continues for five years.
After the second engagement to Felice fails, Kafka moves on to Julie, whom he meets in a hotel where he is recovering from an illness. Julie's fiancé has just died, and both she and Kafka say they are determined not to marry. Within a year, though, Kafka changes his mind. He and Julie sign a lease, fix a date. All the while, Kafka suffers from increasing physical weakness, from an increasing and paralyzing uncertainty. When the landlord revokes their lease at the last minute, Kafka grabs his chance to escape. He postpones the engagement but attempts to continue the relationship.
While still engaged to Julie, Kafka is approached in a café by the young woman who will become one of his early translators. Milena Jesenská is a journalist, an intellectual, beautiful, more than a decade younger and married to a man who cheats on her. She may be young, but she already has "an eventful past and a scandalous reputation" that includes drug abuse and frequent lovers. She speaks multiple languages and writes brilliant feminist newspaper columns that Kafka reads obsessively. The book describes her as "the woman [Kafka] had never hoped to meet, especially now, especially so late." By now, Kafka's early charm has started to fade -- his hair is gray, and he can barely climb a flight of stairs without running out of breath. His letters to Milena (collected in the volume Letters to Milena) may be mellower, but they are no less charming for that. "This mania for letters is insane... one drinks the words down, knows nothing except that one doesn't want it to stop. Explain that to me, Professor Milena." Milena, more direct, replies: "Come, hold me in your arms. I love you." They meet in Vienna and spend a blissful four days together, after which Kafka, for once, seems prepared to forgo his customary equivocation. He ends things permanently with Julie, writes to Milena, "you are what I love most," apologizes for his hesitation. But it is not to be. Milena cannot leave her husband, and Kafka, despondent, ends the affair, but not before giving her several notebooks full of his diaries. She is the only person in his life to whom he grants this access.
A few months later, Kakfa meets Dora Diamant. Even younger than Milena, Dora is brave, determined, and intelligent, a scholar of Jewish studies. She and Kafka run away and live together in desperate poverty. By now, Kafka's occasional illnesses have developed into full-blown disease. He dies in a hospital barely a year later, never having married.
Of all Kafka's mistresses, Milena is the only one to have left her own literary trail. Her political columns won wide acclaim. The Institute for Human Sciences still awards journalism fellowships in her name. She is perhaps the only woman who understood Kafka's mania for writing. After he died, she wrote an obituary that said "he was a man and a writer with such a fearful conscience that he heard things where others were deaf and felt safe."
Conscience is, perhaps, an unexpected word from a woman who knew, as perhaps no one else did, the extent of Kafka's transgressions against the boundaries of what might be considered conscience. In the diaries, which are barely quoted in Kafka in Love, but which he handed Milena with the gravity of a man making a final confession, Kafka laid bare the true weaknesses he couldn't guard himself against: the bleakness that dogged his every thought, which made happiness impossible; his frequent sexual encounters with prostitutes; the torments of constant dissatisfied desire.
In his love letters, Kafka attempts to create a portrait of himself as a lover, aware of his own limitations. The act of writing is creative and performative. He seems unconcerned with reality; he turns out the most passionate paragraphs even as his relationships fall apart. Thanks to Raoul-Duval's meticulous juxtaposition of Kafka's letters with historical fact, the reader is fully aware of the contradictions between what Kafka wrote, what he said, and how he acted. Of course Kafka is an unreliable narrator. Fans of his prose would expect nothing else. Because the letters that Felice, Julie, Milena, and Dora wrote did not survive, we'll never know what they thought.
The man who emerges from Raoul-Duval's biography, therefore, is a sickly dandy, a literary playboy prone to bouts of egotism and hesitation, torn by a pathological inability to commit. His are not new problems. The careful reader might be left wondering why so many women put up with Kafka in the first place.
Kafka, not Raoul-Duval, provides the answer. His letters and diaries have been published in more complete form elsewhere, and they reveal an enduring and engaging correspondent, more humble than his many affairs would suggest. The biography doesn't capture the playful and poignant spirit that animated Kafka's letters, nor the profound and compelling quality of his written reality.
Kafka's full letters to Milena include this observation near the start of their affair: "It occurs to me that I really can't remember your face in any precise detail. Only the way you walked away through the tables in the cafe, your figure, your dress, that I still see." And in these few sentences he captures the challenge and the allure of the epistolary romance, one in which distance itself becomes the object of affection.
In Kafka's case, his many girlfriends couldn't hope to compete with the one thing he loved above all: the act of writing. Milena came closest to him perhaps because she alone shared his passion for literature. The unreal nature of written love is something Kafka himself sought and lamented. He once said to Milena, "Writing letters is actually an intercourse with ghosts and by no means just with the ghost of the addressee but also with one's own ghost, which secretly evolves inside the letter one is writing or even in a whole series of letters, where one letter corroborates another and can refer to it as witness."
Kafka's letters, like his loves, seem to require no witnesses but these ghosts. Milena, in her obituary, referred to Kafka as a world within himself. His love letters were no exception.
Kafka in Love by Jacqueline Raoul-Duval, translated by Willard Wood