Letters to Ottla and the Family
Since Franz Kafka’s death in 1924, several volumes of his correspondence have been published; with these volumes and his diaries, it is possible to construct a more or less continuous narrative of Kafka’s adult life. Indeed, Ronald Hayman’s Kafka: A Biography (1982; first published in England in 1981 under the title K: A Biography), the first full-scale biography of its subject since Max Brod’s in 1937, is largely stitched together from references to the diaries and letters; despite pretentions to the contrary, very little of Hayman’s narrative depends on interviews and unpublished materials.
The first volume of Kafka’s letters to be published was Briefe an Milena (1952; Letters to Milena, 1953). This correspondence began when Milena Jesenská-Polaková (1896-1944) wrote a letter to Kafka in October, 1919, asking for permission to translate some of his stories into Czech. Not long before this request, Kafka had broken his engagement to Julie Wohryzek, a young woman whom he had met a few months earlier in a sanatorium where they were both convalescing. In a short time, Kafka had begun an intense correspondence with Milena. They met only a handful of times—their first meeting was a passionate interlude of four days in Vienna in the summer of 1920—before breaking off their relationship. Milena did not want to leave her husband, despite his infidelities and cruelties, and Kafka was ambivalent, as always, about commiting himself to a romantic relationship. Still, his last letters to her, extraordinarily moving, were written shortly before his death. Milena died in the concentration camp at Ravensbruck; an odd but fascinating memoir by her daughter, the late Jana erná, appeared in Cross Currents: A Yearbook of Central European Culture (1982).
Kafka’s Letters to Milena reads like a Modernist epistolary novel, brilliant, neurotically self-conscious, charming, tragic, full of uncanny insight. Equally compelling is Briefe an Felice (1967; Letters to Felice, 1973), a massive volume which documents Kafka’s inner life from 1912 to 1917, a period during which he was twice engaged to marry the recipient of these letters and twice broke off their engagement. Felice Bauer (1887-1960) was by all accounts Kafka’s opposite in temperament; Kafka himself described her as “a happy, healthy, self-confident girl.” In 1919, she married a prosperous Berlin businessman, by whom she had two children; she spent the last twenty-five years of her life in the United States. What Felice made of Kafka’s letters is not known. Excruciating passages of self-analysis—these recall the inexorable logic of Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937) and Das Schloss (1926; The Castle, 1930)—mingle with endearments; invaluable reflections on writing mingle with endless calculations concerning letters received, letters sent, and letters in transit.
Letters to Felice is among the memorable books of the century; it has a unity which distinguishes it from the typical collection of letters. By contrast, Briefe 1902-24 (1958; Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors, 1977) is a miscellany, with a majority of the letters addressed to Kafka’s friend and literary executor, Max Brod. Though it lacks the intensity of...
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