From a Bookseller in Prague

“Who’s that Kafka guy?” I’m being asked, and not for the first time. I’m trying not to answer, but at the same time I’m remembering what a good time I had reading Kafka’s novels and stories years ago, and how not having read his letters or diaries, it’s striking me now that I maybe don’t know. Who is that Kafka guy? Really? “I’m not too sure,” I say. I turn to the computer and immediately order all Kafka’s letters and diaries. (Shockingly they’re out of print, but are available through Abebooks).

It turns out they’re all absolute masterpieces and should be read over and over. Take his Letters to Milena for example. She was his first translator, a brilliant Czech journalist who eventually died in a concentration camp. She would write to him in Czech and he would, as always, reply in German:

“Dear Frau Milena,
“(This form of address is becoming tiresome, but it’s one of those handles in the unsafe world to which the sick can hold onto, and it’s not yet a proof of returning health when the handles become tiresome to them.) I have never lived among German people, German is my mother-tongue and therefore natural to me, but Czech feels to me far more intimate, which is why your letter dispels many an uncertainty, I see you clearer, the movements of your body, your hands, so quick, so determined, it’s almost a meeting, although when I try to raise my eyes to your face, then in the flow of the letter – what a story! – fire breaks out and I see nothing but fire.”

Despite of the intimacy of these letters they almost never met. She lived unhappily married in Vienna while Kafka spend most of his time in Prague. The exuberance of his feelings for her together with his gloomy views of human existence and one of the darkest senses of humor in modern literature created an atmosphere well known from his works of fiction.

During their relationship Milena was still not strong enough to leave Ernst her husband, and so Kafka finally broke off the correspondence. However, he trusted her completely, giving her all of his diaries. After he died Milena wrote a moving obituary for him, saying, “He was clear-sighted, too wise to live and too weak to fight,” and that he was “condemned to see the world with such blinding clarity that he found it unbearable and went to his death.” After the final break with Kafka, Milena managed to leave her husband and moved to Dresden and then back to Prague with her new lover, Count Xavier Schaffgotsch.

“How about your knowledge of human nature, Milena? I’ve doubted it several times already, when you wrote about Werfel [a mutual friend and novelist] for instance, and though it does show love and perhaps only love, it’s nevertheless erroneous and if one leaves out all that Werfel really is and harps only on the reproach of fatness (which to me, incidentally, seems unjustified. In my eyes Werfel appears every year more beautiful and lovable, though it’s true I see him only fleetingly.) Don’t you know that only fat people are trustworthy? Only in these strong-walled vessels does everything get thoroughly cooked, only these capitalists of the airspace are, as far as it is possible for human beings, protected against worry and madness and are able to go calmly about their business, and they alone are, as someone once said, useful in the whole world as world-citizens, for in the North they warm and in the South they give shade. (This can be turned round, of course, but then it’s not true.)”

Thus wrote a man who died only four years later from starvation. The condition of Kafka’s throat made eating too painful for him, and since parenteral nutrition had not yet been developed, there was no way to feed him.

sent to us by Roman Kratochvila

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