“Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence… someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence, certainly never.”
Last year I posted my tribute to Franz Kafka (https://symbolreader.net/2013/07/16/i-love-you-my-secret-raven/) and today I would like to supplement it with some more biographical information. I hope this post will not come across as en extract from a gossip column. I do not necessarily think that an author’s private life and his work are linked by a causative chain but still it has always been fascinating for me to explore the parallels. “Kafka’s Sirens” is my attempt to show how Kafka’s romantic nature may have fed his work. His pattern was to withdraw and try to find a way out of a relationship as soon as things became too certain, too settled, too embodied. He burnt for his Sirens, chased them relentlessly only to slip out when the Protean flickering image of a mermaid became too fleshy, too close for comfort. Milena Jesenska, his translator into Czech and one of his Muses, wrote this in his obituary shortly after he died of lung disease at the age of forty:
“Dr. Franz Kafka, a German writer who lived in Prague, died the day before yesterday in a sanatorium in Kierling at Klosterneuburg, near Vienna. Few people here knew him, for he was a solitary, wise person terrified by life. He suffered for years from lung disease. Although he did treat his illness medically, he also consciously encouraged it, and supported it with his thinking. Once he wrote in a letter, ‘When the soul and the heart can no longer bear the burden, the lungs take over one half of it, so that the weight will at least be evenly distributed.’ That is how it was with his illness. It gave him an almost miraculous delicacy and a frighteningly uncompromising intellectual refinement. As a human being, however, he pushed all his fear of life onto his illness. He was shy, timid, gentle, and kind, but he wrote gruesome and painful books. He saw the world as full of invisible demons, who tear apart and destroy defenseless people. He was too clear-sighted and too wise to be able to live; he was too weak to fight, he had that weakness of noble, beautiful people who are not able to do battle against the fear of misunderstandings, unkindness, or intellectual lies. Such persons know beforehand that they are powerless and go down in defeat in such a way that they shame the victor. He knew people as only people of great sensitivity are able to know them, as somebody who is alone and sees people almost prophetically, from one flash of a face. He knew the world in a deep and extraordinary manner. He was himself a deep and extraordinary world.
He wrote books that belong to the most outstanding works of German literature. They express the struggles of today’s generation, but without any tendentious words. They are truthful, naked, and painful, so that even where they speak symbolically, they are almost naturalistic. They are full of dry mockery and the sensitive gaze of a person who has seen the world so clearly that he could not bear it and had to die; he did not want to retreat and save himself, as others do, even by the noblest intellectual subconscious errors.”
Reiner Stach is the first Kafka’s biographer who has gained access to all the materials which Max Brod, Kafka’s friend, had long kept away from the public. The third and last volume of Stach’s monumental undertaking has not been published yet. From what has been published so far Kafka emerges as a nymph chaser, one who directs all his energies into the pursuit of an idealized object of affection but also one who abhors the relationship’s definitiveness of form. He seems to pour the most of his essence into writing love letters. His first love was Felice, who in their golden times received three letters a day (she lived in Berlin, he in Prague). If she did not respond he demanded an answer, even two or three words, like three breaths of life, otherwise he would suffocate. He also obsessively demanded photos of her and her family, wanting to know who took them, at what time, where. After flooding her with correspondence for a few months, he made a trip to Berlin. He only got to kiss her on the cheek because she had no time to spare on that day: she had to attend a funeral. During his next visit to Berlin he was planning to propose while she invited him to a family party organized in his honour. He did not make a good impression on her family when he declared that he was a vegetarian and refused all the juicy pieces of meat placed on the table. Everyone was disappointed, even more so Kafka, who noticed for the first time and to his horror that his beloved had golden teeth!
It was Kafka’s last will that all his writing should be destroyed; the will that was famously disobeyed by his best friend. Shame was one of the most important themes of his work and shame probably motivated him to put forward the request to Max Brod. The letters to Felice take 700 pages revealing all the pathos, the hysterical behaviour, a sense of inferiority, the torment, the lust and doubt that a single anguished soul can hold. The last sentence of The Trial reads: “It was as if he meant the shame of it to outlive him.” It is important to remember that Kafka wrote shortly before the second world war. The demons that tormented his souls were the very ones which reared their ugly heads shortly after his death. Although he led a respectable bourgeois existence on the outside, having a decent job, which he apparently liked much more than the legend has it, he rejected the hypocrisy and deeply despised the banality and shallowness of the consensus culture of Western Europe. Felice did not share any of his deeper views, though: her wish was to become a decent woman and get married. He felt trapped, trying to discourage her, presenting himself in the worst possible light.
Plagued by guilt and not wanting to disappoint Felice, he takes a short break and goes to a sanatorium, where he becomes fascinated by a very young Swiss woman. They play a game consisting in throwing a string from her window down to his: this is as far as the relationship went but at the same time he stopped writing to Felice, who felt alarmed and decided to send a friend (Greta Bloch) to Prague to see what had happened. Naturally, Kafka immediately fell for the friend and started writing to her asking for photos, demanding personal details, etc. Notwithstanding, he came to Berlin and proposed to Felice who said yes. In the midst of the wedding plans he confided in Greta about not wanting to marry Felice. Greta could not keep this from Felice and the ladies set a trap by organizing a tribunal to expose Kafka’s machinations. He felt shattered and deeply ashamed. Soon after he wrote The Trial.
Felice misses him, however, and she decides to get in touch again. After four years of courting they finally make love. Very soon after this he finds out he has a deadly illness and decides that he cannot get married in such circumstances. He is secretly relieved. To gain his strength, he moves to the countryside to live with his sister. Poor Felice visits him but he seems indifferent and waves goodbye to her, absentmindedly. She goes back to Prague, probably to sell her wedding dress and cancel the wedding plans, and meets someone after two years. She emigrates to the USA and sells Kafka’s letters to get herself out of poverty.
He meets Julie Wohryzek at a hotel where both of them are the only guests. They giggle as they bump into each other in empty corridors. He slides letters under her doorstep and tiptoes away. Back in Prague they have sex and he proposes to her. His family does not accept her. They start looking for a flat but do not have enough funds. He once more becomes disappointed, restless, unsure about what to do.
Milena Jesenska was undoubtedly a fascinating woman, perhaps as deep and tormented a soul as Kafka himself. She was perhaps the first woman in his life who totally defied the ways of tradition. She introduced herself to him in Prague, at Café Arco, as a translator who wanted to translate his short stories into the Czech. Her biography is quite astonishing. Her mother died when she was very young and she was raised by a tyrannizing father. She remained a free spirit despite his best efforts, though. She would swim across a river in her clothes to meet with a boyfriend, she would pose nude for painters, drink, take drugs, and at a very young age. She also used to live with two women in a love triangle. She was a minor and her father had still the power to lock her up in a mental institution, which she left when she came of age and married shortly after, unhappily. They moved to Vienna, where they had an open marriage and very little money to support his drinking and numerous lovers. She was forced to prostitute herself and at times she also worked as a luggage porter at the main station. She had a keen intellect and vast literary talent herself, which made her recognize Kafka’s talent and offer him her services as a translator. She was herself a recognized editor, essayist and journalist. Their correspondence was very extensive. Kafka kept writing to her and to Julie at the same time. He begged Milena to leave her husband but she was not able to. He broke off with Julie but that still did not satisfy Milena, who was a very unpredictable woman. At the same time he was getting more and more ill. He was too weak to conduct this affair and they had to part ways. He presented her with his diary as a parting gift. Her subsequent life is even more eventful: she gets a divorce, remarries, becomes addicted to morphine while pregnant and in unbearable pain. She leaves her husband and becomes a communist activist, but leaves the party. When the Germans come to Prague she joins the resistance movement and openly walks in the streets with a yellow star on her arm. Finally, she is sent to a concentration camp, where she dies a hero who has been supporting her fellow prisoners. She was a restless spirit, always trying to live a free life in extremely difficult historical times.
I wrote more about Dora Diamant, Kafka’s last love, in my first post dedicated to Kafka. She is the one who gave him pineapples and flowers to smell before he died.