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Letters about Milena: Let’s give Kafka’s girlfriends their literary due

As a new film focuses on Franz Kafka's infuriatingly neurotic love life, maybe it's time to pay closer attention these remarkable women.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

One hundred years ago, Franz Kafka died at age 40 in an Austrian sanatorium. His work and personality have generated constant interest ever since, with new imitations and interpretations coming from every generation of critics, authors, filmmakers and Prague tourism entrepreneurs.

This centenary alone has occasioned an ARD miniseries, Kafka, German reissues of his fiction, Mark Harman’s (brilliant) new translation of his Selected Stories, various books and articles on his legacy – and, unexpectedly, a romance movie.

Kafka was indeed a lover, albeit an infuriatingly neurotic one

Die Herrlichkeit des Lebens focuses on the last year of Kafka’s life, a period in which he met, fell for, and moved to Berlin with a Polish woman named Dora Diamant – and a period when, according to his best friend Max Brod, Kafka was for the first time truly happy.

Diamant and Kafka met at a Baltic Sea resort when he was already deeply ill; they fell in love immediately and spent the rest of his life together. Dieter Lamping’s nonfiction book Anders leben: Franz Kafka und Dora Diamant retells this story in a way that is sober but never dull, drawing in psychological insights while sharing charming details about interwar Berlin and its literary scene.

Both texts orbit the central tragedy of Kafka’s life: that he could only fully embrace both writing and love once the shadow of death had fallen upon him. 

‘Kafka in Love’: a surprising angle, perhaps, on an author generally imagined as tortured, ascetic and lonesome. But Kafka was indeed a lover, albeit an infuriatingly neurotic one. Chiefly, he loved a trio of remarkable women – Felice Bauer, Milena Jesenská and Diamant – who navigated the challenges of their time (and of his courtship) in fascinating ways.

Their three-dimensionality is the highlight of ARD’s miniseries: Bauer’s decision to confront Kafka about his indecisiveness and paranoia in a Berlin hotel, ultimately breaking off their engagement, appears a hard-earned act of courage rather than a cruel imposition on the artist’s wounded spirit. (This confrontation is said to have inspired The Trial; Kafka, like most great writers, seriously lacked perspective.)

An even more engrossing insight into Bauer – who later had children before fleeing the Nazis to the US – comes in the form of Magdaléna Platzová’s novel Life After Kafka, which will be published this August in Alex Zucker’s English translation. 

Milena Jesenska. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Kafka’s other great love was Jesenská, a freethinking young Czech feminist whose father once had her committed to an asylum for immorality. The two met when Jesenská, unhappily married in Vienna, began translating Kafka’s stories. Their correspondence rapidly escalated into intimacy: “Written kisses don’t reach their destination, rather they are drunk on the way by the ghosts,” Kafka wrote, with typical oddball rizz.

The romance didn’t work out: Jesenská was inexorably drawn to this fellow father-victim, but their temperaments were poorly matched (also, he was annoying). From there, her story turns heroic. She excels as a socially-engaged writer and editor; after chronicling the rise of fascism, she joins the resistance in occupied Czechoslovakia and dies in Ravensbrück camp in 1944.

However good Kafka’s letters are, it is an outrage that she’s primarily known for having received them. Alena Wagnerová’s definitive biography has not made it into English; Jesenská’s journalistic writing – which zings with moral clarity, intellectual energy and striking images (WWI shook Europe “like a sack of pears”) – has only appeared via scholarly press Berghahn, thanks to Kathleen Hayes’s 2003 translation.

Surely the time is ripe for more letters from, and about, Milena.