Franz Kafka | A Bohemian Novelist
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Franz Kafka, the son of Julie Lowy and Hermann Kafka, a merchant, was born into a prosperous middle-class Jewish family.
After two brothers died in infancy, he became the eldest child and remained, for the rest of his life, conscious of his role as elder brother. Kafka strongly identified with his maternal ancestors because of their spirituality, intellectual distinction, piety, rabbinical learning, melancholy disposition, and delicate physical and mental constitution. He was not, however, particularly close to his mother.
Relationships are probably our greatest learning experiences, a wise woman once said.
When we fall in love, we are asked to rise to this task - a polarising pull that stretches the psyche in opposite directions as we crave surrender and safety in equal measure.
The discomfort of this wildly disorienting pull is what 29-year-old Franz Kafka articulated in a beautiful and heartbreaking letter to Felice Bauer, whom the young author had met at the home of his friend and future biographer Max Brod in August of 1912.
Young Franz and Felice immediately began a relationship of escalating intensity. Over the five-year course of their turbulent, mostly epistolary relationship, they were engaged twice, even though they met in person only a few times. During that period, Kafka produced his most significant work, including The Metamorphosis. Five hundred of his letters survive and were posthumously published in the intensely rewarding and revelatory Letters to Felice.
On 13 August 1912, a summer evening in Prague, a young Franz Kafka was gathering up his manuscripts to take to the house of his friend, Max Brod. His excursion to the Brods’ home late in the evening was not unusual, but this was an unusual night, for two momentous reasons: Kafka was about to send off what would be one of his first works to be published, and that evening he would meet the woman who would dominate his romantic imagination for the next five years.
Felice Bauer, a cousin of the Brod family. That night, she would meet the intense author at the Brods’ dining table. According to Kafka’s version of the events, she did not eat much and seemed reticent when he offered her his hand across the table.
The few words they exchanged, her demeanour, her slippers, where she sat, where he sat, his invitation that she join him on a trip to Jerusalem, his aching self- consciousness as he walked her home: all of this would form the flimsy foundation on which their relationship was built. But their correspondence of hundreds of letters
– which finished when Kafka wrote the last letter in 1917 and only came to the world’s attention in 1955, when Bauer sold his letters to her – is one of the most poignant chronicles of the human urge to share ourselves, while foregoing the vulnerability that such intimacy creates.
“Nothing unites two people so completely, especially if, like you and me, all they have is words” Kafka, in a 1912 letter to Bauer
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These days, our world is dominated by the written word more than ever before. While letter-writing declines, in the second decade of the 20th century, Franz and Felice, toiling in offices in Prague and Berlin, were similarly able to count on correspondence, work and otherwise, delivered several times a day. More urgent messages came via telegram and all of it was routine enough by 1912 to be taken for granted.
Kafka relied on the single medium of his letters to mythologise his romance with Bauer, making it, and consequently himself, far more attractive. He used the distance between the real and virtual worlds to his advantage, in a way that is familiar today – who of us hasn’t crafted a more perfect version of ourselves, in that separate online world?
Kafka resisted putting their relationship to the real-life test. After finally agreeing to meet Bauer, he sent a telegram in the morning saying he would not be coming, but went anyway – and remained sullen and withdrawn, later complaining that he had been hugely disappointed with the real Felice.
This was predictable: a month before the visit, Kafka wrote that “if one bolts the doors and windows against the world, one can from time to time create the semblance and almost the beginning of the reality of a beautiful life”.
In these words, one could argue, lies a premonition of online romance. What Kafka did in lyrical prose, the rest of us bumble through on social media and dating apps today – enjoying a similar disconnect from reality.
The virtual nature of their relationship was a deliberate effort on Kafka’s part: his allegiance was to writing, and the love he felt for Bauer was constructed entirely in writing, the content and frequency of which he could control.
Reticent or eager, the internet age has made writers of us all, and even if most of us are bad ones, we gather up the small prizes of making ourselves and our virtual crushes look better than we are. Yes, our lusty, emotive missives likely lack the incandescence of Kafka’s prose, but his indulgence of a romance restricted to writing gives email love a useful literary genealogy.
Kafka’s fiction has bestowed us with the adjective “Kafkaesque”, pointing to the intersection of the perverse and the grotesque woven into the banalities of modern life. Kafka’s love letters suggest another dimension for the term: that incongruity between who we are and who we want to be, between our desire to share our inner worlds and the fear of experiencing the consequent vulnerability that such exposure would bring into our “real” lives.
Connection and isolation each have a cost. Virtual worlds, like letters of old, provide a partition between the two; enabled then by the postal service, and now by digital technology.
Partition, however, is not intersection. In his romance with Felice at least, Kafka found no possibility of merging the two.
The intimacy that existed on the page did not translate into attraction in reality. By the time the first engagement was broken, too much had been shared, even if only by letter, so their writing to each other continued regardless.
But by the second engagement, Kafka and Bauer were conclusively forced apart – Kafka’s diagnosis with tuberculosis in 1917 had dashed any prospect of marriage.
In his final letter to Felice, he wrote: “If we value our lives, let us abandon it all. I am forever fettered to myself, that’s what I am, and that’s what I must try to live with.” This was not the end, however, to his penchant for the virtual affair. Kafka wrote his first letter to Milena Jesenska, his subsequent love, in 1920.
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