A Little More Kafka

"Mikhtavim leFelicia, Mivhar" ("Letters to Felicia, a Selection"), by Franz Kafka, translated from the German by Ilana Hammerman, selected by Jurgen Nieraad, Am Oved, 2002, 373 pages

"Mikhtavim leFelicia, Mivhar" ("Letters to Felicia, a Selection"), by Franz Kafka, translated from the German by Ilana Hammerman, selected by Jurgen Nieraad, Am Oved, 2002, 373 pages

Who would have remembered Felicia Bauer at all, had he not wondered about the letters F.B. that are prefaced to "The Judgment," a wonderful and horrible short story that Franz Kafka wrote in a single night and dedicated to Felicia Bauer (who apparently did not react to it at all!) and is one of the greatest, most important and most influential of the literary works of the 20th century?

Felicia Bauer, a young Jewish woman who was born in Schlesia, lived in Berlin where she worked as a shorthand-typist to help her mother. She certainly would not have been remembered worldwide were it not for her long engagement to the young Jewish man she met in Prague on August 13, 1912, and had this young man, Franz Kafka, not written her letters over a period of five years (and got engaged to her twice, breaking off with her finally after the second engagement when it was discovered that she suffered from tuberculosis).

Were it not for these letters we would know nothing about Felicia, who married a Berlin businessman and had two children and immigrated to the United States, where she was widowed, set herself up in business and dealt successfully with real life until her death in 1960.

The publication of Kafka's letters to Felicia Bauer, of which Ilana Hammerman has wonderfully translated into Hebrew a small selection - originally they filled 700 pages - stirs up second thoughts about an ethical issue: Is it permissible at all to publish private papers of a person who not only did not intend them for publication but quite possibly wished to have them destroyed?

In his book "Testaments Betrayed; An Essay in Nine Parts," Milan Kundera, a Czech writer living in Paris, voiced a number of insights concerning this question. Kundera dealt with it, inter alia, in his discussions of great artists whose works fell into the hands of mediocre artists. He paid special attention to this in the cases of the great artists who were born in Prague: the composer Leos Janacek and the Jewish writer Franz Kafka. In different chapters of his book, Kundera described what he defined as the aesthetic isolation of Kafka and Janacek, an isolation that perhaps derived from their innovativeness. For a period of 14 years, for example, the director of the Prague opera, a conductor and composer whom Kundera describes as less than mediocre, refused to put on Janacek's opera "Jenufa," although he finally did agree and conducted the Prague premiere of the opera himself. He kept stressing Janacek's amateurishness and introduced many changes in the opera, amendments to the orchestration and even a great number of excisions.

When Kundera comes to dealing with Max Brod, Kafka's close friend who published his writings in the world, he did not describe him as harshly as he did the director of the opera, but the title of the chapter in which Kundera discusses Max Brod and his handling of Kafka's works is: "You're Not in Your Own House Here, My Dear Fellow." This is a quotation from Igor Stravinsky's remarks to Ernest Ansermet, who dealt with Stravinsky's works when he wanted to compile them into a comprehensive edition, and did as he pleased with them.

In 1921, three years before his death, Kafka asked Max Brod to "destroy certain things." From this comes the legend around the writer's will, as if he had been attacked by a momentary urge to destroy, and if he had really wanted his works to be destroyed he would have done this himself. The legend led to the emergence of the falsified myth of Kafka as an artist who did not recognize his own value, whereas it is clear from his diaries and letters that Kafka was very well aware of the value of his works (though he did have serious bouts of doubt about their perfection).

According to Kundera, Kafka did not want to destroy his works, but did a reckoning in an attempt to sort out what should remain and what did not come up to his standards. In describing the reasons for Kafka's request, Kundera articulates a great truth: What prompted Kafka to destroy the works he selected, he says, was elementary shame, the shame of leaving behind intimate things for others - family and strangers - to read after his death, the shame of becoming an object, the shame that could live on after him.

It is customary to think that the main emotion, the thematic common denominator, in the works of the writer who to a large extent shaped western art and thought in the 20th century, is the sense of guilt. But this guilt is connected in its every fiber to shame - the principled shame at everything that is not done properly and everything that reveals an excess of pathos or hysterical behavior, for example, and shame at the fact of the existence of lusts and passions and in truth at the very fact of human existence and the needs to which it gives rise. And this guilt is the crucial feeling in Kafka's works.

"Shame," it may be recalled, is one of the last words in his novel "The Trial," which recounts how K. is executed "like a dog!" His final thought is: "It was as if he meant the shame of it to outlive him" (English translation by Will and Edwin Muir, 1935).

Not only guilt but mainly shame is behind the plot of "Metamorphosis," "The Judgment" and many of Kafka's other works. No one who loves Kafka can read his letters without discovering in them the way his shame at the fact of his physical existence and his contacts with the world shaped all he did. Such a reader can even feel a pinch of embarrassment or sadness at this exposure in the letters, which reveal a selection of the nuances of the writer's obsessiveness, his sense of inferiority, his total dependence on the image others have of him and the like.

However, no truthful reader of Kafka will shut his eyes and reject his private writings: his dairy, the letter to his father or the letters to Milena and to Felicia Bauer. Not only simple curiosity - not to mention plain voyeurism - motivate the reader to devour his diary and his letters, but also and primarily the love of Kafka and the desire to read more and more things that he expressed.

His private writings and his incomplete works are, at least, "a little more Kafka," and even if they cannot be judged by purely aesthetic criteria and stand beside the works that he valued, they reveal a rare insight, extraordinary sensitivity, self-irony that is paralyzing but also funny and more. They often illuminate and explain Kafka's literary works; more than this, the details, the insights and the great and small revelations about his life teach us many important things about his life, and also our own.

From his letters to Felicia we can learn about his attitude towards the Yiddish theater (to which he was very close) and to contemporary periodicals; we can know how much he scorned popular writers of his time like Arthur Schnitzler ("Indeed, he is not lacking in talent, but his plays and his long stories are, in my opinion, full of a lot of stupid nonsense, incomparably banal") and how he had reservations about Franz Werfel; and how he hated Elsa Lasker-Schuler as a phenomenon and as a poet and how he did like the innovative and daring playwright Frank Wedekind. We can learn how he identified with the writer Theodor Fontana (a portion of whose diary he uses to express his own feelings) and how much he loved Heinrich von Kleist's "Michael Kolhaas" (apart from the ending, which made him very angry).

In the fine introduction she wrote for the book in which letters in a variety of styles are collected, Ilana Hammerman relates to the "over-complexity, roughness and unclarity of the formulations," and argues, rightly, that on the other hand these letters reveal familiar aspects of his work and especially "give voice to Kafka's thoughts about the insoluble contradiction he saw between a `normal' life, marriage and a family, and literary writing, without which for him there would be no point to life."

This argument almost goes without saying; it is reflected in the diary, in the letters to Milena and in all his works. It is a partial formulation of the "basic Kafkaesque situation," which means that any contact of an individual with his fellow man is first of all open to disappointment, distress, guilt and shame. An individual's contact with his fellow - if shame and guilt are the persistent bass in his personality, that is, if he is Kafka - is simultaneously a basic need and hell.

The fact of being within his family (which was quite warm and quite supportive, if very bourgeois - a family that Tolstoy would have defended as happy like all families) was for him a basis for feelings of humiliation and shame. Thus, for example, on the night between the 29th and the 30th of December, 1912, he wrote to Felicia: "The unity of the family is disrupted only by me, and as the years go by I disrupt it even more, and again and again I am at a loss and feel profound guilt towards my parents and towards everyone and in past years I would sometimes stand at the window and fool with the handle. It seemed quite appropriate to open the window and throw myself out."

These letters reveal at a stroke, by the fact of their existence, the unexpected moves connected with falling in love, the emotion that Freud called a "passing psychosis," the manifestations of which sometimes arouse great astonishment in the outside observer who cannot understand what the one person sees in the other. Kafka himself never imagined the world-shaking relationship he would develop with Felicia Bauer after the first time he met her. In the introduction, Ilana Hammerman brings an extract from his diary, in which he wrote about Miss F.B.: "I thought she was a servant and I was also not curious to know who she was, because I summed her up at once. A thin, empty face that did not conceal its emptiness. An exposed neck. Her blouse worn carelessly. She looked to me like she was pretty much wearing clothes she would wear at home ... An almost broken nose, blonde hair, a bit severe, lacking in charm, a strong chin. As I sat down and looked at her for the first time up close ... I already had a decided opinion of her."

If we examine the facts that emerge from these letters, it is perfectly clear what the tortured, consumptive, obsessive genius found in the respectable and intelligent Jewish girl from Berlin (he claimed she had studied Hebrew and was caught out in her fib). Sometimes a person quickly erases the first impressions he has of people - in this case women - so that he can become impassioned with them. In such a case he, the desiring lover, should avoid meeting with the object of his affections, for if he puts her to the test of reality he is liable to discover her limitations and lose the object of his love at a stroke.

We do not have Felicia's letters and thus we cannot know who she "really" was, but can only form an impression of her from Kafka's diary and letters. From them it emerges that she, unwittingly, served him as an object, a kind of hanger from which to suspend his feelings. Her limited and unimaginative response to his works (she had reservations about his "Meditation," which he dedicated to Max Brod and was published at the beginning of their relationship, and also said nothing about "The Judgment," which he dedicated to her and sent to her) show that she was an ordinary and pretty much balanced person, and her life did not depend on art and creativity.

From Kafka's replies we learn that she wrote to him mostly about her workplace, her girlfriends, her father and her brothers, and was very concerned with manners and family relationships. Like Kafka himself, she was immersed in the bourgeois existence of central Europe, and through his letters to her and the utter seriousness with which he related to this existence of hers it is possible to learn about the extreme split between the respectability he displayed in his everyday life and the irony - not to say loathing - he had for the respectable bourgeoisie he displayed in his works.

Kafka met with Felicia Bauer only a few times during the five years during which he was twice engaged to her, and wrote to her sometimes two or three times a day and frequently declared that not a quarter of an hour went by without him thinking about her. But out of all the plans for meetings that are revealed in these letters a paralyzing ambivalence emerges. It seems as though he did not dare at all to imagine circumstances in which he would be able to stay with her for an extended length of time; at most he stayed with her for two days, such as during the Shavuot holiday they spent in Swiss Bohemia in 1915; she collaborated in this matter and thus perhaps prevented, intuitively, the confrontation between the truth and the fantasy.

And we also learn from these letters - perhaps only because Jurgen Neiraad chose the ones that touched upon Kafka's inner world - that a person whose life is an endless war of self-torture to give shape and order to the writing of the way he experiences and sees the world, hardly ever has the time to turn his attention to external events, and is not at all threatened by them, even if they are a world war. Kafka's few mentions in his letters to Felicia (in this selection) of external events in general, and of World War I in particular, are extremely few, and almost always touch upon his plans; in January of 1916 he wrote to her: "In the best case I will come to Berlin then as a person consumed by sleeplessness and headaches ... Therefore, after the war I will come to Berlin as such a person, Felicia."