Franz Kafka’s Invitation to a Literary Séance

In letters to his beloved Milena, now compiled in a new Hebrew translation, Kafka creates art in which he invests as much intensity, imagination and thought as he did in his short stories and novels.

Shira Stav
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Grafitti with Kafka’s image.
Grafitti with Kafka’s image.Credit: Sylvio Konkol
Shira Stav

"Letters to Milena" by Franz Kafka, translated into Hebrew from the German by Jonathan Nirad, Carmel Publishing House, 294 pages, 80 shekels

In one of Franz Kafka’s last letters to Milena Jesenská, his faraway beloved, he wrote the following lines which would one day become well known: “The easy possibility of writing letters must have brought wrack and ruin to the souls of the world. Writing letters is actually an intercourse with ghosts, and by no means just the ghost of the addressee but also with one’s own ghost, which secretly evolves inside the letter one is writing.”

For us readers, Kafka’s "Letters to Milena," which came out in English in 1999 and has now been revised and translated into Hebrew, presents a unique opportunity to participate in a literary séance that conjures up the interaction of these ghosts before our very eyes, and in a way allows us to feel our own selves turning into a kind of ghost — a present, silent witness to the weaving of these images into words before our eyes. But what was "wrack and ruin" for Kafka — and for Milena — is, for us, a prolonged moment of discovery.

Kafka and Jesenská met for the first time in autumn 1919, after Jesenská received permission from him to translate his story “The Stoker” (which later became the first chapter of his novel "Amerika") from German to Czech, and to publish it in a Czech literary journal.

A young intellectual who belonged to Prague’s bohemian circles, Jesenská worked as a translator, editor and writer of articles in journals. She had married Ernst Pollak, a Jewish man, over the objections of her father, a professor, and lived with him in Vienna.

Biographies written about Kafka describe Jesenská as a “tempestuous,” “fiery,” sharp-witted and intelligent woman – the only one of Kafka’s lovers to have understood, in a profound way, his art and the place writing occupied in his soul and in his life, and also the first to realize his greatness. In the obituary she published after Kafka’s death in June 1924, she wrote, “He has written the most significant books of modern German literature.”

In his second letter to her, Kafka wrote: “It occurs to me that I really can’t remember your face in any precise detail. Only the way you walked away through the tables in the café, your figure, your dress, that I still see.”

The way Jesenská was engraved in the great writer's memory — the figure of a woman with her back toward him, walking away — is not coincidental, and illustrates the fate of their relationship, although if it was Kafka who eventually left her.

It also shows, as he later wrote to his friend Max Brod in an effort to explain why his relationship with Jesenská had not worked out, that Kafka was capable of loving a woman only as long he kept her unattainable. Indeed, the rare and strange beauty of Kafka’s letters stems from, among other things, the way he turns the very act of correspondence, the very act of communication, into the most visible sign of the lack of attainability.

Milena Jesenská. Kafka could love a woman only as long he kept her unattainable. Credit: Yad Vashem

Kafka and Jesenská met very few times. The intensive correspondence between them, which went on between April and November 1920, and includes hundreds of letters – sometimes several penned on the same day – began shortly after their first meeting. They met only twice during that period.

Letter written by Franz Kafka.Credit: Dodo Hunziker / eikon-suedwest

Their exchange of letters ended at Kafka’s request and was resumed only about a year and a half later, with a trickle of a few letters written in a tone that was more distant, but just as tormented: “The black magic of writing letters is beginning to destroy my nights to an even greater extent.... I’ve got to stop. I can’t write any longer.... Please, don’t write anymore.”

Burning the eyes

Of all the two-way correspondence with Jesenská, only Kafka’s letters remain. Her letters are lost. She gave them to their mutual friend Willy Haas in 1939, shortly before the Gestapo captured her and sent her – because of her efforts to assist Jews, as a member of the resistance – to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she died of kidney disease in 1944.

Haas published a censored version of the letters in what was an estimated chronological order. His version is the source of the previous translation of the letters into Hebrew by Edna Kornfeld, which was published by Schocken Publishing House in 1976. A new complete, annotated and illustrated edition was published since then, and the chronology of the correspondence has been reconstructed with the help of meticulous research.

Jonathan Nidar’s new translation, with its extraordinary beauty, avoids the flowery diction of the previous translation and delivers Kafka’s words as living, direct and tumultuous speech.

The temptation to use the letters as a key to reading Kafka’s tangled writings is great, as is the reverse. (For example, Elias Canetti uses Kafka’s letters to Felice Bauer as a sort of code for reading "The Trial," but employs the opposite process in his book "Kafka’s Other Trial: The Letters to Felice.") Also tempting is examination of books that were written by Kafka at the same time as, or after, his intense relationship with Jesenská, and of how they affected it. For example, Brod claimed that the character of Frieda in Kafka’s novel "The Castle" was based on Jesenská.

But one who concentrates too much on such subjects may miss the literary nature of the letters themselves – the fact that they are, in every sense, art in which Kafka invested as much intensity, imagination and thought as he did in his short stories and novels.

Of course, the letters had never been meant for publication. But we must remember that in a certain sense, much of Kafka’s work was never meant for publication. Rather, as far as Kafka was concerned, it was written to be burned and destroyed.

“Enough. This blank sheet of paper that goes on forever — it burns and kills your eyes and that’s why you write,” Kafka writes Jesenská, while he addresses himself. The destruction of the sheet of paper is the destruction of the gaze, of the self. And the more perishable as it is, the more it remains blank, inviting more and more writing, more and more destruction. This paradox is at the base of Kafka’s writing.

At first, Kafka uses Jesenská to see himself through her eyes. He is the final "address" for his words, and Jesenská is no more than a witness. In this way, Kafka can remain unavailable, inaccessible both to her and to himself. But being carried away by his correspondence traps him in a binding and painful dependence, as he writes: “Is it you I really love, or the existence that you give to me?”

At one point, he calls Jesenská “Mother Milena,” the one who gives him life. In other places, she is the Angel of Death: “You are the knife I turn inside myself” (this is where Israeli author David Grossman borrowed the name for his epistolary novel "Be My Knife").

The cover of the book 'Letters to Milena', Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Photo by courtesy

The relationship reflected in the correspondence in question is very different from the drawn-out abuse visited upon Felice, Kafka’s first fiancée, even if we find ourselves pulling our hair out several times and saying in wonder: This Kafka fellow is mentally ill. Unlike Felice, Jesenská has real interest in Kafka’s writing, and she is a writer herself, as intense as he is, and stands before him as an insistent subject that demands, time and again, to be read. The non-Jewish Jesenská is also married to another man — and Kafka is deeply and painfully aware of these facts and what they mean.

Stamp of fear

As Galili Shahar writes in her fascinating afterword to the new Hebrew translation, the “main, great and ultimate” subject of Kafka’s "Letters to Milena" is none other than the letter itself — the possibility that writing it offers and in particular the enormous impossibility embodied in its essence.

One expression of that, for example, is the substantial amount of effort devoted to the material and technical aspects of correspondence: stamps, paper, writing implements, drawing techniques, the type of postage, mail delivery, clerks, delays in transit. The feverish intensity of the writing and the sending creates a chaos of speech, processes that cross each other as the connection between sender and object is severed.

The "warp and weft of letters," Kafka writes his beloved, must stop because it is driving them out of their minds: One doesn't know what one’s written, or what one's response is in reference to, and between one thing and another, "you’re always afraid.” The manner of the correspondence thus bestows upon a relationship a stamp of constant fear.

It is particularly destructive for someone who attaches questions of life and death to these activities, as Kafka did. How terrible it is, he writes, that a person cannot throw himself into every word with all his being, so that if the word should be attacked, he can either protect himself or be utterly destroyed. But in such a situation, he adds, there is not only death, but also disease.

How quickly that train of thought moves from the lack of possibility, in which a person can't throw himself into words, into the tangible reality of disease. Along with the ongoing lamentation over the lack of an encounter in the flesh ("We will never live together, share the same apartment, body to body, be at the same table”), writing turns the letter itself into a body — wounded and yearning, breathing and bleeding — and makes the act of writing a supremely physical one.

Milena’s letters become, at times, an erotic object: Kafka writes that they were not intended for reading but for a situation in which he could seclude himself, lose his sanity. Kafka, ill with tuberculosis, describes the process of writing as the labored breathing of the constricted chest.

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari wrote in "Kafka: Toward a Theory of Minor Literature" about the vampire-like essence of Kafka’s letters, the way they sucked the blood and the life-force of his young lovers — a life-force that enabled him to write. But in the end, this vampirism destroyed Kafka himself. As the correspondence intensifies, we see Kafka weakening and sinking into the tuberculosis that gradually takes control of him, to the point where he secludes himself in his home and withdraws, finally urging Jesenská to stop writing to him.

The exchange of letters is approaching its end, and grows increasingly desperate over the possibility of ever being able to say anything in a letter. “I only try, always, to share something that cannot be shared, to explain something that cannot be explained, to tell about something that I have in my bones and that only these bones can experience.”

In the last letter to Milena before their long hiatus, in November 1920, he writes about “my increasing (letter by letter) inability to go beyond the letters. I am powerless toward you as I am toward myself."

“Beyond the letters” — that is where the world lies. A parallel reality, outside the words and the dead and deadly sheets of paper, inaccessible to the point of madness. It was there, supposedly, that I sat and read Kafka. But in this case, the ghost and the vampire acted on me as well, drawing me into the text with addictive power. As long as I read it, no other world existed.

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