(Franz Kafka and Felice Bauer)
Franz Kafka had many lovers in his life. They ranged from Dora Diamant to Felice Bauer.
Dora was his lover at the end of his life. She was twelve years his junior, and had to be restrained from leaping into his open grave.
Felice was engaged to him twice. And, as this excellent article from The Guardian points out, most of their relationship occurred through letters. And those few times they were together were not always filled with bliss.
After The Guardian article are some excerpts from my Kafka in The Castle, also dealing with his relationship with Felice. Poor Felice.
Franz Kafka’s virtual romance: a love affair by letters as unreal as online dating
His love letters were sent by post rather than email, but Kafka’s affair with Felice Bauer recoiled from reality in a way that has become familiar in the internet age
Looking ahead to modern romance … the statue of a giant rotating head of Franz Kafka by Czech artist David Cerny. Photograph: Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images
Friday 12 August 2016 12.30 BST Last modified on Friday 12 August 2016 17.23 BST
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 who lived in Berlin, was travelling through Prague on her way to a wedding. That night, she would meet the intense author at the Brods’ dining table. According to Kafka’s version of the events (and it is the only one we have, since Felice’s letters were destroyed), 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 (along with Max Brod’s father) walked her home: all of this would form the flimsy foundation on which their relationship was built – one they would conduct almost entirely without seeing each other in person, one that Kafka scholar Elias Canetti dubbed “Kafka’s Other Trial.”.
Despite the relatively short distance between Prague and Berlin, Kafka and Bauer would meet only a handful of times, become engaged twice and never marry. 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
These days, our world is dominated by the written word more than ever before. While letter-writing declines, in 2015 the average office worker received 121 emails every day, their very own share of the 205bn total sent and received in total. 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. (“Nothing unites two people so completely, especially if, like you and me, all they have is words,” he wrote in one letter.) 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 epistolary 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.
And make no mistake, 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. It was entirely untranslatable into an actual marriage. He’d veer between contradictions on that point, too, at one point gushing that “we belong together unconditionally” only to declare “marriage a scaffold” weeks later.
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.
Excerpt from Kafka In The Castle
27 February 1917
A letter from F. I am beginning to think that we do not really see the people in front of us. F. has changed from a vibrant companion to a banal drudge. But, of course, she has not really changed. She is neither of these things, but rather a combination. She is a person living through her life, and what I see reflected are my wants and fears. I want F. to share my tiny house, but I am ever fearful she might say yes.
28 March 1917
I have many letters I should write, the principle one being to F. A chore offering little satisfaction, and less pleasure. Except for the relief of knowing it is done. I am an expert in this, since I spend most of my life dealing with chores. The sins of the office will follow me into the third and fourth decade. But what is to be done about Felice? If anything, she is enjoying our correspondence more now, than she ever has. Rarely do we go below the surface of furniture and work. Will this be this, or that be that? If we ever approach the stairway of heaven together, she will be most concerned that the carpeting upon it is expensive and durable.
04 June 1917
Sometimes – with F – a kiss could make me feel I was becoming part of her. And she into me. I retreated.
05 June 1917
Had I not retreated, I would have given up myself. This is what is expected from love. My thoughts and emotions would be continually extracted. I have no way to replenish them, so I would eventually be hollowed out. And I would collapse.
29 June 1917
Felice is insistent. The heat is intolerable. The Institute drags me in like a bad novel, and smothers me in verbiage. Max threatens to walk out on his wife. Of course, it is to me he gives this threat – I doubt he would ever tell her. Father, with time to think about it, has declared Ottla is too thin and weakened. He was right, he says, the farm work is too much for her. We must all band together to get her back into Prague. “Isn’t that right, Franz?” No `Herr Son’ when he wants something. Bring her back to Prague? After she has escaped? No and never. I would attempt to free the vilest creature crawling in the sewers of Prague.
05 July 1917
I will meet Felice – it is what she wants. It is what must be done. She is coming to Prague, and will no doubt fit in perfectly. My parents approve of her – more, I suspect, than they approve of me. She’ll be insulted by this tiny house – it will be found wanting and crude. Some of those annoying qualities she hints about me.
09 July 1917
We have become engaged for the second time. Joy from my parents. My beaming father. How glad I was that Ottla wasn’t there. I looked around the room and saw what awaited me – overstuffed furniture and mouths full of banality. F. had tea with us, and nibbled on the dainty cakes. And I knew she was taking in each chip of the porcelain to relay to her mother. Weighing and judging.
My father is crude, my mother gushes, but there is obviously money. And, I am a Herr Doktor of Laws, and well advanced up the ladder of bureaucracy. Yes, there are some elements of the brooding author, but that can be restricted to conversations with my friends after dinner on Sunday. Or, a couple of evenings at the coffee house a month. Those should be avenues enough to tend to my funny, little needs. A few hours in the dark, twitching like a timid rodent.
Then, each week could begin anew. We even did our social duties, Felice and I. Visiting friends and relations with the joyous news. In a stiff, high collar which I had to borrow from my father. Much to his delight. We last called upon Max and his wife, as afternoon dragged into evening. Plates of food and platters of words. Max could not take his eyes from my chafing collar, and I knew he wanted to ask about it. But he dared not. Not in front of wife and fiancee. His and mine. He could not contain his smile however. Horror and humour. Mine and his. At least the social niceties were over once we left his house – except, of course, for my walk with F. back to her hotel. She debated whether or not to return to my parents, but I dissuaded her. She might have allowed an embrace on the outside steps, had I but tried. Had I only tried.
But I scuttled away, ascended some other steps, and here I am within this tiny house. The door is open because of the heat, but even had I locked and bared it after me, I fear they all would still enter. Would walk through the walls if necessary. Would scale the castle with ladders, if necessary. They are never going to let me rest. Even as I sleep, they will be lurking in my dreams.
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