Jacqueline Raoul-Duval’s remarkable novel, Kafka in Love, largely drawn from Kafka’s letters and diaries, bridges the lines between fiction and non-fiction in its pursuit of biography. The French title of the book is Kafka, L’éternel fiancé, and what an excellent title that is, for in the book we see Kafka between the years 1912 until his death in 1924 through his rather odd relationships with four very different women. The shared ingredient of these relationships is that they were largely long-distance, and while Kafka appears to have primarily enjoyed the position of fiancé (no less than four times) in order to establish a prolific letter writing campaign, proximity–except perhaps for his last relationship with his intellectual equal, Dora, brought disaster.
Kafka in Love begins by showing Franz Kafka as an energetic, intense, dapper young man. He met Max Brod “by chance” on November 23, 1903 in Prague at a talk in which Brod called Nietzsche a “charlatan.” Kafka publicly challenged Brod and thus began a lifelong friendship which lasted until Kafka’s death in 1924.
Max examined the young righter of wrongs, who was taller than he by a head. He noticed the young man’s elegance of dress, the tie and stand-up collar, the intensity of his gaze , his black eyes on fire. He was reminded of a Dostoevsky hero. The student’s high-cheekboned thinness and distinction made Max uncomfortable, and he regretted having overindulged in beer and fatty foods and neglected sports.
It’s at Max’s house that Kafka meets Felice Bauer, a relative of Max Brod’s “by marriage” on August 13, 1912. Felice, who lives in Berlin, is an unlikely candidate for Kafka’s interest. In spite of the fact that he doesn’t find her physically attractive (“no charm, no appeal“), a relationship begins which is maintained and fed by a torrent of letters and telegrams. Between October 23 (when Felice finally replies to Kafka’s increasingly insistent letters) until December 31st 1912, he writes and sends 100 letters to Felice “often two or three a day.” Kafka’s long-distance relationship with Felice appears to have satisfied a certain obsessive-compulsive component in Kafka’s nature, and it also allowed Kafka to write the most extraordinarily passionate letters (“Dearest, very dearest! Most cherished of my temptations,”), but, sadly, the passion failed to materialize when the couple finally met again in the flesh. Rather interestingly, neither Felice nor Kafka seemed particularly anxious to spend time together, and it’s almost as if they both sensed that this extraordinary on-and-off again relationship was superior on paper. They were annoyed by each other’s habits; Kafka was turned off by Felice’s teeth and eating of sugar cubes. Felice couldn’t stand Kafka’s eccentricities & asceticism. Kafka didn’t smoke, didn’t drink alcohol, tea or coffee and was a vegetarian. He “slept by an open window even in the heart of winter, [and] swam in icy rivers.” Perpetually late, he always set his watch one and a half hours ahead. All these habits grated on Felice’s nerves, and this didn’t bode well for any imagined future together. In one of his letters, he detailed more habits:
I eat three meals a day, but nothing between meals, literally nothing. In the morning stewed fruit, biscuits and milk. At 2:30, out of filial pity, the same as the others, a bit less than the others. Winter evenings at 9:30: yogurt, wholegrain bread, butter, walnuts and hazelnuts, chestnuts, dates, figs, raisins, almonds, pumpkin seeds, bananas, apples, pears, oranges, and I never get my fill of lemonade.
We could perhaps chalk up Kafka’s misadventures with Felice as a youthful, impulsive mistake–a relationship that he dove into too quickly and then had difficulties in the retreat, but then when Felice recruited her best friend, Grete Bloch in the campaign to patch things up with Kafka, his enthusiastic letter-writing shifted gears to his fiancée’s best friend, and naturally this culminated in disaster. Then there are Kafka’s other relationships, and while his relationships with the sad milliner, Julie Wohryzek and the glorious Milena are both quite different, they are still maintained at a distance and plagued with a certain reluctance on Kafka’s part. Milena, who “enters” Kafka’s life “like a hurricane,” has a tumultuous past, peppered with scandal. Their relationship lasted approximately 8 months, and “about 150” letters survive as a testament to their mostly long-distance relationship–Kafka in Prague and Milena with her husband “the man with forty mistresses,” in Vienna. Their letter exchanges “reach a feverish pitch, telegrams fly back and forth at a rapid rate.”
The book smoothly integrates extracts from Kafka’s diaries and letters so seamlessly that we don’t particularly notice where they begin and end, and at times, the author interjects the occasional speculative and rhetorical comment in the midst of recounting Kafka’s actions as in one spot when Kafka acknowledges that he will never have children. There’s an aside “was Felice troubled by this warning?”
It’s impossible to separate Kafka the lover from Kafka the author since the two aspects of his character appear to be so closely intertwined. While Kafka tries romance numerous times and endures the life of an aesthetic, his Diaries reveal no small amount of struggle from the man who wrote The Hunger Artist:
In his Diaries, he lets loose and confesses his hankerings, real and imaginary: “This craving that I almost always have, if ever I feel my stomach empty, to heap up in me images of terrible feats of eating. I especially satisfy this craving in front of pork butchers. If I see a sausage labeled as an old, hard farmhouse sausage, I bite into it in my imagination with my teeth and swallow quickly, regularly and mechanically. The despair that always follows this act, imaginary though it is, increases my haste. I shove long slabs of ribs into my mouth unchewed, then bring them out again the other end, pulling them through my stomach and intestines. I empty whole grocery stores, filthy ones, cram myself with herrings, pickles, and all the spicy, gamey unhealthy foods. Hard candies pour into my mouth like hail from the cast-iron pots.”
And while Kafka’s describes his first sexual experience to Milena, it’s in his diaries that he “confess[es] his taste for brothels,” along with the fact that “he is drawn to large and slightly older girls.”
While we see Kafka through four extraordinary relationships, the book Kafka in Love is ultimately a lot more than seeing Kafka through four strained engagements. We also see the process of Kafka maturing in an ever-increasing anti-Semitic society as he becomes interested in Zionism, learns Hebrew and returns to his Jewish roots–stirring once again, his father’s disapproval. We also see Kafka in the contemporary cultural society of his times with Ernst Weiss and Franz Werfel as friends., and the touching details of how Kafka consoled a child who’d lost her doll. Haunted by the knowledge that he left so much work incomplete, Kafka despaired about this failure even as his life was cut tragically short by his excruciatingly cruel and painful death from Tuberculosis in 1924 at the Kierling Sanatorium. At the end of the novel are notes explaining the fate of the letters written from Kafka–along with the fates of some of the significant people in his life., and a description of the battle over Kafka’s estate. The author, Jacqueline Raoul-Duval concludes this poignant, inspired and remarkable novel with an explanation of how she was drawn to her subject.
Translated by Willard Wood. Review copy.