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Kafka’s Love Letters

Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka; drawing by David Levine

Franz Kafka wrote these love letters, as Erich Heller has noted, “during the months and years between September 20, 1912, and October 16, 1917, to a woman whom, as was at times his conviction, he wished to marry, to whom he twice became engaged and from whom he twice parted.”

The woman was Felice Bauer, whom he first met when she was visiting the family of his friend Max Brod in Prague in August, 1912. Felice was then twenty-four and lived in Berlin where she worked as an executive secretary for a firm that manufactured dictating machines. In September they began to write to each other, Kafka writing almost daily, sometimes several times a day. He briefly visited her twice in Berlin before he proposed to her in May, 1913.

Soon, as the publisher of these letters writes, “both started to doubt whether marriage would be the right step for them. Felice felt Kafka to be uncanny and out of step with everyday life. Kafka feared marriage would imperil his dedication to writing and interfere with his need for being alone. Despite all doubts, the correspondence continued, and in April, 1914, an engagement took place. It terminated in July. The two continued to write, met several times, and became engaged again in July, 1917. In September the doctors diagnosed Kafka’s tuberculosis. In December the betrothal was finally broken….

“All testimonials and reports on Felice Bauer emphasize her efficiency and common sense in practical matters—qualities which, as Kafka says, he himself lacked entirely, and which throughout his life he often admired extravagantly in others, not least in Felice. Kafka once described her as ‘a happy, healthy, self-confident girl.’ She liked pretty clothes, enjoyed traveling, but was prepared to sacrifice much for the sake of helping her family. Her taste in literature, art, and furnishing was that of the middle classes of her time. She evidently had little understanding for Kafka’s literary work.

“In March, 1919, fifteen months after her final parting from Kafka, Felice married a well-to-do Berlin businessman. In 1931 she and her family moved to Switzerland, and in 1936 to the United States, where she died on October 15, 1960.”

Some of Kafka’s best writing—including The Trial, The Metamorphosis, and “The Judgment”—comes from the period during which he wrote to her. Letters to Felice, from which the following letters have been selected, will be published in early autumn by Schocken Books, edited by Erich Heller and Jürgen Born, and translated by James Stern and Elisabeth Duckworth.

[Letterhead: Workers’ Accident

Insurance Institute]

Prague, September 20, 1912

My dear Fräulein Bauer,

In the likelihood that you no longer have even the remotest recollection of me, I am introducing myself once more: my name is Franz Kafka, and I am the person who greeted you for the first time that evening at Director Brod’s1 in Prague, the one who subsequently handed you across the table, one by one, photographs of a Thalia trip,2 and who finally, with the very hand now striking the keys, held your hand, the one which confirmed a promise to accompany him next year to Palestine.

Now, if you still wish to undertake this journey—you said at the time you are not fickle, and I saw no signs of it in you—then it will be not only right but absolutely essential for us to start discussing this journey at once. For we shall have to make use of every minute of our holiday, which in any case is far too short, especially for a trip to Palestine, and this we can do only by preparing ourselves as thoroughly as possible and by agreeing on all preparations.

One thing I have to confess, bad as it sounds, and ill as it accords with what I have just said: I am an erratic letter writer. Yes, and it would be worse still if I didn’t have a typewriter; for if my mood doesn’t happen to feel equal to a letter, there are still my fingertips to do the writing. On the other hand, I never expect a letter to be answered by return; even when awaiting a letter day after day with renewed anticipation, I am never disappointed when it doesn’t come, and when finally it does come, I incline to be startled. While inserting a new sheet of paper, I realize that I may have described myself as far more difficult than I am. If I have made this mistake it would serve me right, for why do I choose to write this letter after six hours in the office, and on a typewriter I am not used to.

And yet, and yet—the only disadvantage of using a typewriter is that one easily loses the thread—if doubts were raised, practical doubts I mean, about choosing me as a traveling companion, guide, encumbrance, tyrant, or whatever else I might turn into, there shouldn’t be any prior objections to me as a correspondent—and for the time being this is the only thing at issue—and as such, you might well give me a trial.

Yours very sincerely,
Dr. Franz Kafka
Poric 7, Prague
November 1, 1912

Dear Fräulein Felice,

You must not take offense at this form of address, at least not this time, for if I am to write about my mode of life, as you have asked me to do several times, I shall probably have some delicate things to say which I could hardly utter to a “Fräulein Bauer.” Moreover this new form of address cannot be so very bad, or I should not have thought it out with so much and such lasting satisfaction.

My life consists, and basically always has consisted, of attempts at writing, mostly unsuccessful. But when I didn’t write, I was at once flat on the floor, fit for the dustbin. My energies have always been pitifully weak; even though I didn’t quite realize it, it soon became evident that I had to spare myself on all sides, renounce a little everywhere, in order to retain just enough strength for what seemed to me my main purpose. When I didn’t do so (oh God, even on a holiday3 such as this, when I am acting as duty officer, there is no peace, just visitor after visitor, like a little hell let loose) but tried to reach beyond my strength, I was automatically forced back, wounded, humbled, forever weakened; yet this very fact which made me temporarily unhappy is precisely what gave me confidence in the long run, and I began to think that somewhere, however difficult to find, there must be a lucky star under which it would be possible to go on living. I once drew up a detailed list of the things I have sacrificed to writing, as well as the things that were taken from me for the sake of writing, or rather whose loss was only made bearable by this explanation.4

Just as I am thin, and I am the thinnest person I know (and that’s saying something, for I am no stranger to sanatoria), there is also nothing to me which, in relation to writing, one could call superfluous, superfluous in the sense of overflowing. If there is a higher power that wishes to use me, or does use me, then I am at its mercy, if no more than as a well-prepared instrument. If not, I am nothing, and will suddenly be abandoned in a dreadful void.

Now I have expanded my life to accommodate my thoughts about you, and there is hardly a quarter of an hour of my waking time when I haven’t thought about you, and many quarter-hours when I do nothing else. But even this is related to my writing, my life is determined by nothing but the ups and downs of writing, and certainly during a barren period I should never have had the courage to turn to you. This is just as true as it is true that since that evening I have felt as though I had an opening in my chest through which there was an unrestrained drawing-in and drawing-out until one evening in bed, when, by calling to mind a story from the Bible, the necessity of this sensation, as well as the truth of the Bible story, were simultaneously confirmed.

Lately I have found to my amazement how intimately you have now become associated with my writing, although until recently I believed that the only time I did not think about you at all was while I was writing. In one short paragraph I had written, there were, among others, the following references to you and your letters: Someone was given a bar of chocolate. There was talk of small diversions someone had during working hours. Then there was a telephone call. And finally somebody urged someone to go to bed, and threatened to take him straight to his room if he did not obey, which was certainly prompted by the recollection of your mother’s annoyance when you stayed so late at the office.5—Such passages are especially dear to me; in them I take hold of you, without your feeling it, and therefore without your having to resist. And even if you were to read some of my writings, these little details would surely escape you. But believe me, probably nowhere in the world could you let yourself be caught with greater unconcern than here.

My mode of life is devised solely for writing, and if there are any changes, then only for the sake of perhaps fitting in better with my writing; for time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers. The satisfaction gained by maneuvering one’s timetable successfully cannot be compared to the permanent misery of knowing that fatigue of any kind shows itself better and more clearly in writing than anything one is really trying to say.

For the past six weeks, with some interruptions in the last few days, due to unbearable weakness, my timetable has been as follows: from 8 to 2 or 2:30 in the office, then lunch till 3 or 3:30, after that sleep in bed (usually only attempts: for a whole week I saw nothing but Montenegrins in my sleep, in extremely disagreeable clarity, which gave me headaches, I saw every detail of their complicated dress) till 7:30, then ten minutes of exercises, naked at the open window, then an hour’s walk—alone, with Max, or with another friend, then dinner with my family (I have three sisters, one married, one engaged; the single one, without prejudicing my affection for the others, is easily my favorite);6 then at 10:30 (but often not till 11:30) I sit down to write, and I go on, depending on my strength, inclination, and luck, until 1, 2, or 3 o’clock, once even till 6 in the morning. Then again exercises, as above, but of course avoiding all exertions, a wash, and then, usually with a slight pain in my heart and twitching stomach muscles, to bed.

Then every imaginable effort to get to sleep—i.e., to achieve the impossible, for one cannot sleep (Herr K. even demands dreamless sleep) and at the same time be thinking about one’s work and trying to solve with certainty the one question that certainly is insoluble, namely, whether there will be a letter from you the next day, and at what time. Thus the night consists of two parts: one wakeful, the other sleepless, and if I were to tell you about it at length and you were prepared to listen, I should never finish. So it is hardly surprising if, at the office the next morning, I only just manage to start work with what little strength is left. In one of the corridors along which I always walk to reach my typist, there used to be a coffinlike trolley for the moving of files and documents, and each time I passed it I felt as though it had been made for me, and was waiting for me.

To be precise, I must not forget that I am not only a clerk, but also a manufacturer. For my brother-in-law owns an asbestos factory, and I (although only through money my father put into it) am a partner, and as such am on the board. This factory has already caused me enough pain and worry, but I don’t want to talk about that, now;7 in any case, I have neglected it for some time (i.e., I withhold my anyway useless collaboration) as much as I can, and more or less get by with it.

Once again I have told you so little, and have asked no questions, and once again I must close. But not a single answer and, even more certainly, not a single question shall be lost. There exists some kind of sorcery by which two people, without seeing each other, without talking to each other, can at least discover the greater part about each other’s past, literally in a flash, without having to tell each other all and everything; but this, after all, is almost an instrument of Black Magic (without seeming to be) which, although never without reward, one would certainly never resort to with impunity. Therefore I won’t say it, unless you guess it first. It is terribly short, like all magic formulas. Farewell, and let me reinforce this greeting by lingering over your hand.

Yours, Franz K.
From December 31, 1912, to January 1, 1913

While I was still lying in bed this evening at 8, not tired, not rested, but incapable of getting up, depressed by this general New Year’s Eve celebration that was beginning all around; while I lay there sadly, like a lost dog, the two possibilities I had of spending the evening with good friends (just now the midnight cannon went off, shouting in the streets and on the bridge, where I don’t really see anyone, ringing of bells, striking of clocks) made me feel so much more desperate and withdrawn that I felt the proper task for my gaze was the scanning of my bedroom ceiling, and then it occurred to me how glad I ought to be that misfortune decrees I cannot be with you. I would have to pay too dearly for the joy of seeing you, the joy of our first conversation, the joy of hiding my face in your lap—for all this I would have to pay too dearly, you would run away from me, no doubt run away crying, for you are kindness itself; that is how I would pay for it, but what good would the tears do me? And would I have the right to run after you? Would I, I who am devoted to you like no other, have the right to do it? (How they roar in the streets, even in this district so far from any main thorough-fare!) But I need not answer all this myself; you, dearest, you answer—but do so after very careful consideration, leaving no room for doubt. I am starting with the most trivial, most insignificant questions; as time passes I shall intensify them.

Let us assume that by some special stroke of luck it were possible for us to spend some days together in the same town—Frankfurt perhaps. On the second evening we have arranged to go to the theater, and I am supposed to fetch you from the exhibition. Hastily and with the greatest difficulty you have disposed of important matters to make quite sure of being on time, and now you are waiting for me. You wait in vain, I don’t arrive; a purely accidental delay can no longer be assumed, the time limit conceded even by the most amiable person is long past. Nor do you receive a message that might explain; meanwhile you could have disposed of your business matters with the greatest care, would have had time to change; in any case it will now be too late for the theater.

You can’t imagine that it was sheer neglect on my part; perhaps you are a little worried that something may have happened to me, and on the spur of the moment—I can hear you giving the driver his instructions—you go to my hotel and get them to show you to my room. And what do you find? I am still lying (I am now copying the first page of this letter) in bed at 8, not tired, not rested; I maintain that I had been incapable of leaving my bed, complain about everything and insinuate even worse complaints; I try to make amends for the terrible wrong by stroking your hand, by seeking your eyes, lost in the dark room, and yet my whole behavior shows that I am quite prepared to repeat the whole thing at any moment. Although I am at a loss to explain myself in words, I am aware of our situation in every detail, and if I were in your place, standing at my bedside, I wouldn’t hesitate to raise my umbrella and in my anger and despair break it over my head.

Don’t forget, dearest: the incident I have just described is absolutely impossible in reality. In Frankfurt, for instance, if my continuous presence in the exhibition halls were prohibited, I would simply spend all day squatting outside the entrance to the exhibition, and when visiting the theater together I would probably behave in a similar fashion—in other words, be over-attentive rather than negligent. But I want a more plain answer to my question, an answer that is absolutely independent from every point of view, even from that of reality, and that’s why I have put my question in more than plain terms. So answer, dearest pupil, answer your teacher who at times in the immensity of his love and his unhappiness would like to vanish utterly into unreality.

In your last letter there is a sentence you have written once before, and so have I: “We belong together unconditionally.” That, dearest, is true a thousandfold; now, for instance, in these first hours of the New Year I could have no greater and no crazier wish than that we should be bound together inseparably by the wrists of your left hand and my right hand. I don’t quite know why this should occur to me; perhaps because a book on the French Revolution, with contemporary accounts, is lying in front of me, and it may be possible after all—not that I have read or heard of it anywhere—that a couple thus bound together were once led to the scaffold.—But what is all this that’s racing through my head which, by the way, has remained completely closed to my poor novel today? That’s the 13 in the new year’s date. But the finest 13 won’t prevent me from drawing you, my dearest, closer, closer, closer to me. Where are you at this moment? From whose company am I drawing you away?

Franz
From January 8 to 9, 1912 [1913]

…I can also laugh, Felice, have no doubt about this; I am even known as a great laugher, although in this respect I used to be far crazier than I am now. It even happened to me once, at a solemn meeting with our president—it was two years ago, but the story will outlive me at the office—that I started to laugh, and how! It would be too involved to describe to you this man’s importance; but believe me, it is very great: an ordinary employee thinks of this man as not on this earth, but in the clouds. And as we usually have little opportunity of talking to the Emperor, contact with this man is for the average clerk—a situation common of course to all large organizations—tantamount to meeting the Emperor. Needless to say, like anyone exposed to clear and general scrutiny whose position does not quite correspond to his achievements, this man invites ridicule; but to allow oneself to be carried away by laughter at something so commonplace and, what’s more, in the presence of the great man himself, one must be out of one’s mind.

At that time we, two colleagues and I, had just been promoted, and in our formal black suits had to express our thanks to the president—here I must not forget to add that for a special reason I owed the president8 special gratitude. The most dignified of us (I was the youngest) made the speech of thanks—short, sensible, dashing, in accordance with his character. The president listened in his usual posture adopted for solemn occasions, somewhat reminiscent of our Emperor when giving audience—which, if one happens to be in a certain mood, is a terrible funny pose. Legs lightly crossed, left hand clenched and resting on the very corner of the table, head lowered so that the long white beard curves on his chest, and, on top of all of this, his not excessively large but nevertheless protruding stomach gently swaying. I must have been in a very uncontrolled mood at the time, for I knew this posture well enough, and it was quite unreasonable for me to be attacked by fits of the giggles (albeit with interruptions), which so far however could easily be taken as due to a tickle in the throat, especially as the president did not look up.

My colleague’s clear voice, eyes fixed straight ahead—he was no doubt aware of my condition, without being affected by it—still kept me in check. But at the end of my colleague’s speech the president raised his head, and then for a moment I was seized with terror, without laughter, for now he could see my expression and easily ascertain that the sound unfortunately escaping from my mouth was definitely not a cough. But when he began his speech, again the usual one, all too familiar, in the imperial mold, delivered with great conviction, a totally meaningless and unnecessary speech; and when my colleague with sidelong glances tried to warn me (I was doing everything in my power to control myself), and in doing so reminded me vividly of the joys of my earlier laughter, I could no longer restrain myself and all hope that I should ever be able to do so vanished.

At first I laughed only at the president’s occasional delicate little jokes; but while it is a rule only to contort one’s features respectfully at these little jokes, I was already laughing out loud; observing my colleagues’ alarm at being infected by it, I felt more sorry for them than for myself, but I couldn’t help it; I didn’t even try to avert or cover my face, but in my helplessness continued to stare straight at the president, incapable of turning my head, probably on the instinctive assumption that everything could only get worse rather than better; and that therefore it would be best to avoid any change. And now that I was in full spate, I was of course laughing not only at the current jokes, but at those of the past and the future and the whole lot together, and by then no one knew what I was really laughing about. A general embarrassment set in; only the president remained relatively unconcerned, as behooves a great man accustomed to the ways of the world and to whom the possibility of irreverence toward his person would not even occur.

Had we been able to slip out at this moment (the president had evidently shortened his speech a little), everything might still have gone fairly well; no doubt my behavior would have remained discourteous, but this discourtesy would not have been mentioned, and the whole affair, as sometimes happens with apparently impossible situations, might have been dealt with by a conspiracy of silence between the four of us. But unfortunately my colleague, the one hitherto unmentioned (a man close to 40, a heavy beer drinker with a round, childish, but bearded face), started to make a totally unexpected little speech.

At that moment this struck me as quite incomprehensible; my laughter had made him lose his composure, he had stood there with cheeks blown out with suppressed laughter—and now he embarked on a serious speech. Actually this was quite consistent with his character. Empty-headed and impetuous, he is capable of defending generally accepted statements, passionately and at length, and the boredom of this kind of speech, without the absurd but engaging passion, would be intolerable. Now, the president in all innocence had said something to which this colleague of mine took exception. In addition, influenced by my continuous laughter, he may have forgotten where he was; in short, he assumed the moment had come to air his particular views and to convince the president (a man utterly indifferent to other people’s opinions). So now, as he started to hold forth, brandishing his arms, about something absurdly childish (even in general, but here in particular), it was too much for me: the world, the semblance of the world which hitherto I had seen before me, dissolved completely, and I burst into loud and uninhibited laughter of such heartiness as perhaps only schoolchildren at their desks are capable of.

A silence fell, and now at last my laughter and I were the acknowledged center of attention. While I laughed my knees of course shook with fear, and my colleagues on their part could join in to their hearts’ content, but they could never match the full horror of my long-rehearsed and -practiced laughter, and thus they remained comparatively unnoticed. Beating my breast with my right hand, partly in awareness of my sin (remembering the Day of Atonement), and partly to drive out all the suppressed laughter, I produced innumerable excuses for my behavior, all of which might have been very convincing had not the renewed outbursts of laughter rendered them completely unintelligible. By now of course even the president was disconcerted; and in a manner typical only of people born with an instinct for smoothing things out, he found some phrase that offered some reasonable explanation for my howls—I think an allusion to a joke he had made a long time before. He then hastily dismissed us.

Undefeated, roaring with laughter yet desperately unhappy, I was the first to stagger out of the hall.—By writing a letter to the president immediately afterwards and through the good offices of one of the president’s sons whom I know well, and thanks also to the passage of time, the whole thing calmed down considerably. Needless to say, I did not achieve complete absolution, nor shall I ever achieve it. But this matters little; I may have behaved in this fashion at the time simply in order to prove to you later that I am capable of laughter….

From January 14 to 15, 1913

Dearest,

…You once said you would like to sit beside me while I write. Listen, in that case I could not write (I can’t do much, anyway), but in that case I could not write at all. For writing means revealing oneself to excess; that utmost of self-revelation and surrender, in which a human being, when involved with others, would feel he was losing himself, and from which, therefore, he will always shrink as long as he is in his right mind—for everyone wants to live as long as he is alive—even that degree of self-revelation and surrender is not enough for writing. Writing that springs from the surface of existence—when there is no other way and the deeper wells have dried up—is nothing, and collapses the moment a truer emotion makes that surface shake. This is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around when one writes, why even night is not night enough. This is why there is never enough time at one’s disposal, for the roads are long and it is easy to go astray, there are even times when one becomes afraid and has the desire—even without any constraint or enticement—to run back (a desire always severely punished later on), how much more so if one were suddenly to receive a kiss from the most beloved lips!

I have often thought that the best mode of life for me would be to sit in the innermost room of a spacious locked cellar with my writing things and a lamp. Food would be brought and always put down far away from my room, outside the cellar’s outermost door. The walk to my food, in my dressing gown, through the vaulted cellars, would be my only exercise. I would then return to my table, eat slowly and with deliberation, then start writing again at once. And how I would write! From what depths I would drag it up! Without effort! For extreme concentration knows no effort. The trouble is that I might not be able to keep it up for long, and at the first failure—which perhaps even in these circumstances could not be avoided—would be bound to end in a grandiose fit of madness. What do you think, dearest? Don’t be reticent with your cellar-dweller.

Franz
June [10 to] 16, 1913

Dearest Felice,

…By now you must realize my peculiar position. What comes between you and me is, above all, the doctor. What he will have to say is doubtful, the medical diagnosis is not the most decisive factor in these decisions; if it were, it wouldn’t be worth obtaining. As I said, I have not actually been ill, and yet I am. It is possible that different circumstances might make me well, but it is impossible for these different circumstances to be created. The medical decision (which I can say at once won’t necessarily be decisive for me) will depend solely on the unknown doctor’s character. My family doctor, for instance, with his stupid irresponsibility, wouldn’t see the slightest objection, on the contrary. Another and better doctor might throw up his hands in dismay.

Now consider, Felice, in view of this uncertainty, it is difficult to say the word, and indeed it is bound to sound rather strange. Clearly, it’s too soon to say it. But afterwards, it would be too late: there wouldn’t be any time to discuss matters of the kind you mentioned in your last letter. But there also isn’t time for endless hesitations, at least this is what I feel about it, and so I ask: In view of the above—alas, irremediable—conditions, will you consider whether you wish to be my wife? Will you do that?

I stopped at this point a few days ago, and have not resumed since. I can well understand why I was unable to. Because, fundamentally, this is a criminal question I am putting to you (your letter of today confirms this), but in the conflict of forces, those that have to pose this question are victorious.

What you say about being equals, etc.—provided it is not a cover (needless to say an unconscious one) for other things—is pure fantasy. I am nothing, absolutely nothing. I am “further ahead in every way” than you? Some capacity for understanding people, and for putting myself in their place—this I have, but I don’t believe I have ever met a single person who in the long run in his ordinary human relationships, in normal everyday life (and what else is it all about?), could be more hopeless than I. I have no memory, either for things learned or things read, either for things experienced or things heard, either for people or events; I feel as though I had experienced nothing, learned nothing, and in fact I know less about most things than the average schoolboy; and what I know, I know so superficially that even the second question is beyond me. I am unable to reason, my reasoning constantly comes up against a blank wall; certain isolated matters I can grasp in a flash, but I am quite incapable of coherent, consecutive reasoning. Nor can I tell a story properly; in fact I can hardly even talk; when I am telling a story I usually have the kind of feeling small children probably experience when attempting their first steps—not, however, because they themselves feel the need to walk, but because the grownups, who can walk perfectly, expect them to.

And you, Felice, don’t feel equal to such a man, you who are gay, lively, sure of yourself, and healthy? All I possess are certain powers which, at a depth almost inaccessible under normal conditions, shape themselves into literature, powers to which, however, in my present professional as well as physical state, I dare not commit myself, because for every inner exhortation of these powers there are as many, if not more, inner warnings. Could I but commit myself to them they would undoubtedly, of this I am convinced, lift me out of my inner misery in an instant.

Apropos the theoretical aspect of equality—for in practice, as I said, it doesn’t arise, not at any rate in your sense—I only want to add that the degree of similarity in education, knowledge, higher aspirations, and ideals, which you seem to demand as prerequisites to a happy marriage, is in my opinion almost impossible, secondly unimportant, and thirdly not even advantageous or desirable. What is essential to marriage is personal harmony, a harmony far deeper than that of opinions, a harmony that cannot be analyzed but only felt—i.e., the necessity for personal proximity. But this doesn’t mean that the freedom of either party is in any way endangered; it is endangered only by unnecessary human proximity which constitutes the greatest part of our lives….

You say it is conceivable that I might not be able to stand life with you. Here you almost touch on the truth, but from an angle totally different from the one you have in mind. I really do believe I am lost to all social intercourse. I am quite incapable of conducting a prolonged, vigorously developed conversation with any individual, except in certain exceptional, appallingly exceptional cases. For example, during the long years we have known each other I have, after all, been alone with Max on many occasions, for days on end, when traveling even for weeks on end and almost continuously, yet I do not remember—and had it happened, I would certainly remember—ever having had a long coherent conversation involving my entire being, as should inevitably follow when two people with a great fund of independent and lively ideas and experiences are thrown together. And monologues from Max (and many others) I have heard in plenty, but what they lacked was the vociferous, and as a rule even the silent, conversational partner.

(Dearest, it’s getting late, this letter won’t get mailed; that’s bad, and what’s worse is that is hasn’t been written in one go, but paragraph by paragraph, not really from lack of time, but owing to restiveness and self-torture.) I am at my most bearable in familiar surroundings with 2 or 3 friends; then I am free, am not forced to be continually attentive and cooperative, but can take part in what’s going on if and when I feel like it, as much or as little as I wish; no one misses me, no one is made uneasy by my presence. If there is a stranger present who happens to get under my skin, all the better, for then, on borrowed strength, I seem to be able to become quite animated. But if I am in an unfamiliar place, among a number of strange people, or people whom I feel to be strangers, then the whole room presses on my chest and I am unable to move, my whole personality seems virtually to get under their skins, and everything becomes hopeless.

This was what happened that afternoon at your house, and the night before last at Weltsch’s uncle’s, among people who, quite incomprehensibly, show real fondness for me. I remember so well, I was leaning against a table, the daughter of the house leaned beside me—there isn’t a girl in Prague I like better—yet in the presence of these good friends I was incapable of uttering a single sensible word. I stood and stared, and every now and again came out with something nonsensical. Had I been tied to the table I couldn’t have looked more tormented and affected. A good deal more could be said about all that, but this is enough for the present….

Now consider, Felice, the change that marriage would bring about for us, what each would lose and each would gain. I should lose (for the most part) terrible loneliness, and you, whom I love above all others, would be my gain. Whereas you would lose the life you have lived hitherto, with which you were almost completely satisfied. You would lose Berlin, the office you enjoy, your girl friends, the small pleasures of life, the prospect of marrying a decent, cheerful, healthy man, of having beautiful, healthy children for whom, if you think about it, you clearly long. In place of these incalculable losses, you would gain a sick, weak, unsociable, taciturn, gloomy, stiff, almost hopeless man who possibly has but one virtue, which is that he loves you.

Instead of sacrificing yourself for real children, which would be in accordance with your nature as a healthy girl, you would have to sacrifice yourself for this man who is childish, but childish in the worst sense, and who at best might learn from you, letter by letter, the ways of human speech. And you would lose in all the small things, all of them. My income may not be more than yours; I have precisely 4,588 kronen a year, am however entitled to a pension, but my income, as in any employment similar to the civil service, can increase only very slightly; from my parents I have no great expectations, from literature none. So you would have to live far more modestly than you do now. Would you really do this and stand it for my sake, for the sake of the man described above?

And now, Felice, you speak. Think over everything I have said in all my letters from the beginning. I don’t believe the statements about myself could ever have varied a great deal. Hardly anything would have been exaggerated, too little may have been said about some things. You need say nothing about the external account, this is plain enough, and strictly prohibits a “Yes.” What remains is only the internal account. How does it stand? Will you reply in great detail? Or not in great detail if you haven’t much time, but clearly, as befits your basically clear nature, only slightly muddied by me.

Franz

To Felice’s father, Herr Carl Bauer

[August 28, 1913]

Dear Herr Bauer,

Now that I have extracted from you your two kind letters, I don’t know whether you will have the patience and the desire to listen to what follows. But I do know that I have to say it. I would have to say it even if your letters had not inspired me with the confidence I now have in you.

What I told you in my first letter about my relationship with your daughter is true, and will remain so. But apart from one allusion which may have escaped your notice, something decisive was missing. Perhaps you thought there was no need to comment on it, because you believe that coming to grips with my character is entirely your daughter’s affair and had already been achieved. This is not so. At times I used to think that it had, but again and again it turned out that it had not happened, and could not happen. I have deluded your daughter with my letters; as a rule I have not meant to deceive her (although sometimes I have, because I loved her, and love her, and have been terribly aware of our incompatibility), and perhaps by doing just this, I blinded her. I really don’t know.

You know your own daughter: she is a gay, healthy, self-confident girl, who in order to live should be surrounded by gay, healthy, and lively people. You know me only from my visit (I was about to add that this should be enough), and I cannot repeat what I have told your daughter about myself in some 500 letters. But please consider this one important fact: my whole being is directed toward literature; I have followed this direction unswervingly until my 30th year, and the moment I abandon it I cease to live. Everything I am, and am not, is a result of this. I am taciturn, unsociable, morose, selfish, a hypochondriac, and actually in poor health. Fundamentally I deplore none of this: it is the earthly reflection of a higher necessity. (What I am really capable of is not the problem here, and has no connection with it.) I live within my family, among the kindest, most affectionate people—and am more strange than a stranger. In recent years I have spoken hardly more than twenty words a day to my mother, and I exchange little more than a daily greeting with my father. To my married sisters and brothers-in-law I do not speak at all, although I have nothing against them. I lack all sense of family life.

And is your daughter, whose healthy nature has destined her for a happy married life, to live with this kind of man? Is she to tolerate a monastic existence with a person who, though he loves her as he can never love anyone else, spends most of his time in his room or wandering about by himself—simply because of his irrevocable vocation? Is she to tolerate a life utterly divorced from her parents, her family, and almost any other social contact—because I, who would lock my door against my best friend, cannot imagine any other kind of married life? Could she stand this? And what for? For my writing, which is highly problematic in her eyes and perhaps even in mine? And for this she is to live alone in a foreign town, in a marriage that may turn out to be a relationship of love and friendship rather than a real marriage?

I have said the minimum of what I intended to say. Above all: I want to make no excuses for myself. On our own, your daughter and I could find no solution: I love her too much, and she cannot see me as I am. And perhaps she wants the impossible only out of compassion, no matter how much she may deny it. Well, now we are three. You be the judge!

Very sincerely yours,
Dr. F. Kafka
August 30, 1913

Dearest Felice, you don’t know me, you don’t know me in my baseness, and even this baseness can be traced to that core which you can call literature, or anything you like. What a wretched writer, and how angry I am with myself to think that I have been unable to convince you of it. (Since early morning, and even now, my hand is pressed against my left temple, otherwise I couldn’t function.)

What is stopping me can hardly be said to be facts; it is fear, an insurmountable fear, fear of achieving happiness, a desire and a command to torment myself for some higher purpose. That you, dearest, should be forced to land under the wheels of this carriage, which is destined for me alone, is really terrible. I am consigned to darkness by my inner voice, yet in reality am drawn to you; this is irreconcilable; yet even if we were to try, the blows would fall alike on you and me.

Dearest, I certainly don’t want you to be other than you are; after all, it’s you I love and not a mirage. But then again there is that tyranny which my very existence imposes upon you; this contradiction tears me apart. It also proves the impossibility of it.

If you were here and I saw your suffering (it wouldn’t be just that, your suffering at a distance is worse), if I were able to help, if we could get married at once, without thinking, I would of course let everything go, I would even let misfortune take its course. But this is not the way out at present. Considering your dear, suicidal letter received today, I could almost promise to let everything rest the way it was in your sense, and to torment you no more. But how many times have I promised this! I cannot vouch for myself. With your next letter, or perhaps during this very night, this fear will return, I can’t escape it, it will be impossible to live through the period of our engagement. What hitherto has been repeated every month, will be repeated every week. Every other letter will occasion frightening associations for me, and that terrible humming top inside me will start spinning again.

This won’t be your fault, it never has been, Felice; the fault lies in the general impossibility of it. For example, I read your last letter. It isn’t possible for you to imagine the alarm it created in me. The considered reflections that had led your parents to give their consent lay before me. What did I care about these considerations? I detested these considerations. You wrote about your mother’s potential love for me! What should I do with her love? I who could never return it, who never could or would wish to be equal to her love! Even the extensive discussion with your parents horrified me. Even the connectedness between engagement and holidays, the actual putting into words of this connection, terrified me. This is madness, I see it clearly, but at the same time it is ineradicable, that I know.

And yet these are merely indications of my true nature, which would never stop undermining you. Do you realize this, Felice; I am prostrate before you and implore you to push me aside; anything else means ruin for us both. This is the word, I believe, I wrote in January; again it is bursting forth; it cannot be suppressed. If I could rip myself open before you, you would say it yourself.

Franz
September 2, 1913

I have calmed down, Felice; on Sunday I lay in the woods with a headache and kept turning my head in the grass with the pain; today it is better, but my self-control is no greater than it was before; when dealing with myself I am powerless. I can divide myself in my thoughts; I can stand at your side, calm and contented, and while doing so watch my utterly pointless self-torture; in my thoughts I can look down upon us both, and at the sight of the pain I inflict upon you, the kindest of girls, I can pray for some exquisite torture for myself; this I can do. The other day I wrote down the following wish: “When passing a house, to be pulled in through the ground-floor window by a rope tied around one’s neck and to be hauled up, bloody and ragged, through all the ceilings, furniture, walls, and attics, without consideration, as if by a person who is paying no attention, until the empty noose, dropping the last shreds of me when breaking through the roof tiles, appears on the roof.”

But in reality I can do nothing, am entirely shut in on myself, and hear your beloved voice only from afar. God knows from what source these perpetual, steadily revolving worries feed! I cannot get the better of them. I thought (and so did you) that I’d grow calmer once I had written to your father. The opposite has happened; intensified assault greatly intensifies the force of these worries and anxieties. This is the law by which all weaklings are governed, insisting on extreme atonement and extreme radical measures. The desire to renounce the greatest human happiness for the sake of writing keeps cutting every muscle in my body. I am unable to free myself. Everything is obscured by the apprehensions I feel at the idea of not renouncing.

Dearest, everything you say to me, I say almost all the time; the slightest detachment from you makes me smart; whatever happens between us is repeated with renewed intensity inside myself; faced with your letters, faced by your pictures, I succumb. And yet—of the four men I consider to be my true blood-relations (without comparing myself to them in power or in range), Grillparzer,9 Dostoevski, Kleist,10 and Flaubert, Dostoevski was the only one to get married, and perhaps Kleist, when compelled by outer and inner necessity to shoot himself on the Wannsee, was the only one to find the right solution. All this might be entirely irrelevant as far as we are concerned; after all, each one of us lives life anew—even if I were standing in the very center of the shadow they cast upon our own time. But this is a fundamental question of life and faith in general, and from this point of view interpreting the behavior of these four men makes more sense.

But, dearest, none of this makes sense when held against the torments I inflict now, and which are undeniable, whereas I can only anticipate the torment that the future holds for you. You are so sweet and kind; if I were to kneel before you I don’t think I could ever leave again. It was angelic of you to ignore what I said about your letter concerning your parents. (Your telegram arrived this minute. Dearest, don’t torment yourself! I didn’t get your letter until noon today. As you know, postal deliveries to the apartment are very unreliable. And it’s now 5:30, too late for me to send a telegram.)

I don’t insist that you give that letter to your father. I wrote it merely in my agitation, and just in case. The final decision rests neither with your father nor with me, but only with you. Perhaps it is not for your father to make the decision; I am caught up in contradictions and unable to move, contradictions that have existed from the very beginning.

So don’t hand that letter to your father if you don’t want to, but I can’t write another letter now either, my hands are tied. Tell him I disconcerted you about something that had to be cleared up, and that you don’t want me to write to him—both of which are true. You couldn’t fail to have been disconcerted, and you won’t allow me to write the way I should have to write if I wrote now. So tell him that, will you?…

Yours, Franz
[Prague, September 9, 1917]

Dearest,…Here is the reason for my silence: 2 days after my last letter, precisely 4 weeks ago, at about 5 AM, I had a hemorrhage of the lung. Fairly severe; for 10 minutes or more it gushed out of my throat; I thought it would never stop. The next day I went to see a doctor, who on this and several subsequent occasions examined and X-rayed me; and then, at Max’s insistence, I went to see a specialist. Without going into all the medical details, the outcome is that I have tuberculosis in both lungs. That I should suddenly develop some disease did not surprise me; nor did the sight of blood; for years my insomnia and headaches have invited a serious illness, and ultimately my maltreated blood had to burst forth; but that it should be of all things tuberculosis, that at the age of 34 I should be struck down overnight, with not a single predecessor anywhere in the family—this does surprise me. Well, I have to accept it; actually, my headaches seem to have been washed away with the flow of blood. Its course at present cannot be foreseen; its future development remains its secret; my age may possibly help to retard it….

So this is what I have been keeping secret for 4 weeks, or actually for only one week (the precise diagnosis being not much older than that). “Poor dear Felice”—were the last words I wrote; is this to be the closing phrase to all my letters? It’s not a knife that stabs only forward but one that wheels around and stabs back as well.

Franz
[Zürau, September 30 or October 1, 1917]

Dearest Felice,

…The way you saw me this time is how I have seen myself for ages, only more clearly, which is why I can explain what you saw:

As you know, there are two combatants at war within me. During the past few days I have had fewer doubts than ever that the better of the two belongs to you. By word and silence, and a combination of both, you have been kept informed about the progress of the war for 5 years, and most of that time it has caused you suffering. Were you to ask if I have always been truthful, I could only say that with no one else have I suppressed deliberate lies as strenuously, or—to be more precise—more strenuously than I have with you. Subterfuges there have been, lies very few, assuming that it’s possible to tell “very few” lies.

I am a mendacious creature; for me it is the only way to maintain an even keel, my boat is fragile. When I examine my ultimate aim it shows that I do not actually strive to be good, to answer to a supreme tribunal. Very much the opposite. I strive to know the entire human and animal community, to recognize their fundamental preferences, desires, and moral ideals, to reduce them to simple rules, and as quickly as possible to adopt these rules so as to be pleasing to everyone, indeed (here comes the inconsistency) to become so pleasing that in the end I might openly act out my inherent baseness before the eyes of the world without forfeiting its love—the only sinner not to be roasted. In short, my only concern is the human tribunal, and I would like to deceive even this, and what’s more without actual deception.

Apply this to our own case, which is not just an arbitrary one, but altogether the one must truly representative of me. You are my human tribunal. Of the two who are at war within me, or rather whose war I consist of—excepting one small tormented remnant—the one is good, the other evil. From time to time they reverse their roles, which adds to the confusion of their war, already so confused. Until very recently, however, despite reverses, it was possible for me to imagine that the most improbable would happen (the most probable would be eternal war), which always seemed like the radiant goal, and I, grown pitiful and wretched over the years, would at last be allowed to have you.

Suddenly it appears that the loss of blood was too great. The blood shed by the good one (the one that now seems good to us) in order to win you, serves the evil one. Where the evil one on his own would probably or possibly not have found a decisive new weapon for his defense, the good one offers him just that. For secretly I don’t believe this illness to be tuberculosis, at least not primarily tuberculosis, but rather a sign of my general bankruptcy. I had thought the war could last longer, but it can’t. The blood issues not from the lung, but from a decisive stab delivered by one of the combatants.

From my tuberculosis this one now derives the kind of immense support a child gets from clinging to its mother’s skirts. What more can the other one hope for? Has not the war been most splendidly concluded? It is tuberculosis, and that is the end. Weak and weary, almost invisible to you when in this state, what can the other one do but lean on your shoulder here in Zürau, and with you, the purest of the pure, stare in amazement, bewildered and hopeless, at the great man who—now that he feels sure of universal love, or of that of its female representative assigned to him—begins to display his atrocious baseness. It is a distortion of my striving, which in itself is already a distortion.

Please don’t ask why I put up a barrier. Don’t humiliate me in this way. One word like this from you and I would be at your feet again. But at once my actual, or rather, long before that, my alleged tuberculosis would stab me in the face, and I would have to give up. It is a weapon compared to which the countless others used earlier, ranging from “physical incapacity” up to my “work” and down to my “parsimony,” look expedient and primitive.

And now I am going to tell you a secret which at the moment I don’t even believe myself (although the distant darkness that falls about me at each attempt to work, or think, might possibly convince me), but which is bound to be true: I will never be well again. Simply because it is not the kind of tuberculosis that can be laid in a deckchair and nursed back to health, but a weapon that continues to be of supreme necessity as long as I remain alive. And both cannot remain alive.

Franz

  1. 1

    Max Brod’s father, Adolf Brod, was president of the Union Bank in Prague. At the time, he, his wife, and their sons, Max and Otto, lived at Schalengasse (Skorepka) 1: their daughter Sophie was married to Max Friedmann, a businessman; he was a cousin of Felice Bauer. 

  2. 2

    Most likely the trip to Weimar which Kafka and Max Brod had made in the summer of 1912. Since it was largely devoted to visiting cultural sites (houses of Goethe, Schiller, Liszt, museums, libraries, etc.), it may have been called the “Thalia trip” after the muse of comedy. 

  3. 3

    All Saints’ Day. 

  4. 4

    See Kafka’s Diaries, Vol. 1: 1910-1913 (Schocken, 1948), p. 211 (January 3, 1912). 

  5. 5

    Compare the penultimate paragraph in the chapter “The Hotel Occidental” in Kafka’s novel Amerika

  6. 6

    Kafka’s sisters were Elli (Gabriele), Valli (Valerie), and Ottla (Ottilie). Elli was born on September 22, 1889, and married Karl Hermann; Valli, born September 25, 1890, married Josef Pollak on January 12, 1913; Kafka’s favorite sister, Ottla, born October 29, 1892, did not marry until 1920. 

  7. 7

    The asbestos factory was owned by Kafka’s brother-in-law, Karl Hermann. 

  8. 8

    At the time the president of the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute was Dr. Otto Pribram. His son, Ewald Pribram, was a friend of Kafka’s during the last gymnasium years and at the university. 

  9. 9

    Franz Grillparzer (1791-1872), Austrian dramatist and poet. 

  10. 10

    Felice’s sister Erna told the editors of these letters that Kafka visited Kleist’s grave on the Wannsee with her. She remembered his having tarried there for a long time “deeply immersed in thought.”