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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.