The Letters of Franz Kafka

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Images: Schocken Books
Images: Schocken Books

I discovered Franz Kafka’s work back in high school, in the late ’80s. I think I had to read The Metamorphosis for class, but also went on to read more, at the very least his story In the Penal Colony, which stayed with me particularly. Both of those stories had visual descriptions so intense and evocative that even though I have not yet reread them, they’re still clear as day, over 25 years later.

Kafka lived a short and troubled existence, horribly abused by his father growing up, which continued to affect him for the rest of his life. He then became ill with laryngeal tuberculosis, which took his life too early at age 40. He was a fairly unknown writer in his lifetime, but soon became quite famous after his death.

Many of us know or know of his writings, especially The Metamorphosis. But few of us know about his personal life. Recently, books have been republished in paperback form that give a very intimate look into his personal side. I had the chance to look at two of them. One is called Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors—pretty self-explanatory—and the other is Letters to Felice, which is filled with letters written by Kafka to fiancé Felice Bauer from 1912 to 1917. Franz and Felice had an on-again, off-again relationship, which he finally broke off when he became too ill later in his life. In the interim, he had written her more than 500 letters, which she saved.

Letters to Felice contains Kafka’s almost daily letters to Felice, throughout their friendship, engagement, break up, second engagement, second break up, and then through to the end of his life. Kafka was torn between the necessarily solitude required for himself and for his writing, and his desire to connect with others. This shows in his words. The book also contains some letters to Grete Bloch, a friend of Felice’s who corresponded with Kafka for a time, along with a few other letters.

Starting with a letter reminding Felice of who he is and renewing their discussion on taking a trip together to Palestine, continuing on to display their growing familiarity with one another, and into their deeper relationship, the letters are intense and detailed from the start. Since they lived in different cities, much of Kafka and Felice’s relationship—his side of it, anyway—is contained in these letters. This is a unique opportunity to see into the heart and mind of Franz Kafka. It is well worth the look.

Kafka was anxious and a bit clingy, but entirely genuine. He was obviously quite taken with Felice; writing letters as frequently as he did was a key sign of that. When one can’t spend time with someone who is missed, writing letters was the next best thing, since it almost feels as if you’re there with them. I think this is how Kafka used his correspondence to Felice.

I greatly enjoy reading letters such as these, as the art of letter writing has become a bit lost in our age of email and texting. Sometimes I feel like I’d prefer living during such a time, where your world was quite a bit smaller and your distractions few. Then I remember the lack of modern medical care, and I take it all back. But if you allow yourself to be carried away by Kafka’s emotional and vivid prose, these letters take us back to that past, albeit temporarily.

Through the hundreds of letters, we take a journey through his growing love for Felice, his confiding in her his personal struggles, his making room in his life for her among his writing. Time is slow going in this volume, as his letters to her are written so frequently. They include much of his observations of himself and his surroundings, and his feelings of attachment to her and anticipation of her return post. He talks of his family and friends, and his work at length. It is obvious that Kafka was an intense person, and did everything intensely, including falling in love, and the eventual heartache. There was no aloofness in his being.

A different flavor entirely, Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors covers over two decades of letters from Kafka to those close to him. They range from his time as a student in Prague in the early 1900s to just before he died in 1924. These letters were gathered by his friend Max Brod, who we mostly have to thank for Kafka’s fame. Kafka had asked Brod to destroy his unpublished works after he died, but Brod ignored that request, fortunately for us. Quite a number of the letters in this volume are to Brod, but there are many to others, and the book also includes Kafka’s slips, which were short notes and observations made near the end of his life when he was advised to not speak. The collection has been shared in chronological order, and the book’s thickness is augmented with extensive notes in the back.

As you work your way through the letters, it is obvious that Kafka was meant to be a writer, even from an early age. Unfortunately, his father more than discouraged him from such a profession, and he ended up with a law degree. But he still wrote. He wrote stories, but more than that, he wrote these letters, some of which include some poetry. Though I don’t know enough German to read the originals, I can hope that these translations are faithful to the originals. In that case, Kafka’s letters are written in a very conversational style with many long sentences, as was the habit of the day. In them, we learn much about Kafka’s personality, since this was private correspondence intended only for the recipients.

In the letters, you’ll notice Kafka’s casual style with his friends, and a much more business-like tone with his editors. The letters to the editors are much easier to read, but the ones to friends show off more who he was as a person. Other delights include travel recommendations to his uncle Siegfried, discussions with his book editors about his story collection, catching up with friends, descriptions of not feeling well, and discussions about women and marriage with Max Brod. His letters to Brod make it clear how close and genuine the two are with each other.

It is extremely enjoyable to be a fly on the wall to many of Kafka’s life’s happenings, and to watch his writing style change over time, across various correspondents. His troubled background doesn’t always come through, but there is mention of it. Some of the letters are long, spanning a few pages. But most are one page or less, making this book an easy one to pick up and read a little, and then put down for the next time. A long-term read would help one prepare for the difficult ending.

If you’re interested in learning more about Kafka’s life and works, here is a short video giving an overview. You can also check out his stories and books, and other collections of letters.

Letters to Felice and Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors by Franz Kafka are must-reads for anyone interested in Kafka, his life, or his writings. Each book is less than $20, but they will have you entranced for countless hours.

Note: I received copies of these books for review purposes.

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