Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Melina Jesenska & Franz Kafka

Milena Jesenska, feminist, editor, fashion correspondent, traveler, writer, and love of Franz Kafka's life. Their correspondence started when she read a copy of his story "The Stoker" and wrote him saying that reading it was, "...the most beautiful thing that ever happened in my life." She offered to translate Franz's story from German to Czech for him. Thus began the strange and beautiful relationship they shared. She was married, unhappily so, he was a reclusive invalid with a repulsion to physical touch and extreme anxieties. Her husband cheated on her, as she says, "Over a hundred times a year." His tuberculosis rendered him unbelievably delicate, she was head strong, assertive, and capricious. Somehow, their reciprocity covered all the differences. As it usually does in the beginning of intense relationships.

Once he wrote to her in a letter, "When the soul and the heart can no longer bear the burden, the lungs take over one half of it, so that the weight will at least be evenly distributed."

That is how it was with his illness. Editor
Ronald Tamplin describes Franz's illness thusly, "It gave him an almost miraculous delicacy and a frighteningly uncompromising intellectual refinement. As a human being, however, he pushed all his fear of life onto his illness. He was shy, timid, gentle, and kind, but he wrote gruesome and painful books. He saw the world as full of invisible demons, who tear apart and destroy defenseless people. He was too clear-sighted and too wise to be able to live; he was too weak to fight, he had that weakness of noble, beautiful people who are not able to do battle against the fear of misunderstandings, unkindness, or intellectual lies. Such persons know beforehand that they are powerless and go down in defeat in such a way that they shame the victor. He knew people as only people of great sensitivity are able to know them, as somebody who is alone and sees people almost prophetically, from one flash of a face. He knew the world in a deep and extraordinary manner. He was himself a deep and extraordinary world."

Initially he wrote Milena in German, his native language. He later insisted that Milena write in Czech, since he could only capture her whole personality through her native tongue. After the first Czech letter, Kafka wrote:

"I see you more clearly, the movements of your body, your hands, so quick, so determined, it's almost a meeting, although when I try to raise my eyes to your face, what breaks into the flow of the fire and I see nothing but fire."

They met for four days in Vienna in the summer of 1920. That was the most they would ever have together. Franz was afraid married life would interfere with his writing. Milena's husband was pursuing her once more, in the shadow of Franz's attentions. Eventually, Milena wrote explicitly that she could not leave her husband. She desperately wanted to, but she just couldn't bring herself to follow through with it. Kafka replied that he had known her answer all along:

"It was behind nearly all your was in your eyes."

Simple domestic love could never be theirs:

"We shall never live together, in the same apartment, body to body, at the same table, never, not even in the same town."

Gradually the letters became less passionate and more like entries in a diary. Kafka's health deteriorated and Milena began to fell that she had added to his anxieties. She suggested a meeting, but he could not bear the pressure of seeing her again, and shortly afterward proposed that they stop writing to each other. He wrote to Milena that he was aware of an "irresistibly strong voice, actually your voice, that's demanding silence from me...these letters are nothing but torture, produced by torture, irremediable..."

In the end it was Kafka who made the decision that he and Milena should stop seeing each other:
"Don't write and avoid meeting me, just fulfill this request for me in silence, it's the only way I can somehow go on living..."

Sadly, he had little more life to live. Franz died of tuberculosis in 1924, two years after the relationship ended. Milena treasured his letters until she died, at Nazi concentration camp Ravensbruck, in 1944.


  1. Keep writing, you write beautifully..
    Blessings Crystal Lindsey, Australia.

  2. Oh my goodness, thank you so much! Have a wonderful holiday.

  3. Hi
    I was jogging this morning on the beach, when somebody in a radio program talked about Jesenska and Franz. I got interested and googled it. In this way I have found your fascinating blog, and now feel happy to realise I'm not the only one captivated by this love story.
    Sorry for my poor english. 20 years learning ... depressing:)
    Besos. Felip M. Valencia. Spain

  4. Well my dear this post just made my day. I am so happy you enjoyed reading it. Your English is not poor.

  5. every love story is irresistibly striking.
    sorry for my english googliano