Kafka Was a Terrible Boyfriend
Read Franz Kafka's "Love Letters" to Felice Bauer
Over the course of a single night in September 1912 Czech writer Franz Kafka penned “Das Urteil” (“The Judgement”), a short story of which he was particularly proud. He dedicated the story to Felice Bauer, a woman he had met six weeks earlier. This tale—which depicts the emotionally deformed relationship between a young man, recently engaged, with his father—was no conventional love offering. But then the relationship between Felice Bauer, a practical-minded and self-sufficient young woman who worked for a manufacturing firm in Berlin, and her sickly, tormented paramour in Prague was far from conventional. Indeed, Kafka’s letters are peppered with such foreboding sentiments as “you will never get unadulterated happiness from me; only as much unadulterated suffering as one could wish for,” and unusual endearments: “If we cannot use arms. . . let us embrace with complaints.”
By the time Kafka met Felice at the home of his friend Max Brod in 1912, he was dedicated to a life of writing. This he combined with his job at an insurance company, hence the necessity for nocturnal writing sessions. The couple met seldom over the five years of their correspondence, Kafka frequently citing the demands of his writing and the delicacy of his health as reasons against traveling. Their courtship was thus conducted largely through letters. In the early days this dependence upon letters evidently tormented Kafka: “how can one hope to hold anyone,” he laments, “with nothing but words?” He routinely wrote twice a day, and was troubled if Felice did not match his output. A pattern emerges by which, in one letter, he chastises her for neglecting him (“You’ve had enough of me; there is no other explanation”), only to seek forgiveness in the next (“Stay with me, don’t leave me”). It is unclear whether it is with intentional irony that he writes in November 1913 that “It is quite right that we should stop this madness of so many letters; yesterday I even started a letter on this subject which I will send tomorrow.”
Kafka’s letters to Felice, of which there are over 500, reveal an ongoing struggle between the lure of emotional and domestic security on the one hand, and his requirements for solitude and the prioritization of his work on the other. In his letter of November 11, 1912 (below) he explains how destabilizing he finds the receipt of her letters and the feelings occasioned by them—so much so that he concludes they must “abandon it all.” Despite these anxieties the relationship continued and the couple eventually became engaged. In the summer of 1914 Felice’s family held a celebratory reception, which Kafka loathed, writing in his diary that he felt “tied hand and foot like a criminal.” Not long after, following a tense meeting between the couple at the Askanische Hof, a hotel in Berlin, the engagement was called off. In his letter of late October/early November 1914 (below) Kafka enumerates the factors that, as he perceives it, have contributed to this dissolution. In January 1915, with affairs between them still unsettled, he comments bitterly that “I won’t write a lot . . . we have not achieved much by way of letters.”
In a letter of February 1913 Kafka had written that “There are times, Felice, when I feel you have so much power over me that I think you could change me into a man capable of doing the obvious.” Yet, though his love for Felice was great, it was not sufficient to lure Kafka away from his disciplined life centered on his work. He feels, he confesses in a letter of autumn 1913, compelled “to renounce the greatest human happiness for the sake of writing.” The couple were engaged a second time, in July 1917, but a worsening of his health (he was now suffering from tuberculosis) brought an end to their relationship some months later. Felice went on to marry and have children. Kafka was romantically involved with a number of women during the early 1920s, before his death from TB in 1924. Having achieved little success during his lifetime, the posthumous publication of his uniquely dark and uncanny works established Kafka as a leading figure in 20th-century literature.
11 November 1912
I am now going to ask you a favor which sounds quite crazy, and which I should regard as such, were I the one to receive the letter. It is also the very greatest test that even the kindest person could be put to. Well, this is it:
Write to me only once a week, so that your letter arrives on Sunday—for I cannot endure your daily letters, I am incapable of enduring them. For instance, I answer one of your letters, then lie in bed in apparent calm, but my heart beats through my entire body and is conscious only of you. I belong to you; there is really no other way of expressing it, and that is not strong enough. But for this very reason I don’t want to know what you are wearing; it confuses me so much that I cannot deal with life; and that’s why I don’t want to know that you are fond of me. If I did, how could I, fool that I am, go on sitting in my office, or here at home, instead of leaping onto a train with my eyes shut and opening them only when I am with you? Oh, there is a sad, sad reason for not doing so. To make it short: My health is only just good enough for myself alone, not good enough for marriage, let alone fatherhood. Yet when I read your letter, I feel I could overlook even what cannot possibly be overlooked.
If only I had your answer now! And how horribly I torment you, and how I compel you, in the stillness of your room, to read this letter, as nasty a letter as has ever lain on your desk! Honestly, it strikes me sometimes that I prey like a specter on your felicitous name! If only I had mailed Saturday’s letter, in which I implored you never to write to me again, and in which I gave a similar promise . . . But is a peaceful solution possible now? Would it help if we write to each other only once a week? No, if my suffering could be cured by such means it would not be serious. And already I foresee that I shan’t be able to endure even the Sunday letters. And so, to compensate for Saturday’s lost opportunity, I ask you with what energy remains to me at the end of this letter: If we value our lives, let us abandon it all.
Did I think of signing myself Dein [Yours]? No, nothing could be more false. No, I am forever fettered to myself, that’s what I am, and that’s what I must try to live with.
[Late October/Early November 1914]
As far as I am concerned, Felice, nothing whatever has changed between us in the past 3 months, either for the better, or for the worse . . . Actually it had not occurred to me to write to you; the futility of letters and the written word in general had become too apparent at the Askanische Hof; but since my head (even with its aches, above all today) has remained the same, it has not failed to think and dream of you, and the life we lead together in my mind has only occasionally been bitter, most of the time peaceful and happy . . .
. . . Because you were unable to believe the things you heard and saw, you thought there were things that had been left unsaid. You were unable to appreciate the immense power my work has over me; you did appreciate it, but by no means fully. As a result you were bound to misinterpret everything that my worries over my work, and only my worries over my work, produced in me in the way of peculiarities which disconcerted you. Moreover, these peculiarities (odious peculiarities, I admit, odious above all to myself) manifested themselves more with you than with anyone else. That was inevitable, and had nothing to do with spite. You see, you were not only the greatest friend, but at the same time the greatest enemy of my work, at least from the point of view of my work. Thus, though fundamentally it loved you beyond measure, equally it had to resist you with all its might for the sake of self-preservation . . .
. . . In me there have always been, and still are, two selves wrestling with each other. One of them is very much as you would wish him to be, and by further development he could achieve the little he lacks in order to fulfill your wishes . . . The other self, however, thinks of nothing but work, which is his sole concern; it has the effect of making even the meanest thoughts appear quite normal; the death of his dearest friend would seem to be no more than a hindrance—if only a temporary one—to his work; this meanness is compensated for by the fact that he is also capable of suffering for his work. These two selves are locked in combat, but it is no ordinary fight where two pairs of fists strike out at each other. The first self is dependent upon the second; he would never, for inherent reasons never, be able to overpower him; on the contrary, he is delighted when the second succeeds, and if the second appears to be losing, the first will kneel down at his side, oblivious of everything but him. This is how it is, Felice. And yet they are locked in combat, and they could both be yours . . .
What this actually means is that you ought to have accepted it all completely, ought to have realized that whatever was happening here was also happening for you, and that everything the work requires for itself, which looks like obstinacy and moodiness, is nothing but an expedient, necessary partly for its own sake and partly forced on me by the circumstances of my life, so utterly hostile to this work . . .
“You were unable to appreciate the immense power my work has over me; you did appreciate it, but by no means fully. As a result you were bound to misinterpret everything that my worries over my work, and only my worries over my work, produced in me.”
. . . Those hours of the day that I consider to be the only ones lived according to my needs, I spend sitting or lying in these three silent rooms, see no one . . . and—am not happy, certainly not, and yet content at times at the thought that I am doing my duty, as far as the circumstances permit.
. . . What . . . were those fears you kept referring to later in the Tiergarten and which forced you more often into silence than into speech? What were they but dislike of my way of life, as well as indirectly of my intentions, which you could not reconcile with yours, which gave you offense? . . . Over and over again, fear. I say fear rather than dislike, but the two feelings merged. And the things you finally said at the Askanische Hof, weren’t they the eruption of all this? . . . You want an explanation for my behavior last time, and this explanation lies in the fact that your fears, your dislike, were constantly before my eyes. It was my duty to protect my work, which alone gives me the right to live, and your fears proved, at least made me fear . . . that here lay the greatest danger to my work . . .
. . . your whole idea about the apartment, what does it show? It shows you agree with the others, not with me . . . These others, when they get married, are very nearly satiated . . . Not so for me, I am not satiated, I haven’t started a business that’s expected to expand from one year of marriage to another; I don’t need a permanent home from whose bourgeois orderliness I propose to run this business—not only do I not need this kind of home, it actually frightens me . . .
. . . You must answer, Felice, no matter how much you may object to my letter . . . There were moments during last night when I thought I had crossed the borderline of madness, and I didn’t know how to save myself . . .
From Yours Always: Letters of Longing. Used with permission of Icon Books. Copyright © 2018 by Eleanor Bass.