Valentine's Day Special: Franz Kafka's Love Letters

First off, over at Tin House I wrote about my favorite Franz Kafka story, The Judgment. Secondly, I was recently asked to take part in a dead love letter reading and decided to read some of Franz Kafka's love letters to his on-again off-again fiancé Felice Bauer.

Now, you probably know Kafka as a fairly lighthearted author who wrote whimsical stories about talking bugs and zany bureaucrats. However, these love letters reveal something of a darker, more tortured side that was hidden from the public eye.

Since I couldn't find these letters online and hand typed them for the reading, I thought I'd post my favorite two here for Valentine's day. Reproduced in full:

March 6 to 7, 1913

No, that is not enough for me. I asked if it wasn’t above all compassion that you felt for me. And I justified my question. All you say is: No. But I really was a different person when I wrote that first letter, a carbon copy of which (it is the only letter I have a copy of) I found a few days ago during a perfunctory tidying up of my desk (which never gets tidied in any other way). I was different, this you cannot deny, and even if I had occasional lapses, I could easily find my way back. Have I been misleading you then, right up to these unhappy times? There are only two possibilities: either you feel nothing but compassion for me, in which case why do I insist upon your love, obstruct your every course, force you to write and think of me every day, tyrannize you with a helpless man’s helpless love? Why, instead, don’t I try to find a way of gently helping you to free yourself from me, of quietly by myself savoring the knowledge of your compassion for me, and thus at least becoming worthy of that compassion? The second possibility is that compassion is not exclusively what you feel for me; rather that you have been misled during the past six months; you lack true insight into my wretched personality, disregard my confessions, and unconsciously prevent yourself from believing in them, although this would be very much against your nature. In that case, why don’t I do everything in my power to make the situation perfectly clear to you? Why don’t I choose the plainest, shortest words that can be neither disregarded, misunderstood, nor forgotten? Could it be that I still have some hope, or am toying with the hope, of being able to keep you? If this be so, and it sometimes seems to be, then it would be my duty to step out of myself and quite ruthlessly defend you against myself.

However, there is yet a third possibility: that compassion may not be exclusively what you feel for me, and you may even have a perfect understanding of my present state, but may think that at some time I might yet turn into a useful human being with whom a steady, calm, lively relationship would be possible. If this is what you think, you are under a terrible misapprehension; as I have told you before, my present state (and today it is comparative paradise) is not an exceptional state. Don’t succumb, Felice, to these misapprehensions! Not for 2 days could you live beside me. I received a letter today from an 18-year-old schoolboy whom I have met 2 or 3 times at Baum’s. At the end of the letter he calls himself my “very obedient disciple.” I feel sick at the thought of it. What a preposterous notion! I can never tear myself open wide enough to people to reveal everything and so frighten them away. To which of course I must add that even if I were a hero, I should want to frighten the schoolboy away, because I don’t like him (probably on account of his youth), whereas I should want to drag you, eternally dearest, down to the dreadful decrepitude that I represent.


August 22, 1913

Nothing has been left undiscussed, Felice, have no fear; but perhaps the most important subject was not fully grasped by you. This is not a reproach, not a vestige of a reproach; you have done everything humanly possible, but what you haven’t got you cannot grasp. No one can. For it is I alone who carry all anxieties and fears within me, as alive as snakes; I alone who scrutinize them constantly, and only I know what they are. You know about them only from me, only from my letters, and what you learn about them from these letters bears---in its horror, persistence, magnitude, and invincibility—even less relation to reality than does my writing, which heaven knows is little enough. All this I realize when reading yesterday’s letter, so full of kindness and confidence; all recollections of me in Berlin must have been forgotten when you wrote. The life that awaits you is not that of the happy couples you see strolling along before you in Westerland, no lighthearted chatter arm in arm, but a monastic life at the side of a man who is peevish, miserable, silent, discontented, and sickly; a man who, and this will seem to you akin to madness, is chained to invisible literature by invisible chains and screams when approached because, so he claims, someone is touching those chains.

Your father is hesitant with his reply, which is understandable, but that he should be hesitant with his questions as well seems to me to prove that his doubts are only general ones, which by obtaining information—quite untruthfully—would be cleared up in no time; and that he overlooks the one passage in my letter that could give me away, because it lies entirely outside of his experience. This must not be allowed, I told myself all night, and proceeded to draft a letter that would make it clear to him. It isn’t finished, nor will I send it; it was but an outburst, which didn’t relieve even me.



Drone said...

such helpless confessions can never create repulsion in the other person but can only evoke more compassion

zarnab said...