Many people know Franz Kafka from his 20th-century existentialist and surreal works such as “The Metamorphosis.” However, lesser known are the compilation of letters that he wrote throughout his life. Most notably, “Letters to Milena” is a collection of letters published after his death detailing the correspondence he had with his romantic interest, Milena Jesenská, during the time period between 1920 and 1923. Unfortunately, during his lifetime his works were not recognized, which led to his insistence that the letters, along with his other unpublished works, be destroyed upon his passing. His friend and biographer Max Brod ignored those requests and published the majority of his unpublished manuscripts, leading to our ability to read many of his works now, including “Letters to Milena.” Aside from the heartbreaking letters he wrote to Milena, there is also “Letters to Felice,” which was written to Felice whom he had a tumultuous romantic relationship with, and a 47-page letter that Kafka wrote to his father which details his thoughts about his upbringing and the trauma imprinted on him as a result. From all of these letters, we get a glimpse of Kafka’s character, personality and his relationships with the loved ones in his life, which give insight into his own struggles with his identity.
“I miss you deeply, unfathomably, senselessly, terribly.”
After Kafka met Milena, he was immediately enamored with her. She was a young woman who attended a private Czech high school for girls. However, her father put her in an insane asylum for a few months due to her risky and reckless behavior. At the same time, she had begun her relationship with bank clerk Ernst Pollak, whom she eventually married and moved to Vienna with. Pollak would frequently gather along with others from Franz Werfel’s circle at a cafe in Prague, where Kafka was based, and this is where it is speculated that he first met Milena. Her command of the German language had blossomed at that point to the point where she began working as a translator, turning German works into Czech. She began to translate for Kafka as well, thus beginning their chain of letters that would last until his deteriorating health in 1923 prevented him from writing any further. By that point, Milena’s marriage had descended into its own struggles, with Pollak’s continuous affairs bringing difficulties upon their marriage. Despite the struggles, she refused to leave him, which devastated Kafka.
Kafka and Milena were only able to meet up twice. The first time was in Vienna, where they spent four days together after the meeting had been postponed numerous times. During this time, the illness that had been plaguing him no longer seemed severe, and being around her seemed to revive his entire demeanor. They spent their time basking in the glow of each other’s company, walking around in the woods, content to be in their own bubble in their small hotel. His happiness overwhelmed him so much that he wrote, “Today … I can’t write any more.” She had been moved by the tenderness in which he referred to her in the letters, and he was fixated on the fire and life that Milena evoked in him. However, even with their chemistry and affection for one another, their relationship would not progress far. In their second meeting, which occurred a short time after the first, it became clear that they would be taking a break from their relationship because Milena was reluctant to leave Pollak and Kafka did not want her to be caught up in the intensity of the darkness he had in him.
In comparison to her, he feels as if he is unworthy, merely a beast. “I am dirty, Milena, endlessly dirty, that is why I make such a fuss about cleanliness. None sing as purely as those in deepest hell; it is their singing we take for the singing of angels.” His purposeful placement of Milena upon a pedestal and him as someone who is permanently lacking shows how unequal he considered their worth to be, how he uses his words as a means to ward her away and spare Milena from being tainted by him.
Although he had recognized that they were not meant to be, she still held her as a confidant, evident in the trust he had in her to confide his struggles with his health and identity. He writes, “Your letter itself is one vast, inevitable disappointment in me, and now this as well.” This anxiety over being misunderstood by her and being rejected for who he is reveals his insecurity in his personal relationships and the world.
Nonetheless, despite his self-loathing and understanding that they would not end up together, he was crushed to know she would not leave Pollak. Kafka’s separation and distance from Milena would remain though their letters were deeply emotional and heavy with meaning. He could not help the intensity of his passion, but in the vastness of his emotions, his love only highlighted and tormented his endless longing. “Dear Milena, I wish the world were ending tomorrow. Then I could take the next train, arrive at your doorstep in Vienna, and say: ‘Come with me, Milena. We are going to love each other without scruples or fear or restraint. Because the world is ending tomorrow.’ Perhaps we don’t love unreasonably because we think we have time, or have to reckon with time. But what if we don’t have time? Or what if time, as we know it, is irrelevant? Ah, if only the world were ending tomorrow.” He was desperate for his love to be requited, to experience the grandness of reckless love after his feeling like a prisoner to the cyclical recurrence of happiness and horror of love.
“You are the knife I turn inside myself; that is love. That, my dear, is love.”
As one of his great loves, his letters to Milena prove him to be an introspective and self-critical person, battling between feelings of inadequacy and the fear of being misunderstood throughout his life, especially since his works were not being sold. All of the letters are noted to be written in a very particular and precise manner, as he struggled to find the right words to express his emotions and sought absolute perfection from his writings, even if they were just letters.
His struggles with his image and self-worth traced back to childhood, as seen in his letter to his father where he talks about their strained and tension-filled relationship. Although he never sends out the letter to his father, reading it now provides us insight into the power dynamics prevalent in their relationship. From childhood into adulthood, he carried over much of that anger, confusion and rejection toward his father, all displayed in his letter.
His father often took control of all his conversations and enjoyed dominating them intellectually. “From your armchair you ruled the world. Your opinion was correct, every other was mad, wild, meshugge, not normal. … and finally nobody was left except yourself. For me you took on the enigmatic quality that all tyrants have whose rights are based on their person and not on reason.” The oppression that his father’s demeanor imposed on Kafka appears to have played a big role in creating distance within their relationship. It left no room for Kafka to explore his creativity or to have room to try building a relationship with his father because he was just shut down every time.
In this struggle for control in his relationship with his father, he was confined to a specific way of thinking which he wanted to break away from. “All these thoughts, seemingly independent of you, were from the beginning burdened with your belittling judgments; it was almost impossible to endure this and still work out a thought with any measure of completeness and permanence.” He desires to be independent and to break free from the limits of his family in order to live in a way that is true to himself, but is always held back by the guilt and obligation toward his father. In that sense, he always remains trapped by his upbringing.
This culminated in building the foundations of Kafka’s uncertainty and self-doubt as the overwhelming and constant insistence of his father’s reality left no room for Kafka to develop his own thoughts of what is the truth. He was belittled at every step. “Since there was nothing at all I was certain of, since I needed to be provided at every instant with a new confirmation of my existence, since nothing was in my very own, undoubted, sole possession, determined unequivocally only by me — in sober truth a disinherited son — naturally I became unsure even of the thing nearest to me, my own body.” Kafka is unable to be sure of the most fundamental facts that just his mere existence and thoughts prove — that he exists within his own body. The power that his father had over him is so great that it even influences one to forget what they know in order to believe in a warped reality.
In this letter, you can feel the profound enormity of Kafka’s emotions toward his father in the way he expresses himself in his letter. His disappointment and disillusionment toward his father and subsequently, his childhood, are evident in the themes of rejection and hurt tied to all the events he talks about in the letter. His expression of vulnerability is a contrast to his usually quiet and introspective style of writing, giving insight into the full extent of the expectations he had for his father which ultimately went unfulfilled and left him disappointed.
The complicated and intense relationships Kafka had with those in his life are all on display in the innumerable letters he wrote in his lifetime. Through them, he offers insight into his perspective on his identity in the world and his everlasting battle against his fears of isolation and insecurities. These are the same themes that reoccur in his novels, as seen in Gregor Samsa’s alienation from society. Writing these letters provided him an opportunity to reconcile with his past and to make amends for future growth, trying to find a sense of purpose in his life even if it is achieved through self-criticism.
Nonetheless, the unique preservation of his letters gives us a chance to dissect the lives of one of the most influential writers of the 19th and 20th centuries and gives us the opportunity to use that knowledge as a lens through which to view similar motifs of alienation, meaning and purpose that permeate his other works.