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A heartbreaking look into the private life of a beloved writer: a review of Kafka’s ‘Letters to Milena’

Franz Kafka has become an increasingly well-known and revered figure within literary Modernism since the 1960s, when his work started to become more widely translated and accessible to international audiences. This fame carries with it an air of melancholy; during his lifetime his work was practically unknown. His fictional stories, the likes of The Metamorphosis or Amerika have become legendary. Anyone who reads these stories will most likely be left with a strong desire of wanting to know more about the person behind these stories; what kind of person was compelled to write such bold stories? Letters to Milena provides a compelling and naturalistic way for us to understand this fascinating figure further. The book is a compilation of the letters sent by Kafka to Milena Jesenká, a writer who translated much of Kafka’s work from its original German to Czech. From here a deep relationship and correspondence began, one that was fated not to last. With the vast majority of the letters being from mid-1920 with further sporadic letters until late 1923; these provide an essential portal into the mind of one of the 20th century’s most tormented artists.

A detail, one that cannot be referred to as an advantage, is the fact that we only possess Kafka’s letters to Milena and possess scarcely any from Milena to Kafka. This is due to the combined burning of much of Kafka’s papers after his death and the mere passage of time. Meaning we only get reverberations and reflections of Milena’s words. One of the most engaging aspects of reading this book is that the reader must infer what it is that Kafka is responding to; such is the mastery of the writing that this is rarely a challenge for the reader.

If the reader is looking for a ‘story’-like structure in this book, then they are provided one in form of the build-up to and aftermath of Kafka and Milena’s two meetings (the only ones they ever had). These events appear to give off distinct shockwaves throughout the letters, like a rock chucked into a lake; the closer to the meeting the greater the mention of it. We see the insecurities of Kafka and Milena, each wondering about their own ability to meet the expectations that they have both so succinctly built over letters. The evidence they are each presented with after the meetings are that they did not disappoint each other, however Kafka particularly continues to be plagued by ‘the fear’ of his own inadequacy.

Nonetheless, we gain an intimate insight into the declining health of this man, with the effects this has on his personal life and his outlook on the world.

The book can essentially be split into two parts. The first part sees an increasing optimism between the two that Milena could leave her husband to start a new life with Kafka. The second part sees an increasing decline in this possibility. Witnessing this gradual development is truly heartbreaking, I believe they remain very much in love, but Kafka becomes increasingly mentally exhausted by the possibility that it can only be a writer-in-love without any promise of physical intimacy. For context, Milena lives in Vienna and Kafka in Prague.

Anyone with even a fleeting knowledge of Kafka’s life will know that whilst all this is occurring, he is growing increasingly ill and dies within a matter of months after his final letter to Milena. Kafka often claims improvements in his own health, often claiming them to be the result of Milena’s rejuvenating energies. We know that this is not how it works, he is either feigning improvement to please Milena or he is simply delusional due to the excitement he is feeling. Nonetheless, we gain an intimate insight into the declining health of this man, with the effects this has on his personal life and his outlook on the world.

Kafka remains one of the most lamented literary figures of the early 20th century, his fictional works continue to inspire leaving many people wondering more about the individual behind these works. These letters allow that, displaying no lack of the realist yet fantastical themes he is best known for.

Letters to Milena represents the unadulterated desires and passions of a dying man plagued by the ghosts of his earlier life. This is a truly heart-wrenching account of the tortured artist.



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