Friday, June 9, 2017

Letters to Felice - Franz Kafka (1973)

Oeuvre rule: I have read "Metamorphosis" and The Trial by Kafka.  As a liberal arts student at NYU, I was somewhat heavily exposed to him.  "Letter to His Father" was also read in the course "The Letter as Literature," and he is casually mentioned by everyone in academia constantly.  He is, in fact, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, and one of the most important artists in history, period.  Giving him this designation when his oeuvre is quite small (I still need to read Amerika, The Castle, and some short stories like "In the Penal Colony" and "The Judgment") puts him on similar ground to J.D. Salinger, but it even feels blasphemous to compare the two.  Do not forget that Kafka died at a young age (40), whereas Salinger lived on to age 90.  Kafka's work is classic, everlasting, whereas Salinger's influence may, or may not, be waning.  It is too early to tell with the latter.

So we come to Letters to Felice.  First, some background.  I was offered a review copy of this book in mid-November 2016.  I love Kafka, but I was not sure the book would be for me.  For one, it is a book of letters, and second, I still felt there was more of his fiction to digest.  Yet it seemed like an interesting book, so I requested a copy 8 days after receiving the e-mail.  Then it came quickly, and it is a beautiful book, but I was immediately shocked by its size.  There are 550 pages of letters alone in this volume, to say nothing of the introduction, the end notes, and other appendices.  I took me a long time to read, but I supplanted it with about five other books as they arose.  While I am tempted to name it one of the Best Books, ultimately I must deign to the notion that it will primarily appeal to the academic community.  Still, there are so many classic moments in these letters that there is much to discuss in this review.

Let us start with "Kafka's True Will, An Introductory Essay," by Erich Heller, who also edited this volume along with Jurgen Born.  I needed to read it a second time after finishing the book to try to understand what I had just read.  It begins by discussing Kafka's testamentary wishes, which famously directed that his unpublished writings be burnt.  Kafka had shown this will to his friend, Max Brod, in 1921, and Brod had told him he would not carry it out.  There is brief mention of another will, written in pencil (the first was written in ink--both appear to be holographic) that dictates six stories should not be burnt, though they had already been published.  In any case, had Kafka's wishes been honored, Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle would never have seen the light of day, to say nothing of his diaries, or Letters to Felice.  One imagines Kafka rolling over in his grave, but then perhaps, being secretly pleased that his life's work had not been done in vain.

Kafka's first letter to Felice Bauer is dated September 20, 1912.  The last letter reproduced in this volume was sent October 16, 1917.  Thus, five years, averaging out to 100 pages of letters per year-- yet the first year alone takes the reader to page 320.  Over the course of these five years, Kafka asked Felice to marry him twice.  As the book ends, the reader does not witness the breaking off of the second engagement, but it apparently happened in December of 1917.  

It is very difficult to review a book of letters, and I have not read many books of letters.  I read a book of letters between F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway, and that was very readable and entertaining.  Of course, The Sorrows of Young Werther is a beautiful epistolary novel.  But Letters to Felice was not meant to be published, and as noted above, will be unappealing to most readers except those seeking a greater understanding of Kafka's psyche.  It is documentary evidence of his inner state and replete with extreme honesty.

Owing to this difficulty, there are only a few more things I can say about this book.  First, I have put asterisks or smiley faces next to many of the passages in my copy (the benefit of avoiding twerpery), and I will excerpt several of these.  Second, if there is one thing that comes across more clearly than anything else, it is this: Kafka became very insecure and paranoid when Felice did not respond quickly.  He often remarks upon this in his letters, and it led me to feel this was an acceptable practice with texts.  For some reason, I kept imagining Kafka living in the world of smartphones and text messages, and freaking out when Felice would not text him back, and asking, "What were you doing with your time that made it impossible for you to reply?"

There is also the matter of Kafka's profession, which appears to be a claims consultant or adjuster for an insurance company after obtaining his law degree.  Of course this holds great personal interest for me, and it was difficult at times to not want to act like Kafka.  That is, as a writer that makes his actual living (or wants to) in an offshoot of the legal profession.  His comments on his job, and the few times he has to go to court, are hilarious.

Since we are addressing a legal aspect to this book, I have to mention a sincere annoyance of mine, and one thing law journals get right: use footnotes instead of end notes!  There are 27 pages of end notes, and over 500 individual references.  Much like Infinite Jest, it drove me nuts to have to constantly flip back and forth between them, perhaps because I tended to read the book during my lunch hour, with it sat propped in a silver, standing holder, and I would need to flip back, causing the holder to topple over.  Now as terrible as law review articles tend to be, and as ridiculous as they look, what with half of their page being taken up by the text of footnotes, I wish that larger volumes such as this would put the explanatory note on the same page.  This may be a petty thing, but I needed to point it out.  In fact, to mention him again, I do believe Salinger used an occasional footnote or two in Seymour: an Introduction, and kept them on the same page.

I also enjoy his remarks on Napoleon:

"Only last Sunday afternoon Max said to me on a similar occasion: 'You talk like a girl,'  But this is not quite true, for in an excellent collection of Napoleon's sayings (Note 126), which for some time now I have been dipping into whenever I can, these words are recorded: 'It is terrible to die childless,' and he was by no means sorry for himself; friends, for instance, whether by choice or necessity, were not indispensable to him.  He once said: 'I haven't a friend other than Daru, who is callous and cold and suits me.'  And to judge the true depth this man had access to, take this remark: 'He who knows from the beginning where he is going, will not get far.'  So that when he talks of the terror of childlessness, one may believe him.  And I have to be prepared to take this upon myself, for apart from everything else I would never dare expose myself to the risk of being a father."  (134, December 30 to 31, 1912).

There is another passage about Napoleon too, but this review runs the risk of being interminable if I am going to excerpt every entertaining quote.  As a whole, this book is not very entertaining.  The love affair between Franz and Felice is quite mundane.  They met at the home of Max Brod in August of 1912, and they saw each other 2-3 times a year, in a sort of long distance relationship.  In June of 1913, he asked her to marry him, and she remained evasive and did not agree until April of 1914.  In July of 1914 the engagement is broken off in what seems the most dramatic "action" in all of Letters to Felice, the scene at the Hotel Askanische Hof.  Yet they remained close, and the next three years seem to pass by in a blur, as they become engaged a second time in July of 1917.  As has already been shown, the majority of this book consists of letters in their first year of knowing one another.  Kafka was a prolific letter writer, sometimes sending off multiple letters a day, and expecting, if not the same depth of effort, at the very least a timely reply.  Again, though, an absurd amount of this book is Kafka being like, "Why haven't you written yet?!"

Along the way, however, there are tons of beautiful quotes, and hilarious observations and confessions.  And my comparison to texting is not totally without precedent.  Felice works for a company that sells parlographs, and Franz offers a list of ideas:

"5.  Invent a combination of telephone and Parlograph.  This really can't be too difficult.  The day after tomorrow, of course, you will tell me that this has already been accomplished successfully.  But it would really be of immense importance for the press, news agencies, etc.  More difficult, but surely quite possible, would be a combination of gramophone and telephone.  More difficult, simply because one can't understand a word the gramophone says, and a Parlograph can't very well ask for clearer pronunciation.  A combination of gramophone and telephone would not be of such great universal importance; it would only be a relief to people who, like me, are afraid of the telephone.  People like me, however, are equally afraid of the gramophone, so for them there is no help whatever." (168, January 22-23, 1913)

 As I flip back through the pages of this book, looking for marginalia, I am struck by the feeling of familiarity with the character of Franz.  He is such a humorous and sardonic fellow!  It is as if his life is a great absurd comedy in which he generally does not want to live, except to write.  A recent co-worker of mine had referred to him as neurotic.  I would describe his style as consciously absurd and pseudo-dramatic.

"I have only just started reading the book; on the whole I stay away from everything, including books.  It is extremely clumsy; but it does manage to produce one distinctive character, of whom for the time being I really don't know what to think.  In any case I am not a critic, am no good at analyzing, easily misunderstand, frequently miss the point, and am left in doubt as to the overall impression." (463, March 1916)

There is really something of a surprise dramatic "twist" in the book, which I shouldn't spoil, but the letters to Grete Bloch merit mention, because they are introduced so fucking ridiculously:

"Grete Bloch and Felice Bauer met probably in 1913.  Their friendship lasted a great deal longer than their relationship with Kafka.  As late as 1935 Grete Bloch, as a refugee on her way to Palestine and finally to Italy, visited her friend who at that time was living with her family in Geneva.  It was then she handed over to Felice some of the letters she had received from Kafka." [While we are on the subject of historical background, allow me to mention that Felice Bauer eventually moved to the United States in 1936 where she lived until she died in 1960.]
"Kafka met Grete Bloch for the first time at the end of October 1913 when, at Felice's request, she went to see him in Prague to act as an intermediary between them.  The following represents all that has survived.  In the third revised edition of his biography of Kafka (English edition, p.241), Max Brod published part of a letter from Grete Bloch to a friend in Palestine; this was written April 21, 1940, from Florence, where she was then living.  In it she says that years ago she had an illegitimate child, a son who "when nearly 'seven years old died suddenly in Munich in 1921.'  If this is correct, the child must have been born about 1914.  Although the father's name is not mentioned it was clear to the recipient, Max Brod's sole informant on the subject, that she attributed the paternity to Kafka." (323)

What!  The editors then go on to say that the tone of the letters to Grete does not suggest that Kafka had an intimate relationship with her--but I'm not quite sure I agree!  It's almost like, he and Felice are going through a rough patch, and all of the sudden Grete comes through, Felice's friend, and Kafka is like, oh damn this girl is pretty special too.

"Once, in Dr. Weiss's company (when she happened to be lively and very friendly toward me), she said jokingly (I had been telling them that you had very much liked the Galley): Frl. Bloch seems to mean a great deal to you.' I could only answer in the affirmative.  I can really say nothing about F.'s attitude toward you, less even than about her attitude toward me." (358, March 7, 1914)

Some of his letters to Grete Bloch seem more lively and interesting to read, as if he does not get bogged down by his feelings of anxiety and paranoia expressed in the letters to Felice.  So there are quotable observations such as this:

"The last of my closer, unmarried, unengaged friends [Felix Weltsch] has got engaged; while I have foreseen the engagement for 3 years (for the outsider, no great perspicacity was required), he and she have known of it for a mere fortnight.  Thus to some extent I am losing a friend, for a married friend isn't a true one.  Anything he is told will be revealed to his wife either silently or explicitly, and the woman in whose head all information doesn't become distorted probably doesn't exist.  Moreover, even if this were not so, one can no longer think of him alone, cannot expect from him that intimate comfort and help, nor even assume the possibility of such comfort or help, for now, whatever happens, one is faced by a partnership.  But apart from the fact that I naturally wish him the best of everything." (349-350, February 19, 1914)

Oh, snap--Kafka dishing it out on people getting married and growing distant!

Here, he writes to Grete Bloch on the topic of her imminent departure from Vienna (which is a city he expresses no great affection for, apart from the Grillparzer Room):

"Incidentally, I don't believe that one's sadness at leaving is due to one having loved the thing one is leaving.  One's sadness is probably due to the opposite.  One feels that the connection are severed too easily, also that others part from one too easily; the superficial relationships which were established in the course of time and which, because they have not been closely examined during that time, almost seemed to represent intimate relationships, now prove to be as insignificant as they actually are.  Sadly one remembers the pseudo-relationships that were formed, and sadly one foresees the pseudo-relationships that will be formed.  Indeed, one needs both freedom and dependence, but each in its own place, and one feels very uneasy on realizing that one has got the places mixed up.  It has often happened to me; it doesn't matter, rejoice with me that you are about to leave Vienna." (397-398, April 26, 1914)

It is not surprising to me that, because I often seem to internally feel something about the book I am reading, and allow it to unconsciously affect my life, I went through my own bouts of paranoia about a significant other not returning a text, and became afraid of commitment, at one point sending the following excerpt in an e-mail:

"But--please listen to me quietly--what I wanted to give you was time to consider carefully your relationship with me--for, to judge from what you have said since Easter (with the possible exception of the first two letters), I was forced to believe (please, Felice, just put yourself in my place for one moment and look at everything in the way I am forced to see it) that I am now able to keep you only be artificial means, by dispatching one letter after another, and thus not giving you time to come to your senses, and thereby urging you in your haste to use old words deprived of their old meaning.  This is not my final word, for with each new letter from you even my strongest convictions begin to waver anew, but if it were so, it would really have been the only way in which you had ever disappointed me, because candor is the one thing I have expected from you at all times.  I wouldn't have been surprised if at some time you had dismissed me, because you could not immediately have known me for what I am, indeed this was impossible; it was almost as though I had approached you sideways and it took some little time before we turned to face each other.  Now of course I don't know what your final decision may be, but only imagine that I can sense it in your recent letters, and the one thing I cannot understand, Felice, is that you yourself shouldn't know how you feel about it.  You must not imagine that all I am saying is due to your letters being short and infrequent; you used to write short letters every now and again and I was quite happy and satisfied.  But your recent letters are different.  My affairs are no longer as important to you, and what is much worse: you no longer bother to tell me about yourself.  So what am I to do?  I could no longer reply to these recent letters, and pictured you at the office on Thursday morning, sighing with relief on discovering that at long last there was no letter."
-Franz (4/26/13)  (246-247)

So yes, I began to feel what Franz felt, and I had a great desire to live his sort of life--to live with my parents (to soften the weight of my soul crushing loans--something that Kafka thankfully did not have to suffer) and work as a claims consultant at an insurance company and to write in all my spare time.  And I began to feel that my life was too complicated, and that I don't do nearly the amount of writing I wish I could.  And I read this book very slowly, as I transitioned into a job which made me very depressed, in part perhaps because I had to commute by car and could not read on the train.  I would stare at the line of cars ahead of me, holding down the brake and hitting the gas erratically.  How much better it was to become lost in Kafka's idiosyncratic mind than to observe and participate in the dull monotony of highway traffic.

The other part of the book that strikes one as most notable is the scene at the Hotel Askanische Hof, which is told circumstantially through letters to Grete Bloch:

"You would be doing me a great favor if you sent me the letter that was so disastrous, for I cannot imagine what was in it that can have been so terrible." (434, July 20, 1914)

"53.  Possibly one of the letters to Grete Bloch between early May and the end of June 1914.  In these letters a number of lines in which Kafka voices strong doubts about the feasibility of a marriage to Felice are underlined in red, probably by Grete Bloch for the purpose of quoting them at the 'tribunal in the hotel' (Askanische Hof).  See Kafka's letter to Grete Bloch of July 3, 1914: 'You needn't have quoted from the letters.'" (568, FN 53)

Signs of Kafka's illness become evident at certain points throughout the text, which includes stays at sanatoriums.  There is an ominous letter near the end where he mentions coughing up blood, but one particular item written while he was in, or about to go into convalescence, struck me.

"Dear Felice, I spoke to him quite frankly, as you would have done, and eh also answered me frankly.  I said 'Why don't you write?  Why are you tormenting F.?  That you are tormenting her is surely quite obvious, from her postcards.  You promise to write, and don't.  You send a telegram "letter on way," but there is no letter on the way; it doesn't get written until 2 days later.  Once in a while and as an exception, a girl might be permitted to behave in this way, it could even be innocent, provided it is in keeping with her character.  But in your case it is not innocent, for your silence can only mean concealment, so cannot be excused.'
He replied: 'But it can be excused, for there are circumstances in which there is little difference between expressing and concealing.  My suffering is fourfold:
I cannot live in Prague.  I don't know if I can live elsewhere, but that I cannot live here is the most definite thing I know.
Furthermore: This is why I cannot have F. at present.
Furthermore: I cannot help (it is even in print) admiring other people's children.
Finally: At times I feel I shall be crushed by these torments on every side.  But my present suffering is not the worst.  The worst is that time passes, that this suffering makes me more wretched and incapable, and prospects for the future grow increasingly more dismal." (456-457, August 9, 1915)

And on it goes.  I was quite confused and wondered whether Kafka was writing about himself in the third person, or what.  It struck me as being the most "unhinged" letter in the book, like seemingly schizophrenic.

There are many other beautiful passages and droll witticisms scattered throughout the text, and if this review has run long on excerpts from the text, it is only because I do not think many readers will actually seek this out for pleasure reading, unless they are writing a paper about Kafka.  It does offer sometimes revealing looks into the creation of his literature, but yes, it is primarily an exercise in repetition and exasperation on the subject of Felice's responsiveness.  Still, it is a beautiful book, and I am glad I read it.  I do not know if, or when I will ever return to it, but I am proud to stock it in my library.

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