Milena's Letters to Kafka
(Excerpt from a Fictional Correspondence)
By Ana Šomlo
Translated from Serbian by Maya Shlivic
To write letters means to reveal oneself in front of ghosts, which they greedily anticipate.
- Franz Kafka in a letter to Milena
One evening in May 1973, Ana Šomlo met the writer Zoran Gluscevic in Belgrade. In conversation she mentioned that she was reading Letters to Milena.
“Those are the most beautiful love letters,” said Gluscevic, the author of the book Kafka: The Keys to The Castle. “Imagine how wonderful her letters must have been. What a pity that they are lost forever.”
“I am not sure of that,” said Ana Šomlo, convinced that nothing can disappear forever. “I shall write them again.”
All the persons in this excerpt are real, just as the geographical names and the time in which all this was happening are authentic. Only some events have been invented.
This is a work of fiction.
Sometimes you really make me laugh with your childish remarks. As if you don't read my letters! How can I make you believe, how can I break the cocoon in which you have isolated yourself from this world and in which, hidden and frightened, you wish to spend your life? What else will you think of in your defence? Well, I regret, I have neither the intention nor the ability to solve the Jewish problem, but love is a good formula for the salvation of man and woman, when every thought of theirs is rushing from one to the other. How many times should I write to you that I long for you? That is, for your voice, your look, your hands, for your smile. I love your looks and remember them well, your black hair and green eyes. Would you like me to flatter you more? I like your slender physique, almost like a young boy's. Do you remember the time when you held my fur coat for me at “Arco”? You threw your arms over my shoulders and fastened my collar. I looked at you then. A shiver passed through my body as if I had been touched by electricity. There was some defiance, even courage, in your voice. You said that a strong wind was blowing and that you wished to protect me. And I? I almost turned and fell into your arms, so passionately did I long for your touch. I think it must simply be some physical force which is transmitted in waves, just like electricity, and it overcame my whole body, coming from you. Then our eyes met. How strange it was. Suddenly, all my restlessness about Ernst, all my sense of being lost disappeared and I understood how false and meaningless they were. I admit that while I write this I cannot but recall the fleeting of love, the instability which doesn't evade even me. And because of that, why think about what will happen tomorrow? Yes, about tomorrow, oh yes. You should be coming, but it is better not to dream about the future, at least not now. It would be lovely to think about it together with you. What I think about most fondly is to be beside you while you write. Do you find my Czech clear enough? Perhaps I could talk you into writing in the tongue of your homeland? Don't you find it meaningless to write in German, which is so rough in comparison with our Czech, whose melodic sound, which is characteristic of Slavic languages, is so gentle, like the gurgling of the Vltava? Then, while reading, especially from Dostoyevsky, I miss you terribly. I would love to chat to you about everything that is passing through my mind. I am very lonely. A woman should simply not be left alone. You will ask me: where is Ernst? Even when he is here, he is not really. When I try to speak about literature, he looks for forms and moulds, he takes an analytical approach as if it were a question of reinforced concrete and not a subtle poetic form. Structuralism is essential to him, and under that formula he tries to include his way of thinking, though not completely. The form in literature is the least important thing for me. It is difficult to shackle the fruit of someone's imagination with a subsequently invented term, since even the fruit of human feelings cannot stand stiff constraints, nor can the feelings themselves. Don't you think so?
I couldn't have imagined a night of conflict existing between us provoked by your letter, or rather by the plan of your journey which included Bolzano-Munich, and overlooked the possibility of travelling via Vienna, where we could, possibly, meet. When I thought a little more about it, I understood your reasons, which, of course, I don't accept, but I have no right to direct your movements. I wouldn't even do it if you hadn't pulled me towards that side road. I lost my balance a little. Unfortunately, I am too impulsive, a perfect image of my father (Dr. Jan Jesenski), whom I always despised because of his persistence and self-confidence and his wrong suppositions that only he could be in the right, and that all others must, for their own good (what conceitedness!), comply with his decision. I'm certain that the cause of my mother's death was not anaemia, as he claimed, but a systematic disease of his wrong diagnoses. He always knew what was better for her.
Naturally, in that sense, you didn't have to accept my conviction that it would have been nicer to spend two hours together at a train station two hours of our life together - than a few pages of letter writing which you would have spent on me. As soon as I sent you my letter I realised I had made a mistake. Therefore, please accept my apology, but not as reflecting a change of my attitude, which still remains firm, although it refers exclusively to my determination to try to be tolerant (more than my nature allows me).
I can also quite imagine the uncomfortable feeling you would have if we were to meet, all the more so since, before you knew me, you knew my husband, to be an irreproachable person, as well as knowing the whole of that Viennese circle of positivists which he dominates, a world which I find somewhat comical. What I find amusing about them is their need to be above the ordinary, above the snobbery, above the national feeling, but in fact they are the proof of all that. They don't accept being Jews, not because they don't admit that they are Jews, but because they believe that they are above them. And that is why divisions dominate in all their conversations: who is a Jew and who is not. That is their starting point. Next: the language. All languages are, according to them, equally important in theory: Slavic languages, especially Czech, which is the undiscovered treasure mine; but which other language has produced another Goethe?
It is also the same with music. Chopin is magnificent. But can he be compared to Beethoven? And as proof of that, which other environment gave to the world Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Strauss?
And is not Vienna, in any case, the capital of the world, where Slav, Hungarian, Spanish, Italian, Flemish, etc. blood flows? And when all that is uncovered and civilisation examined, can we not claim that its bearers are, nevertheless, the Jews? Who else has travelled more around the world and, without any political or other personal ambitions (except cultural ones), brought the world's fruits of progress into Austro-Hungary?
And that country fell like a ripe pear; her time was up. And what does the new era bring? And how much does the revolution change the people and offer equality and the same rights in all spheres? It is a spiritual renaissance, or rather it could be one if all the proclamations were accepted and if, in fact, no one was partial. And in spite of that they don't see that, before all others, they themselves are partial.
Are you also, perhaps, a Jew?
So, in trying to analyse those comic people, I have tried to write to you about all of us, in fact about all of you. Because we women, who accept that new world as equal to us (only in words, of course), have a finer ear for facts; words alone have no meaning unless they are confirmed with facts. Not everything is in poetry, where words are essential, as dear Werfel probably believes. All their male conversations, to which I'm not admitted (except as a waitress), have nevertheless inspired me to write an article for The Tribune, called The New Metropolitan Type. Naturally, the theme is more down-to-earth; it concerns an ordinary man, not a philosopher, or at least not the way in which he sees himself. Such a theme wouldn't be of interest to the average Czech reader of the daily press.
How could you make such a serious error in understanding my question, “Are you, Frank, perhaps, a Jew? That is: a Jew ‘as well’?” A question asked in the manner of a joke? Or do you think that those two words are much too serious for one to dare write them as a joke? But of course it is clear to me that you are a Jew. How otherwise could my translations of your literature be successful, if I didn't penetrate into the essence of the author's soul? Somehow, it seemed suitable to play with those words, simply to see what your answer would be, in order to provoke you a little. I wanted, in fact, to see how much you care about your origin. Perhaps I shall repeat the outrage; however, I don't care about my origin. That I have, after all, also proved by my deeds.
I shall be sincere; your association in connection with my question about Mathilde, who, despite being Heine's wife, said: “Don't tell me that even Kohn is a Jewish name?” shows that she was a stupid person; even she can be forgiven for this, but not for being uneducated. It means that she didn't read the Bible, or that she didn't notice that she had read it. I had the fortune to grow up in an anti-Semitic household. My father thought that all the evil of this world originated in the Jews, and because of this he pointed out to me, from my early childhood, all the dangers associated with them. But I am, as you yourself also realise, fearless. I even allow myself to make a joke on account of one Jew. I mean you. I shall not mention my marriage with Ernst. Love is stronger than fear. I admit that it is totally irrelevant to me that he is a Jew, and even that you are one. I would have married him even if he were a true Czech. I do not intend to translate my jokes to you any more. If I can translate you into my language, you too should try to translate me, that is to understand me, in your own. And don't think that I learnt all there is to know about Jews in my home. Not to mention the “Arco” School, or the real Minerva; do you think it is possible to be the wife of an "Expert", to meet Max, Werfel, Haas, and not know who is a Jew? Of course, it is everyone who is not a Jew. Those are everyday exercises which keep me supple. Anyway, speaking of Werfel, you have misunderstood me again. When I say “dear Werfel”, it doesn't mean that I write about him with affection. Perhaps even the opposite of that, which doesn't mean that I don't understand him. I warn you again: you interpret my words incorrectly.
I am pleased that you see Joan of Arc in me, but, for goodness sake, I'm a completely different type of woman! I don't wish to sacrifice myself for any religion, nor against any religion. My only religion is love, and an unstable one at that. Mine. Perhaps there was spite in my marriage. You don't have to tell me who in my family said: “Don't ever get involved with Jews. Look at what happened to our M.” Everybody said it. I don't think that what happened to me is because of what he is. I repeat — that is not important! Nor is it when you are in question. It is sad that others don't think so. Not even you. I would proclaim love as the only religion. All the rest are prejudices, regardless of whether they belong to you or to them.
I hear from the editor of Kmen that our The Stoker sailed happily along the Vltava to the shores of the Golden City. I'm sorry that we didn't welcome it together, you and I. While translating it, after Metamorphosis, I felt as if we were spending two months together. My supposition that you too could have had the same feeling was senseless. That is clear to me now.
Wolff has not yet sent me The Country Doctor.
You will let me know your next address in Prague. I shall make an effort to write the address legibly, although I believe that my letters will always reach you.
Milena Jesenska Polak
It is as if there is some conspiracy against us. Your letters are arriving irregularly. Now I see that you haven't received mine either. It is unbelievable how, in a period of only three or four days, chaos has again unfolded in parallel in our heads, a chaos which common sense can't control. Nothing has happened, but with me everything has turned into a drama, a tragedy, which now seems funny.
In the absence of fresh letters from you, I got accustomed to being in the role of your father, since I was continuously reading your letter addressed to him and finding pleasure in it, because of which I feel somewhat ashamed. How similar our fathers are. Do you remember when I wrote to you how much Dr. Jesenski hates Germans, Jews and everyone else? He didn't hate the Czechs, it is true, but he despised them. He thought they were weak-willed, that they were only skilled at enduring slavery; he longed for a new Jan Hus, who would show the true face of Bohemia to the Austrians and the Hungarians. He can't stand the Slovaks either. Our fathers are identical when it comes to being sharply critical of others for things which they themselves do calmly and without any shame or disgrace.
Well, after all, I shall have to tell you. At the same time, I also feel guilty. I can now tell you openly, that while reading your Judgment, your Transformation (I never did learn the real truth from you: was it a good translation and should the title, perhaps, have been Metamorphosis, since I always try to find a word with a Slavic root, my Czech for whose music I long?) I wanted - yes, I wanted to penetrate into your soul, your mind, to reach the core of you, to touch your heart, to learn the source of your words and find out how much they, alone, are your life. But do I have the right to do that? Isn't your work, in fact, an escape from that, from you, and even from us? I wrote you, and I still feel the same way, that your letter to your father is a real piece of literature for parents, that it has surpassed Werfel's novel. As if you had a premonition, you warned me that nobody except me should be allowed to read it, and I, well, I can hardly resist obeying you. Who has the right to publish the letters of great men? (You are already one, I know that for certain.)
Thinking about this, I came to the conclusion that this is not really the primary question: do we have the right to penetrate into someone else's intimacy? Rather, we should ask ourselves what their confidences mean to us. Well, even this question is, in fact, secondary. It is often repeated: to get to know an artist is dangerous because of the threat of disappointment. They will tell you that the person whose music, songs and paintings fascinate you is strange, with unpredictable reactions, stingy like Arpagon, shy like a hare, rough like a soldier, badly shaven, dirty, that he wears a night-cap and, above all, that he will admit that he adores his parrot... This man with a feeling for eternity, truth, creation — he wears a night-cap? How fortunate, or unfortunate, that artists don't always look like Valdemar Psilander. If you become disappointed in an artist as a human being, an artist whose creative work evidently shows his worth, then it's entirely your fault, the fault of your conventional way of thinking and of your attitude to life, and you look at an artist in the same way as you do a bank clerk, by which you neglect the fact that the difference between an artist and an ordinary man is not to be found in the artist's nature, but in his talent. An ordinary man possesses that which he has at a given moment: 10,000 kronen, some stocks, a nice nose, strong hands. But an artist possesses equally that which constitutes his defects as well as that which gives him his breadth. Because the heritage of an artist is his creative work, his aspirations, desires, visions, the ability to perceive the whole world. If he has disappointed you, that means that you were unable to understand him and that you know nothing about the strangely inexplicable nature of the human soul...
Darling, it's late in the night, and I've gone on writing as if I'm preparing myself, having comprehended your soul and what the purity of creativity is and how much it soars above our ordinary human existence, to tell my discovery now to the whole world. I shall try to shut my eyes and continue to dream the dream with which destiny presented me even when I'm awake, giving me at least one chance for your hands to touch me and your eyes to kiss me.
Friends whom I meet daily, and whom you know too, are full of bitterness; they're depressed. I don't know whether that's because they are Jews and fear for their future, since the past is constantly in their mind. They know that something dark and villainous is happening in the world and that they themselves are the future target. I think that such unrest is overcoming you too?
...Sometime later. Your letter has arrived. It has truly touched me. You have proved your goodness once again. I think that in one of my recent letters I mentioned our family crypt, my desire to visit it. Had you not written the name of my brother Janichek, I would not have known that you were at our graveyard. Thank you. And for the carnations.
And here, again, is the hypocrisy of my father. Destroyed, unhappy up until his death, he allows the letters to be erased, to be covered by weeds, in his sadness. Or am I too severe in my judgment? Perhaps he doesn't have the strength to go to the place where his child is buried. I've just been thinking about whether I'm wrong, even when I reproach him for having searched so mercilessly for the lies in my words. He probably understood this with the passing of time. I see that I myself, like a true daughter of his, am ready to be his constant judge.
I look tired in the photo from Neu-Waldegg, and it was bright, too, so I don't exactly look my best. There is no reason for you to be jealous. Next to me are only two old friends whom I met by chance on the train. If that wasn't the case, I wouldn't have sent you the photo. In fact, every photo of myself perplexes me. First of all, it doesn't look like me, at least I don't imagine myself like that, and second, I believe that I'm more beautiful in reality. Or else my face is becoming stiff when it ought to smile.
I'm very sad that you won't come to Vienna, but if you think that it would harm your health and your morale, I shall try to be patient.
Who are these secret friends of yours? From your childhood? The one that is bringing you Annunciation? I'd rather have that wood carving of Trotsky. Nevertheless, take care.
For me, the only essential thing remaining is that, whatever I do, I do it with a pure heart, out of pure love, which is my only sign-post. I don't think about the consequences, I don't feel fear, there is nothing except impatience to be with the dear one who is my whole world. And you? You're probably waiting to feel the need to come, to have a real excuse for it. My cry, obviously, isn't that. Don't think that I reproach you. Each one of us lives his own life, and dreams his own dreams, jumps from his own terrace. Even now, while loving you and destroying this life, I am my own person. I admit that not for a single moment do I do it because of you, but only because of myself. And I don't wish that you should sacrifice yourself because of me, that you should change your life, particularly since you don't feel such a need. That's why I'm telling you - you will come when you have the need for it, though I'm not sure and cannot promise you that you will find me. Again, I do not reproach you. I'm only somewhat surprised. You repeatedly told me that I should speak with Him, that we must clear up the situation, and now your answer is: Have I forgotten that you are a Jew? I have not. I have not forgotten it for a moment. You did not allow me to do so. You kept reminding me. And I tell you again: So what? You are a Jew, I am a Jew. We women are like that. A rib from your bodies. If my man is a Jew, then his rib will be too. Why do you keep emphasising that, threatening me with it? I already know that your family would not accept me, regardless of what I am. But understand: I want only you, but not at all costs, not unless you are ready for it. It's hard and sad for me, but I shall survive. Nevertheless, some things are almost funny in their improbability. He, a proud erudite, asked for help from my father, Dr. Jesenski. He wrote to him in a letter that his little girl had been mischievous again. Imagine, after all the threats, quarrels, contempt and insults which my father offered him, he humiliates himself and begs him to influence me so that we don't divorce, so that I don't leave him and marry you. Almost unbelievable. I could never have believed that E. would write to my father, and even less that my father would reply and write a letter to me in which the most important warning and question is: do I know that you are a Jew, and how dangerous that is? And telling me that I should remain in this marriage. What is the matter with him? It sounds almost unbelievable; and when you ask me the same question, I come to the verge of a nervous breakdown. I'm convinced that no woman could have such a stereotyped way of looking at things. Anyway, I'm sending you my father's letter so that you can see for yourself. Perhaps the three of you will get together and drink a pint of Pilsner in order to come to a nice agreement about it all. You will bring some sweets home to me which, I will forget, can also give one an upset stomach. And do you know what I answered him? Can you guess? Do you think that any lie would help? That it would calm my father? I know that he will not write to me again for years. And in spite of that or, as you would say (what's the difference?) — and besides that, — I love Him and suffer because of Him. I also think a lot about my mother. Please, only do what you promised me when we were together: find their graves. I'm sorry that you made a mistake the first time. Our family vault is, in fact, near the one which is also, in a way, a family chapel, but we are another branch. It won't be difficult for you? That place draws me, but I cannot come now, and the very thought that my family grave is overgrown with grass, and that there is not a single flower, suffocates me.
Once again, don't feel any obligation on account of everything that is happening with me. Now I definitely understand that it would be wishful thinking to send you a false telegram. You will not come. I wish you all the best, Frank!
Today I received a letter from V. I was astounded. Had I not written only to you, trusting you more than myself, and had I not, because of that, understood that V. was not lying, but that you had told her I didn't know what would happen to us, that my husband was very ill, the consequence of which was, naturally, that she has begged my father to take me back into his house, I wouldn't have been sure that she hadn't invented it all or that some horrible intrigue hadn't started around Prague again. Who gives you the right to interfere with my life? You know that my father locked me up in an asylum so that I would obey his prohibition against seeing E. Do you want them to place me in the mental clinic again, as an incurable case? As proof that my father was right even the first time? No, I cannot believe my own eyes. I don't remember when I have been so infuriated as when her letter arrived. Although younger than I, she thought she should slap me on the hands, that she had the right to do so, that I'm simply an irresponsible person and that I must acquire a tutor. My first answer was to her. I told her openly not to accept malicious, petit-bourgeois stories, and that these shouldn't serve her as an excuse to take her place in our house, at our table, and also that the heart of my father is completely empty. I leave it to her. She doesn't need excuses, and neither do you.
What have I done to deserve such an intervention from you? You talk about me to my family as if I'm an irresponsible person who is dragging herself around the world, a vagabond who cannot stay quietly in one place and who can be returned to her home only by way of the conspiracy of her friends and family. It seems that you also had some influence over Jarmila. Your hatred and malice will cause me to lose even what little I have acquired in life. But that is my own fault. I had too much confidence in you, and you have misused it. It's clear to me that everything comes from Max. Our love bothered him from the very beginning. The primary reason is not that I'm married and that I'm an unimportant person, as you wished to convince me. He, as well as you, is bothered by the fact that I am not a Jewess. That is the only essential thing for both of you: who is of your faith and who is not. All the virtues, love, my love for you and my understanding, were meaningless, worthless. I don't wish to reproach you for anything, because for me it was a sincere and deep love and I don't think there is anything bad in that. Well, even if there is, it is not my fault, nor would I be able to change my feelings by any rational decision. I invested all my strength to win you over, I wanted to leave everything, and not even now do I think that this is evil. I penetrated into your psyche, even though I was not ready to accept everything. But I wanted to adapt myself to you, because my feelings were pure and deep. You were like a frightened forest animal, and I was trying to bring you close to me, to tame you. Not because of me. I felt how lonely you were, how unhappy, that the world which surrounded you did not love you enough, not in the way in which I loved and understood you. Neither your family nor your friends loved you as you were. They wanted you to become what they thought you should be. Through you, they loved themselves. Max, your wonderful friend, wanted to train you, to be your manager and to have you walk on the Judeo-literary tightrope which he had stretched out, to hold you on it, to feed you, and to bring you down only when he wanted to walk you and show you to the world, to make his myth out of you. In the absence of any talent of his own, he wanted to have a monopoly over yours. I hindered him in that. Your fiancée suited him because she was totally subjugated, probably less educated than I, and she was like one of the accessories to a great star. I believed that I was from your story The Gallery: the feeble, tuberculous horsewoman in the circus ring, on a horse which is tottering in front of a tireless audience, whom the merciless boss chases in a circle for months without stopping, swinging a whip, forcing her to stand up on the horse whilst the air is buzzing around her ears, throwing kisses and bending at the waist. I was expecting that a young visitor from the gallery would rush down the long staircase, run into the ring and shout: “Stop!” through the fanfares of the orchestra. But nobody came. I continue to see myself in your scenes.
Copyright © Ana Šomlo 2013. Translation copyright © Ana Šomlo 2013.
Milena’s Letters to Kafka was originally published in 1988 in Serbian as Milenina pisma Kafki.