Letters to Milena


Kafka met Milena Jesenka in 1920 when she was translating his early work into Czech. Why wouldn’t you fall in love with your translator? There are your old thoughts now in their beautiful small hands, now in their beautiful new language. Yours is the shameful task of trust and the somewhat shameless task of ego display. Their’s is the sublime task of understanding you and making what you thought you knew entirely nuanced. I can’t think of a more thrilling form of mirroring.

It’s a shame then that my current pillow book, Kafka’s Letters to Milena, doesn’t contain the letters by Jesenka – sadly these were destroyed or lost in 20th century debris. One can only infer from Kafka’s correspondence that she was a pretty nice lady with a sexy brain. To be honest I’ve found Letters kind of slow-going, but boring can often mean great. The major themes of the affair (Jesenka was married, Kafka sort-of engaged) seem to be procrastination, irritation and hypochondria; the general content a loose reading list, vague plans, perpetual distance, loneliness and excuses. In Kafka’s letters banal circumstances and weakness of heart are the basis for a profound intimacy. This is how he signed off a relatively early note:

‘To begin with, in any case, lie down in a garden and extract from the disease, especially if it’s not a real one, as much sweetness as possible. There’s a lot of sweetness in it.’

This reminds me of why I love Faulkner. Laying in the garden in the cool dirt, we get the mess of illness, delusion, nature and sexuality. Kafka’s casual acknowledgement that Jesenka’s disease may be imaginary, but nonetheless still cause for great concern, is one of the most devastating and romantic moments in the letters.

It’s horrid to say things like, ‘Kafka is the most dangerously honest writer of the 20th century,’ but this sign off, later in the correspondence, makes me want to…

‘Yesterday I advised you not to write to me every day, this is still my opinion today and it would be very good for us both and I suggest it once more today, and even more urgently, – only please, Milena, don’t act upon it, but write me daily all the same, it can be quite short, shorter than today’s letters, just two lines, just one, just a word, but to be deprived of this word would mean terrible suffering.’

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