October 24, 2018

Kafka finds love and joy in his last days

“We may well imagine that the glory of life lies around everyone, and always in its full richness, but obscured, down in the depths, invisible and far away,“ Franz Kafka wrote in his diary on Oct. 18 1921. “There it lies, however, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you use the right word, calling it by its right name, it will come. That is the essence of the magic that does not create but calls.”

In Michael Kumpfmüller’s book, “The Glory of Life” (Haus Publishing), the “glory of life” is Dora Diamant. Based on sparse evidence, such as diary entries, letters and telegrams, and from alternating perspectives, Kumpfmüller tells of the love story between Kafka and Dora that took place during the last year of Kafka’s life. By presenting him as a happy man who had finally found fulfillment, Kumpfmüller sets a beautiful and overdue memorial that contrasts common depictions of Kafka as somber, lonely and Oedipal with a hitherto unprecedented lightness.

In July 1923, in the advanced stages of larynx tuberculosis and 11 months before his death, Franz Kafka travels to Bad Müritz on the Baltic sea for a vacation with his younger sister, Ellie, and her children Felix, Gertina and Hanna. Although Kafka does not expect his health to improve during his stay, he enjoys the beach hotel, Good Luck, goes swimming with his nieces, watches them build sand castles while relaxing in his beach chair, and listens to children’s voices of the neighboring Jewish holiday home, Children’s Happiness. He also takes a liking to 16-year-old Tile Rössler, who later became a dancer in Berlin and then a choreographer and dance school owner under the name Tehila Ressler, in Tel Aviv.

Tile invites Kafka to celebrate Shabbat. While showing him the holiday home, Kafka meets 25-year-old Dora in the kitchen, where she works as a seasonal cook. Their first encounter is the beginning of their relationship, which both experience equally intensely. Through Dora “a sensation begins to spread […] something like a musical note or a perfume, almost imperceptible at first, then taking possession of her as if with a mighty roar.” For Kafka, their encounter represents a “miracle” and the end of a long waiting period, “or at least that is how he feels in retrospect: you wait, you don’t think someone will ever come, and suddenly that very thing has happened.”

After the summer, Kafka moves to Berlin, and Dora follows him shortly thereafter. But Berlin was suffering from the recession, and Kafka’s pension barely covered the most basic needs. The money his parents sent from Prague lost its value even before arriving in the mail. Whereas many artists thrived during the Weimar Republic in Berlin, the city remains as inaccessible to Kafka as the castle to the land measurer K.: He rarely leaves the house, and easily exhausts himself on walks or rides with the streetcar. Sometimes, albeit rarely, he experiences minor anti-Semitic hostilities, for example during a park visit, when “a tall, youthful, pretty blonde smiles flirtatiously at him, pursing her lips and calling something out. That seems to be the story. He smiles back […] until it gradually dawns on him what it was she had said. Jew, she said.”

Over the winter, Kafka’s health deteriorates, in March 1924, he is forced to leave for Prague and then gets admitted to Austrian hospitals and sanatoria, where Dora joins him. In the sanatorium Hoffmann, he occupies a sunny room overlooking a garden, and is tended by Dora and his friend Robert Klopstock. Briefly before his death, Kafka asks for Dora’s father’s blessings to marry his daughter, which he refuses, since Kafka comes from a family with lax religious connections.” Kafka dies on June 3, 1942, and Dora transfers the coffin to Prague.

Unlike Felice Bauer and Milena Jesenká, Dora was the first woman with whom Kafka committed to a full relationship, living with her in a shared apartment. Dora maintained the household, did the groceries, cooked and took his letters to the post office. Craving independence, Dora had left her orthodox Jewish parents in Lodz, joined the Zionist movement and moved to Berlin, where she began to work for the Jewish College in 1920. Her familiarity with Zionism and Chassidism fascinated Kafka, an assimilated Jew, who often lamented his lack of religious knowledge. Kafka, as Kumpfmüller carefully implies, might have found comfort in Dora’s saturation with Jewish religious life. Together they keep the Sabbath, “sometimes they even pray together, and she is always surprised to find how little he knows. But that, perhaps, is what makes his recitals of the prayers so delightful; he is awkwardly devout, like a schoolboy”, or they play the “Palestine game”, imagining “what would it be like for the two of them in a country entirely inhabited by Jews? The weather would certainly be wonderful, they could open a restaurant together in Haifa or Tel Aviv, so the dream goes, or something like that. Shall we do it?”

Despite Kafka’s illness and financial strains, Kumpfmüller depicts his last year as a period of dignity and happiness. Kafkas writings, such as the stories “The Burrow” and “Josephine” are marginal, sometimes naively reflected upon by Dora. “For by now she has understood his method,” Dora muses. “[H]e writes about animals, and the story is no less about animals because it is a parable.” Surrounded by flowers and the humming of bees, Kafka spends his last days on the balcony of his room in the sun; Dora is ever present, sometimes family and friends come for a short visit. Even when Kafka’s death is imminent, Kumpfmüller’s narrative style stays calm and discreet. “They keep very still,” is one of Kafka’s last thoughts, “everything is full of her solace, he thinks, her truth, if there is such a thing, for he has never before felt so close to that truth of hers“.

“I knew you, but sad to say I never knew where to find you, and then at last I did, I found you on the beach,” Dora thinks at some point in Berlin. In the book, the beach seems to emblematize the relationship of Dora and Kafka. Dora sees Kafka for the first time on the beach; their relationship begins with long beach walks. Just before Kafka ceases to speak due to his painfully swollen larynx, they dream of returning to the beach in Müritz; at another time Kafka even imagined smelling the sea in Dora’s hair. In “The Glory of Life,” the beach as threshold between ocean and land turns into a place of refuge for “shipwrecked mariners” such as Dora and Kafka. Life’s glory, which Kafka encounters in Dora, is, like a beach, a dwelling between the infinity of the ocean and the narrowness of land, a last threshold between life and death.

Sarah Pines is a journalist, writer and literary scholar. She currently lives in New York.