The Most Inspiring Love Letters in the History of Literature (6): Franz Kafka to Milena Jesenska


Our sixth and final part of the Valentine’s Day series of love letters penned by famous writers is one that, hopefully, will surprise you, as its author is not someone you normally would expect to see praised for his writing of love letters. And, to be completely honest, this is definitely a strange piece, describing a strangely erotic, anxiety-laden dream about the beloved. Well, it is, after all, written by Franz Kafka.

Born in the same city as Kafka – Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire –, Milena Jesenska was a journalist, writer, editor and translator. In 1919, she discovered one of Kafka’s short stories and wrote to him asking for permission to translate it from German into Czech. It was the start of a long, passionate correspondence and, while the pair met only a few times in person, they wrote to each other almost daily. Milena was married and, even though her marriage was an unhappy one, she refused to get a divorce, which led Kafka to put a temporary stop to their relationship in November 1920. However, their communication was resumed and lasted until 1923. This 1921 letter is as passionate as it is strange and the dream it describes may be interpreted as an expression of the inner conflict between wishing to be one with the beloved and knowing that the relationship must remain clandestine.

“No, Milena, I beg you once again to invent another possibility for my writing to you. You mustn’t go to the post office in vain, even your little postman — who is he? — mustn’t do it, nor should even the postmistress be asked unnecessarily.

If you can find no other possibility, then one must put up with it, but at least make a little effort to find one.

Last night I dreamed about you. What happened in detail I can hardly remember, all I know is that we kept merging into one another. I was you, you were me. Finally you somehow caught fire.

Remembering that one extinguished fire with clothing, I took an old coat and beat you with it.

But again the transmutations began and it went so far that you were no longer even there, instead it was I who was on fire and it was also I who beat the fire with the coat.

But the beating didn’t help and it only confirmed my old fear that such things can’t extinguish a fire.

In the meantime, however, the fire brigade arrived and somehow you were saved.

But you were different from before, spectral, as though drawn with chalk against the dark, and you fell, lifeless or perhaps having fainted from joy at having been saved, into my arms.

But here too the uncertainty of transmutability entered; perhaps it was I who fell into someone’s arms.”

In 1923, Franz Kafka met Dora Diamant, a kindergarten teacher with whom he began a relationship, and his correspondence with Milena Jesenska was interrupted. He died of tuberculosis at age 40, in 1924.

Milena Jesenska divorced her first husband in 1925, one year after Kafka’s death.

In 1952, screen writer Willy Haas edited the first edition of “Letters to Milena,” a book containing a selection of the letters Franz Kafka wrote to Jesenska between 1920 and 1923.

Anca Rotar is a Romanian-born writer, over-thinker and caffeine addict. She is the author of two books, Hidden Animals and Before It Sets You Free, both available from Among her interests, which she finds it hard to shut up about, she counts fashion, yoga, city breaks and deadpan sarcasm. She is also currently studying Japanese, so wish her luck. You can sample bits of Anca’s creative writing here.

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