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Life Is Different for Him

The woman in the above photograph is Milena Jesenská, with whom Franz Kafka carried on a torrid correspondence in 1920. Although she was a married woman (albeit unhappily), Kafka was strongly drawn to her. The relationship, such as it was, petered out when Milena did not want to run away from her marriage. Milena herself was a writer, and in a letter to Max Brod written in August 1920, provides a riveting description of Kafka. She was to live on for another twenty years, dying in 1944 in Ravensbrück Concentration Camp.

Life for him is something entirely different than for all other human beings; in particular, things like money, the stock market, currency exchange, a typewriter are utterly mystical to him (and they really are, too; just not for the rest of us), they are the strangest riddles to him, and his approach to them is completely different than our own. Can his office work be considered the customary performance of a service? Any official position, including his own, is something very puzzling to him, very admirable, like a locomotive is for a small child. He doesn’t understand the simplest things in the world. Were you ever in a post office with him? After he composes a telegram and picks out whatever little counter he likes best, shaking his head, he then drifts from one counter to another, without the slightest idea to what end or why, until he finally stumbles on the right one, and when he pays and receives change, he counts it and discovers one krone too many, and so gives one back to the girl behind the counter. Then he walks away slowly, counts once again, and in the middle of descending the last staircase he realizes that the missing krone belonged to him after all. So there you stand next to him, at a loss, while he shifts his weight from one foot to the other, wondering what to do. Going back is difficult; upstairs there’s a crowd of people pushing and shoving. “So just let it go,” I say. He looks at me completely horrified. How can you let it go? Not that he’s sorry about the krone. But it’s not good. There’s one krone missing. How can you forget about something like that? He spoke about it for a long time, and was very dissatisfied with me.

And this repeated itself with different variations in every shop, in every restaurant, in front of every beggar. Once he gave a beggar a two-krone piece and wanted one back. She said she didn’t have anything. We stood there for a good two minutes, thinking about how to deal with the matter. Then it occurred to him that he could leave the two krone. But no sooner had he taken a few steps when he started getting very cross. Of course this same man would be eager and extremely happy to give me twenty thousand krone with no questions asked. On the other hand, if I were to ask him for twenty thousand and one krone and we had to change money somewhere and didn’t know where, he would seriously consider what to do with the one krone I hadn’t been allotted. His anxiety in the face of money is almost the same as his anxiety in the face of women. Or his fear of things official. Once I telegraphed him, phoned him, wrote him, begged him in God’s name to come see me for a day. I really needed it at the time. I cursed him to high heaven. He didn’t sleep for nights, tormented himself, wrote letters full of self-destruction, but he did not come. Why? He couldn’t ask for leave. He was unable to ask the director, the same director he admires in the depths of his soul (seriously!) for being able to type so quickly—he wasn’t able to tell the director he was going to see me. And as for saying something else—another horrified letter—how could he? Lie? Lie to the director? Impossible…..

No, this world is and remains a riddle to him.

It is a pity that Milena’s letters to Kafka no longer exist. Because she was still uncertain about divorcing her husband, when Franz died in 1924, she had her letters destroyed so that they would not provide incriminating evidence. In her own way, she was a major Czech literary figure.

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