Travelogue XLV: Letters to Milena

Drinking tea--not absinthe!--and reading and writing in Cafe Slavia.

Drinking tea–not absinthe!–and reading and writing in Café Slavia.

June 5, 2015 Reading Kafka’s Letters to Milena in Prag–eight hours on the bus on the way here, now on the streets and in cafés until the entire city turns into a series of variations on his story.

It’s strange–as I move forward with my education in the field of literature, I find that my approach to books and reading is becoming ever more, well, academic, supra-personal, professional even. Mostly, this is a good thing, as I have always tended to personalize art to the extent of being completely incapable of talking about it in any sort of academic setting. I am pursuing the reading and teaching of literature as a career, after all, and I want to be able to do those things with as much professional integrity as possible.

But I don’t think I will ever be able to escape the personal-ness of Kafka. As I have written in the past, I can’t read his works any other way than the way I read books as a child: as something intensely private and intimate, as personal messages aimed right into the soul of the reader. With him, there is no wall between art and life. When faced with The Castle or his letters, all of my hard-won Literaturwissenschaftlerin-professionalism flies out the window.


Café Louvre

So, the Letters to Milena. When they began writing, Kafka was 37 and she was 24, the translator of his works into Czech. They exchanged letters for three years, until some months before his death in 1924. She died twenty years later in a concentration camp in Germany, deported because of her involvement with Jewish and political refugees–yet another one of Kafka’s inner circle destroyed by the Second World War. It is perhaps a good thing that he never lived past the 1920s.

Like the diaries, Kafka’s letters are almost more intense than his novels and stories. To read them is to become a voyeur, an observer of the most private sphere of one distinctly troubled individual.


Notes from my reading of the Letters:

Leere und Leidenschaft–emptiness and passion. Kafka’s great love and even greater fear of this girl–Mädchen, he calls her, not Frau–who is full of strength, courage, and vitality, and who is offering him a hand that he just can’t allow himself to reach out and take.

The closeness of love and pain. Kafka writes, Liebe ist, daß Du mir das Messer bist, mit dem ich in mir wühle. Love is: you are the knife I turn within myself. And Milena, as the editor suggests in the afterward, makes herself sick because he himself was sick–tuberculosis, hemorrhage of the lungs, coughing up blood in the night. She starts turning herself into him.

The eternal misunderstanding–you don’t know me yet, Milena, Milena, that was a silly joke which you did not understand–and the way in which Kafka is unable to translate words into physical nearness. At times one has the feeling that in some sick way he is reveling in the self-imposed, masochistic distance the pages of finely-crafted prose put between him and Milena. He loses himself in language and art so he doesn’t have to face reality.

In the end, I am undone by the Eros of Kafka, for the first time. Your hair on my brow, Milena, Milena, Milena, your lips turning towards mine in sleep… It really is true, as I once said to the Professor after trying and failing to understand Robert Musil’s Drei Frauen (Three Women), that you need to have experienced certain things in order to really read certain literature. Milena’s responses have all been lost, but at this moment, I think could have written her letters for her. I know what was in them.

Café Orient

Café Orient, empty this afternoon because of the heat.

And the backdrop to it all is the Prager Cafékultur. The city is full of cafés, many of which hosted (and still host!) Prague’s artistic and political circles. During his lifetime, Kafka was a regular frequenter of the cafés, of course, along with Max Brod and his entire circle of law students and philosophers. From the diaries and letters, it is possible to reconstruct the Cafékultur as he lived it: Arco, Slavia, Evropa, Louvre, and on and on.

The spaces are themselves works of art. Art Nouveau, Cubism, Jugendstil, and everything in between–polished table-tops, high ceilings, high windows with street cars racing by outside. Aesthetically, it’s all the polar opposite of the Mainzer Weinstuben I know so well, all candle light, dark wood paneling,  and tiny latticed windows with flower boxes, looking out onto cobblestones.

The Absinthe Drinker, a famous painting hanging in Café Slavia.

The Absinthe Drinker, a famous painting hanging in Café Slavia.

But here in Prague, even in the 21st century and on the brightest and most un-angsty of June days, you can almost still see them all–Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Smetana, Kubin, Werfel, Einstein, all drinking espresso and absinthe and talking about existentialism or theater or war or whatever else one talked about among geniuses at the turn of the 19th century. It’s heady stuff.

Much more to come.


Café Slavia

Café Evropa

Café Evropa

Einem gewissen Mikal gewidmet, falls er dies mal lesen sollte. 

5 thoughts on “Travelogue XLV: Letters to Milena

  1. Pingback: Travelogue XLVI: Kafka and Jazz in Prague | Emily Abroad

  2. Great stuff! So sad his love life, until he met Dora toward the end.. Hyper sensitivity and love mix poorly. But when they do … absolute transcendence, e.g. Letters to Milena etc. etc.

      • Unfortunately no. Not much of a traveler except for three Navy years, mostly in Asia. Your two posts are going a long way toward convincing me I should. Has anyone noted that your photographs are almost as splendid as your luminous prose? One of my favorite travel books, Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, has your knack of vitalizing place, but sans photos.

      • Jim, thank you so much. The photography is very new to me–I’m still learning, but have loved being able to capture the visual aspect of traveling.
        And yes, you should absolutely visit Prague. The Kafka Museum is a must-see. 😉

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