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. 

Reading List II: Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer, Die Farm in den Grünen Bergen


The Zuckmayer’s farm was near Silver Lake in Barnard Vermont–it looks about the same today as it did in 1940.

 Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer: The Farm in the Green Mountains, 1949: part memoir, part diary, part fascinating account of rural life in 1940s Vermont, the state I grew up in. I’ve been slowly reading it since Christmas, mostly on the train between Mainz and Frankfurt. And, check it out–it’s even available in English!

The authoress Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer was an actress in Berlin in the 1920s, where she met her husband. Carl Zuckmayer was a prominent author and playwright from Mainz, where he is still quite a point of pride–I’ve seen his plays at the Mainzer Staatstheater, and gone to an exhibit about his life at the local library. They fled Germany with their two daughters in 1939 and, after a short stint in New York City, acquired a run-down farm in Barnard, Vermont. They were upper-class Europeans and artists, utterly without prior experience in farming or rural life, but they somehow made it all work.

In many ways, minus of course the exile and the upper-class-European-artist part, it’s the story of my parents, who also moved to Vermont decades ago to raise a family and start farming from the ground up, through trial and error and sheer force of will. I spent the first 18 years of my life on our sheep farm and Bed and Breakfast outside of Chelsea, another tiny village not all that far from Barnard. It’s a small world.


The rams’ shed on our farm after a snowstorm–cosy and picturesque, sure, but not fun if you’re the one who needs to bring them water twice a day.

I can understand so much of what Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer writes in the book–these are things that haven’t changed at all in the last century in Vermont, things I know every time I go back to visit. The sounds an old post-and-beam farmhouse makes when it gets cold, for instance, or the way the snowplow rattles the windowpanes at 4am, the way that all travel slows to a crawl during Mud Season, the vow that you make to yourself every year on slaughtering day to never eat meat again, the way you structure a day around caring for animals, what it means to make a living with your hands on a small piece of land that you own.

We seem to have traversed much of the same ground, too–she spends an entire chapter describing her monthly pilgrimages to the libraries, theater, and art galleries of Dartmouth College in Hannover, New Hampshire, that ivy-league sanctuary in the middle of the sprawling Connecticut River farmlands. I spent my teenage years driving an hour and a half over bad roads to sit in those same libraries, to look at the art and to attend live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. To me, as to Alice, Dartmouth College was an oasis, a mecca, super-saturated with the sort of refined intellectual and artistic beauty that struggles to find a place in any rural landscape.

Above all, though, it’s the people I recognize most from her descriptions. The Vermonters–they haven’t changed a bit in the past century, and probably never will.  It’s all the same: the liberal politics and tough-as-nails self-sufficiency, the immediate and lasting suspicion of anyone not born in the state, the willingness to impart copious free advice at all hours of the day and night, the fierce devotion to place, tradition, community. She writes, “Vermont is a relatively poor state in comparison with the rest of America, but they do not shy away from their poverty, and they do not love wealth. Their autonomy and sense of balance grants them independence even in the most uncertain times, and gives them their sense of pride and fearlessness.” Indeed.


Mud Season, Vermont’s fifth season, at its best–the road that runs along side our farm last April.

On the other hand, though, there are many things I do not know at all in the world Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer describes. What it feels like to leave one’s family behind forever, or to live in a land of peace and plenty while one’s homeland is being torn apart by the bombs of the very country in which you have found shelter–I can’t say that I can relate to all that. And yet it was the experience of so many thousands of European intellectuals and artists from Alice’s generation, men and women who left Europe to start new lives in Los Angeles or New York, or on a farm in the backwoods of Barnard, Vermont.

With all that in mind, what has lingered with me the most after reading is the strength of Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer herself. Reading between the lines, it’s clear that she was the driving force in the family, and a vital support system for her husband who would rather have been back in Europe writing books and directing plays. It was because of her great will that her family was able to pull together in a new land, and because of her energy, curiosity, and good humor that they were able to thrive. That’s true heroism, there.

Leseliste I: Kafka Tagebücher

Also get ready for posts on books, because traveling and reading go together awesomely…..


Kafka, Diaries 1910-1923: Bought at the tiny Antiquariat (above) behind the Cathedral in Wuerzburg. Crazy stuff–descriptions of insomnia, his dreams (“I dream, I don’t sleep”), the women he sees on the streets but is somehow never able to talk to (“if I should live to be 40 I would settle down comfortably with an ugly old maid–but I won’t live till I’m 40”), his list of reasons pro and contra marriage to Felice Bauer (“I must be alone. All that I have done is an accomplishment only of solitude”), the way he is entirely made of literature and wants to do nothing else with his life but write, but is simultaneously unable to experience literature and writing as anything other than torture.

IMG_0071Drinking Chai and reading in some lovely cafe in Munich.

The last entry, before tuberculosis took away his ability to speak and eat, a year before his death:

12. Juni, 1923 Die schrecklichen letzten Zeiten, unaufzählbar, fast ununterbrochen. Spaziergänge, Nächte, Tage, für alles unfähig, außer für Schmerzen.

Immer ängstlicher im Niederschreiben. Es ist begreiflich. Jedes Wort, gewendet in der Hand der Geister – dieser Schwung der Hand ist ihre charakteristische Bewegung –, wird zum Spieß, gekehrt gegen den Sprecher. Eine Bemerkung wie diese ganz besonders. Und so ins Unendliche. Der Trost wäre nur: es geschieht, ob du willst oder nicht. Und was du willst, hilft nur unmerklich wenig. Mehr als Trost ist: Auch du hast Waffen.

June 12, 1923 The horrible end times, innumerable, almost incessant. Walks, nights, days, incapable of everything except pain.

More and more fearful in putting things in writing. It is understandable. Every word, turned in the hands of the spirits–this turn of the hand is their characteristic motion–becomes a lance aimed at the speaker. An observation like this entirely peculiar. And so on into endlessness. The only consolation would be: it is happening, whether you want it to or not. And what you want helps hardly at all. More than consolation is: even you have weapons.


IMG_0082Reading and soaking my feet in a fountain in a courtyard in the Residenz, surrounded by surreal little statues–half children, half fish.