This book is about the last year in the life of Franz Kafka, the author of such key German 20th century texts as ‘The Trial’ and ‘Metamorphosis’, and his relationship with Dora Diamant during that period. I read the book in German ; it was published in English translation by Anthea Bell in March this year. Kafka and Dora meet in a resort on the Baltic, where ‘der Doktor’ is spending the holidays with his sister, Ellie, and family. Dora, a young Jewish woman from Eastern Europe, is working at a holiday home for Jewish children. Their love affair begins there and continues later in Berlin and then in various sanatoria around Vienna until Kafka’s death almost a year later at the age of 40.
Their affair and the joy it brings them both is movingly told, and especially poignant in the context of Kafka’s tuberculosis which we know will kill him. Kafka is shown as someone who likes women and is capable of passion: references are made in the novel to his previous affairs with Felice Bauer and Milena Polak and he still enjoys flirting with women in this, the last year of his life. We learn that he had been wary of marriage and family life because of its possible interference with his writing and yet he sets aside some fleeting anxieties in this direction to commit himself to Dora, who supports him to the end.
Of course this book is a sort of literary equivalent of the ‘biopic’ movie : Kumpfmüller has chosen to write a fictionalised account rather than a biography, presumably because of the greater freedom of interpretation it gives him. The story is told in the alternating narrative voices of Kafka and Dora, and Kumpfmüller presents Dora as an independent woman, capable of fleeing her strictly Jewish father, earning her own living, embracing sexual freedom and enjoying friendships with others beyond her sexual partner. He may also have written his own take on Kafka’s much discussed relationship with his father. Aware of his text ‘Letter to my father’, I was expecting Kafka’s father to be presented as authoritarian and controlling. His father does not appear in the novel but he is nevertheless a powerful presence in the heads of Kafka and his sisters, who are all well aware of parental views, and Kafka clearly wants to keep him at arm’s length- he does not want to return to Prague and does not want them to visit him. However in the final stages of his illness their contact with him seems caring and concerned and his parents welcome Dora’s visit to them after Kafka’s death. Other forces thread their way through the narrative: Judaism which forms a bond between Kafka and Dora, the social unrest caused by anti semitism and chaotic inflation, the sophistication and cultural life of Berlin, the treatment of the ubiquitous tuberculosis at that time and the experience of the sanatorium. And of course in this literary biopic we know how it will end, so the author has to work harder to maintain our attention to that point. Kumpfmüller does this well: I was fascinated by this account of Franz Kafka and his milieu, charmed by the almost redemptive love affair and moved by the account of his courage in the face of death
What I didn’t know but found out through the Nachbemerkung – Postscript- was that all three of Kafka’s sisters, Ellie, Ottla and Valli were murdered in Chelmno and Ausschwitz; both Ellie and Ottla are vibrant and loving characters in this book and that information, as unsurprising as it is, shook me almost as much as the misery of Kafka’s death itself.
Is this a book waiting to be translated into English? Looking at the current trend for reevaluating the cultural milieu of the prewar and interwar years represented by books such as Volker Weidermann’s ‘Ostende.1936, Sommer der Freundschaft’ and Florian Illies’ ‘1913’ , to mention only 2 from the German stable, it must be just a matter of time………
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