At Black Oak Books in Berkeley I discovered the quite out of print Letters to Milena by Kafka (my edition is rather older and has a more sixties-ish cover). Toward the end of his life Kafka made the acquaintance of the Czech writer Milena Jesenská, sixteen years his junior, who had translated some of his stories into Czech. They began an epistolary romancenot entirely epistolary, since they did meet in hotels and such a handful of times, but in any case strange and furtive, since Milena was married and Kafka was married, as he put it, to something terrible that he did not understand. The letters are always conflicted and reeling. Toward the end, when the affair starts to go south, they sound like this:
It's more or less like this: I, an animal of the forest, was at that time barely in the forest, lay somewhere in a dirty ditch (dirty only as a result of my being there, of course). Then I saw you outside in the openthe most wonderful thing I'd ever seen. I forgot everything entirely, forgot myself, got up, came closerthough fearful in this new yet familiar freedomcame closer nevertheless, reached you, you were so good I cowered down beside you as though it were my right, laid my face in your hand, I was so happy, so proud, so free, so powerful, so at homeover and over again this: So at homebut fundamentally I was still only the animal, still belonged in the forest, lived here in the open only by your grace, read without realizing it (for after all I'd forgotten everything) my fate in your eyes. This could not last. Though you stroked me with the kindest of hands, you had to recognize oddities which suggested the forest, where I'd sprung from and where I really belonged. Then came the inevitable discussions about the "fear," inevitably repeating themselves, which tortured me (and you, but you innocently) to the point of touching an open nerve. It grew more and more for you, hindering you everywherethe misunderstanding with Max touched on it, in Gmünd it was already obvious, then came the Jarmila understanding-misunderstanding, and finally the stupid, clumsy, carelessly-handled business with V., and many other minor misunderstandings in between. I remembered who I am, no longer saw any deception in your eyes, I experienced the dream-fright (of behaving as though one were at home in a place where one does not belong). This fright I experienced in reality, I had to return to the darkness, I couldn't stand the sun, I was desperate, really like a stray animal, I began to run as fast as I could, and always the thought: "If only I could take her with me!" And the counter-thought: "Is there any darkness where she is?"
You ask how I live: this is how I live.
I think the saddest part of all is when, around the time that the letters become more infrequent, Kafka stops calling her du (a footnote informs us) and reverts to Sie. A year or two later his lung finally kills him. Milena died in a concentration camp in 1944.