Thank you for reading and visiting Legal Bytes. Each year, at this time of year, I try to post messages in the spirit of the season and often some of my own reflections at the end of one calendar year, looking forward to a new year ahead. This year I’ve chosen a story about Franz Kafka. When I recall reading Kafka (forced by required reading in school), I think of the “The Metamorphosis” and a giant cockroach or works that exude alienation and hopelessness or surreal worlds filled with bureaucracy and despair. Not, as I recall, filled with compassion, love or kindness. But having started reading books again and publishing Light Byte quotes for my blog, I came across both a quote and a story that surprised me.
“Youth is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.” Yes, this is a quotation from Kafka. It surprised me. But there was also a story – perhaps only a legend – about Franz Kafka in the last year of his life – Kafka died in June of 1924. There appear to be multiple versions and variations to this story and many claim to have gleaned details from Kafka’s last wife, Dora Diamant. She would have been the only one who would have possibly known most, if not all of it, if true. We may never know if any version is true , but whether fact or fiction, the story, like all of Kafka’s writing, is complex, nuanced and meaningful on so many levels and for so many reasons, permit me to share it with you:
Franz Kafka, a literary genius widely regarded as one of the major figures of 20th Century literature, was a young man suffering from tuberculosis and dying – he was never to see his 41st birthday. He had recently fallen in love with Dora Diamant, a young girl of nineteen or twenty who ran away from her Hasidic family in Poland and now, as a married couple, they were living in Berlin. Most afternoons Kafka would go for a walk in Steglitz Park, often accompanied by Dora, and one day, Kafka came upon a little girl in the park, immersed in tears and sobbing her heart out.
Kafka inquired what was troubling her, and she told him she had lost her doll and was heartbroken. Trying to make her feel better, he offers to help look for the doll, but fearing the worst, he decides to tell her the doll has gone away, but has written her a letter. When she asked to see it, he told her since he didn’t know he would meet her in the park that day, he had left it at home, but would bring it to her the next day. Now if this story has any truth to it, I’m guessing this little girl was probably more than just a little suspicious at that point. But Kafka promises to return the next day with the letter from the doll – a letter he then goes home to compose.
The next day Kafka returns to the park with the letter and finds the little girl waiting. She is too young to read so he reads the letter to her. He tells her the doll is sorry, but had gotten bored and needed to get out, see the world, do new things and make new friends. Of course, she still loves and misses the little girl very much, but her dreams of new adventures and of seeing new things has made her decide to go away for a while to do just that. But, as Kafka told the little girl, the doll promised to write her every day so she can follow her activities and know she is thinking of her.
According to the story, from that day and every day for at least the next three weeks, Franz Kafka – one of the most brilliant, talented writers in literary history – goes home to write letters from the lost doll. Every day, in the last year of his life, knowing his remaining days on earth are dwindling, he composes these imaginary letters from a lost doll. Every day he returns to the park to read them to the little girl – a stranger he didn’t know, had never met before and whom he had run into by accident one afternoon in the park.
According to reports from Dora, he would sit down at his desk, composing letters about the doll’s adventures that were detailed, funny and captivating. According to accounts of the story, when writing these letters Kafka dedicated himself with the same seriousness as he had when composing his own towering literary works. Fictional letters from a lost doll, intended to replace a little girls sadness with believable joy. So every day, Kafka returned to the park to read another letter to the little girl. As the weeks went by, knowing all to well his time on earth was nearing an end, Kafka must have also been struggling with how to end this story – the moment when the letters must inevitably stop and he could no longer return to the park to read them to her.
Here is where versions of the story diverge. In one version, the doll grows up, goes to school, gets to know other people, falls in love, has a wonderful wedding and goes off to live happily ever after, somewhere in the countryside with the doll’s new husband. In this version, she bids farewell to the little girl, knowing everyone will live happily ever after. In another version, Kafka presents the little girl with a doll – which clearly looks different than the original – which he notes, in the doll’s words: “my travels have changed me…”
We never learn what the little girl may have thought at the time, but as the story is told, many years later that little girl, now all grown up, reportedly finds the cherished doll given to her by Franz Kafka to replace the one she lost. Stuffed somewhere in a previously unnoticed spot was a final letter from the doll, which ended with the words “every thing that you love, you will eventually lose, but in the end, love will return in a different form.”
Wishing you, your family, friends, colleagues and all those you hold dear, a joyful and meaningful holiday season, a prosperous and healthy new year filled with peace, and most of all and in all its forms . . love.