By Judith Maas
Among the lesser-known aspects of Franz Kafka's life have been
his complicated relationships with women. The popular image of
the writer, as anxious and solitary, leaves little room for romantic
passion. Yet Kafka was inclined toward falling in love; his relationships
with fiancee Felice Bauer and journalist Milena Jesenska are documented
in his published letters. The last and closest relationship, with
Dora Diamant, has been the most elusive. Kathi Diamant's (no relation)
biography of Dora, ''Kafka's Last Love,'' based in part on newly
discovered sources, admirably fills in the gaps, giving us an
often surprising view of Kafka and introducing Dora as a compelling
figure in her own right.
When they met in 1923 at a Baltic resort, Dora had accomplished
what Kafka had not yet been able to do: in action and spirit,
establish independence from home and family. Born near Lodz, Poland,
in 1898, the daughter of Orthodox Jewish parents, Dora was a dreamer
and searcher from an early age, a self-described ''receptive soul''
daring to envision a life beyond housekeeping. Against her father's
wishes, she studied Hebrew and embraced the cause of Zionism,
a passion she would share with Kafka. In 1920, Dora moved to Berlin,
imagining herself taking her place among artists and social reformers.
Dora went on to live many lives in one. Yet while she sought
liberation from the restrictions placed on women in Orthodox culture,
she drew a sense of identity from her religion. In Berlin during
the 1920s, she became an actress and joined the Communist Party.
She married a fellow Communist with whom she had a daughter. In
1936, fleeing the Nazis, she went to Moscow, unprepared for the
reality of Stalin's dictatorship. After her husband's arrest by
the Communists in 1938, she escaped with her daughter to England.
Following her release from internment, she devoted herself to
preserving Yiddish culture and, in her last years, to writing
down her memories of Kafka. In 1949, she realized her dream of
Diamant conveys Dora's vibrant personality and expertly weaves
in cultural and political context. Dora comes across as a creative,
resilient spirit who, through great hardships, did more than survive.
Whether caring for Kafka through his final illness or producing
theatrical performances while interned, Dora infused vitality
into the grimmest of situations. In Diamant's view, Dora's commitment
to salvaging Yiddish culture through these performances ''was
a way to participate in the war against the Nazis . . . to build
pride and hope in Jewish hearts.'' Although Diamant's affection
for Dora is apparent, she also reveals Dora's weaknesses, like
the possessiveness that led her to hide the existence of Kafka's
last notebooks from his literary executor, Max Brod. These were
stolen by the Nazis and never recovered.
The most affecting parts of the book depict the emotional, intellectual,
and spiritual ties between Dora and Kafka during their year together
in Berlin. With Dora, Kafka found both freedom and security. Through
Dora's eyes, we see Kafka as humorous, playful, and ardent, as
approaching everything he did with devotion, whether making tea,
comforting a child, listening to Dora's tales of Eastern Europe,
or writing. Kafka encouraged Dora's acting and taught her about
literature. The two found sustenance in Jewish traditions and
rituals, which seemed to fulfill Kafka's yearning to believe in
Dora always challenged those who insisted that Kafka was a nihilist,
arguing that his struggles and fears reflected not defeatism but
seriousness, a refusal to accept false comforts: ''When the solution
of human confusion was in question, he would not have any half
measures. . . . His inner life was of unfathomable depth and unbearable.''
Instead of finding weakness in Kafka's sufferings, Dora found
strength in his honesty. Referring to Kafka's novel ''The Trial,''
she wrote: ''While K. [the novel's main character] was condemned
at the trial, Kafka, having demonstrated the absurdity of the
trial, never lost hope of reopening it. He led us, divested of
lies, better armed to storm the great wall.'' In identifying this
capacity ''to storm the great wall'' while being fully aware of
obstacles and dangers, Dora not only adds to our understanding
of Kafka but describes her own efforts, amid loss and ruin, to
build a rich and generous life.
Kafka's Last Love: They Mystery of Dora Diamant
By Kathi Diamant
Basic, 304 pp., illustrated, $30
This story ran on page D2 of the Boston Globe on 8/13/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.