Biographers choke in the attempt to breathe life into Felice Bauer. During her five-year relationship with Kafka, the pair wrote to each other often daily. What remains is a one-sided correspondence: 511 letters, postcards and letter fragments from young Franz to Felice. After their permanent separation Kafka burnt Felice’s letters. “The whole corpus of letters,” writes Reiner Stach, “[has] the character of a monstrous monologue.”
The common notion that Felice Bauer was a kind of blank canvas that Kafka filled with all kinds of projections comes from this unavoidably one-sided reading matter.
In Kafka: The Decisive Years Reiner Stach through careful reading of Kafka’s letters learns a great deal about Felice. Kafka’s encouragement to Felice for vivid details of her life, often diarised, which he paraphrased and quoted back to her provides a rich source for an attentive biographer.
Stach’s is the only Kafka biography I’ve read that successfully resuscitates Felice Bauer, restoring to us the woman who obsessed Kafka during their epistolary relationship. Daughter of a highly conservative family, hard-working and over-achieving career woman, scared of the dark and prone to crying jags. “Two images of femininity, the woman who protects and the woman who is protected.”