Franz Kakfa letter shows author’s anguished struggle with writer’s block

A rare letter written by Franz Kafka to his publisher shows just how anguished a struggle it was for the Bohemian writer to put pen to paper, especially as his health deteriorated.

The letter, which will soon be auctioned, coincided with Kafka’s diagnosis with tuberculosis, which would end up killing him and which, scholars say, very probably added to his sense of mental paralysis and helplessness.

“When worries have penetrated to a certain layer of existence, the writing and the complaining obviously stop,” he wrote to his friend and publisher, the Austrian poet Albert Ehrenstein. “My resistance was not all that strong either.”

Undated, the letter is believed by scholars to have been written between April and June 1920, when Kafka was being treated for his illness at a clinic in Merano, northern Italy. Writer’s block famously haunted Kafka throughout his life but was exacerbated by his poor physical condition.

Neatly handwritten in polite, legible German, the letter is thought to be Kafka’s response to Ehrenstein’s request for the established author to contribute to Die Gefährten (The Fellows), the expressionist literary journal he was editing at the time. He had recently seen new work by Kafka in print, possibly his short story collection Ein Landarzt (A Country Doctor), written in 1917 and published two years later. But Kafka quickly disabused him of the notion that he was actively writing.

The letter is thought to be Kafka’s response to Ehrenstein’s request for him to contribute to a literary journal. Photograph: Sotheby’s

“I haven’t written anything for three years, what’s been published now are old things, I don’t have any other work, not even something I’ve started,” he wrote.

Gabriel Heaton, a books and manuscript specialist at Sotheby’s in London, which is putting the letter up for auction online on 26 June, 100 years after the author’s death, said letters by Kafka making reference to his writing were rare.

“This is quite a scarce thing, as well as being a letter with significant content that really feels like it pulls you towards him as a person, and gives you a sense of the individual,” he said.

The tone of the letter, signed simply “Kafka”, was that of a writer as well as of someone talking to his friend, he said, but it was “not a self-consciously literary” letter.

“To have, of all writers, Kafka talking to us about writer’s block is particularly poignant and meaningful,” Heaton said. “He’s almost like the laureate of writer’s block, as we see from his diaries.”

These famously include numerous tart and painful references to the condition, such as “the end of writing, when will it take me up again?”, “the old incapacity” and “complete standstill. Unending torments”.

“You have to dive down, as it were, and sink more rapidly than that which sinks in advance of you,” he wrote in his diary on 30 January 1915.

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Heaton said: “We are well aware of the extent to which writing made intense demands on Kafka and required deep reserves of his inner strength. You never feel that writing is easy for him. He is exhausted by it, it isn’t something that flows from him easily, and that’s a very profound sentiment.”

Despite his melancholy tone, it was around this time that Kafka embarked on what was arguably the most intense love affair of his life, with the Czech journalist Milena Pollaková-Jesenská, who had just translated his work Der Heizer (The Stoker). She is said to have been instrumental in encouraging him to overcome his creative stagnation to write his final masterpieces, The Castle and A Hunger Artist.

The letter is still in the airmail envelope Ehrenstein sent it in to the Czech-born artist Dolly Perutz in Massachusetts in 1948. Photograph: Sotheby’s

“Whilst the letter was written in a moment of some despair, it’s particularly poignant knowing as we do now that he was about to have this transformative experience, which would energise him to one final burst of creativity,” said Heaton.

Based on a growing demand among collectors for handwritten letters generally – an increasing rarity in the digital age – and Kafka letters in particular, it is estimated that the lot will reach between £70,000 and £90,000. The letter last went on sale about 11 years ago. The current owner is a significant European private collector, Sotheby’s said, without giving any more information.

It coincides with the centenary of Kafka’s death on 3 June, which has triggered a wave of new books, biopics and exhibitions.

Kafka died in 1924 aged 40. Ehrenstein kept the letter until 1948, when he sent it in his old age to the Czech-born artist Dolly Perutz, who had escaped Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1938, settling in Massachusetts. The letter is still in the airmail envelope in which she received it.

The Guardian