BOOK REVIEW / Fur coats, cocaine and Franz Kafka

Ian Thompson marvels at the life of Milena '4711' Jesenska, favourite correspondent of St Franz of Prague; Kafka, Love and Courage: The Life of Milena Jesenska by Mary Hockaday Deutsch, pounds 17.99
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The Independent Culture
The women in Kafka's life were many and adoring. A jilted sweetheart, Felice Bauer, sighed, "My Franz was a saint." Her friend, Grete Bloch, was also attracted to St Franz of Prague and claimed to have borne his child. Fleeing Nazi persecution, Grete was arrested in April 1944 near Rome.

Kafka's three younger sisters vanished in Nazi camps. The Trial, with its paranoid assignment of guilt, seems to foreshadow the Hitler terror. Translating Kafka's novel into Italian, the writer-chemist Primo Levi observed: "Perhaps Kafka laughed when he told stories to his friends sitting at a table in the beer hall... but he certainly didn't laugh while he wrote." Both Levi and Margarete Bloch were deported to Auschwitz from the same Italian detention centre. It was called Fossoli; but Fraulein Bloch never came back. Neither did Milena Jesenska, the subject of this intriguing biography. Best known as the recipient of Kafka's Letters to Milena, she was a glamorous Czech journalist who perished in a concentration camp outside Berlin. A gentile, she had helped Jews escape occupied Prague.

Of all Kafka's women, Milena Jesenska was the most alluring. A green- eyed beauty, she was ten years younger than the Jewish author but fell for his gracious tact and humour. Kafka's squeamish distaste for all things ripe and physical, however, inhibited sex. This was largely an epistolary passion; and Milena's letters were a comfort to Kafka against his anxieties. Only Kafka's side of the correspondence survives; letters were sent almost daily, an out-pouring that still glows with intimacy. It is said by some biographers that Milena was the one love of Kafka's life.

In post-war Czechoslovakia, however, Milena was regarded as an anti-communist bourgeois deviationist. Her posthumous rehabilitation did not begin until 1989 and the Velvet Revolution. Mary Hockaday's biography of this beguiling woman, Kafka, Love and Courage, is a triumph of imaginative reconstruction. It paints a lively picture of coffee-house Prague with its fur coats and pre-war courtesies. The adolescent Milena rebelled by taking cocaine and stealing flowers from cemeteries. Eventually the law caught up with her in Vienna where the juvenile kleptomania of this doctor's daughter was attributed to an "erotic crisis". Only in Freud's Vienna...

Yet, as Mary Hockaday makes clear, Milena should be remembered as more than just Kafka's correspondent. In the early 1920s, while living with her Jewish husband in Vienna, Milena was a well-known fashion reporter. She wrote hundreds of witty articles about the city's stock exchange, its cabarets and cafes, she praised French underwear but complained about the absence of Czech Christmas cake. "There's nothing for it now but to sleep out Christmas under my quilt like a marmot"). Prague Jewry was largely German-speaking; before long, Milena was translating Kafka's work from German into Czech. Like her, Kafka was a follower of fashion; his father had run a haberdashery shop and Franz maintained a dandyish sense of style. Yet, as Milena sharply remarked, Kafka was "like a naked man among a multitude who are dressed".

Mary Hockaday has interviewed all who knew Milena and has trawled Prague's archives for her surviving articles. By the time Kafka died in June 1924, exactly one month short of his forty-first birthday, Milena had returned to Prague. She first adopted, then rejected Communism; with Hitler's sights fixed on Czechoslovakia, she became a patriot. In the face of Nazi censorship, Milena had guts to match her gall. She wrote: "Only one German soldier has to pass by a cafe for the glasses to shake and plaster to fall from the ceiling".

This was to be Milena's last hurrah before she was deported to Ravensbruck. Her camp number was 4714, but the inmates nicknamed her 4711, after the famous cologne. It was a hint of the old glamour before she died, at the age of 47, from a kidney infection. Today, Milena Jesenska's political journalism sheds invaluable light on central Europe before the war and communism. Kafka, Love and Courage is a moving tribute to a Czech heroine, and Mary Hockaday is to be congratulated.