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Paper aeroplanes

KAFKA, LOVE AND COURAGE: The Life of Milena Jesensk by Mary Hockaday, Deutsch pounds 17.99
KAFKA'S name, carefully inserted into the title of this biography, flags its subject as worthy of attention. Would this woman matter to us if she had not been, for a short while, the intimate friend and correspondent of a great man? Kafka's missives to her, later published as Letters to Milena, make fascinating reading, form part of his oeuvre, but they are paper aeroplanes flung into a void. Milena's letters to him have not survived. Part of the relationship's charm, for Kafka, lay precisely in its difficult conditions: the two friends rarely met.

If Milena is absent as the author of her letters to Kafka, she is also absent as the typical subject of a literary biography. She was not a famous writer. Not a towering genius. The achievement of this book is to nudge us into questioning the kind of life that qualifies for the biographer's attention. We discover that Milena Jesensk's creativity was not confined to one sphere: she believed in living intensely, in celebrating all of life. She was a successful journalist deeply involved with politics who also understood the importance of defiantly modernist self-expression in fashion and interior design and architecture. She struggled to become an authentic woman on her own terms, and wrote about trying to discover what these were. Kafka was just one close friend among several lovers. She married twice. She became a mother. She ended up as a heroine, necessarily a quiet one. Working underground for the Resistance, she simultaneously, with equal courage, continued to speak her mind, in her newspaper column, about what the Nazis were up to.

The trajectory of her existence finished at Ravensbruck where she died in the camp hospital of a kidney infection. She joined the ranks of those silenced ordinary people about whom too much can never be said. The biography of each person on this planet could be amazing to read, and it's on that premise that much of modern fiction rests. Kafka re-invented Milena as an almost frighteningly sensitive, clever and beautiful woman to whom it would be dangerous to get too close; this will ring bells for many modern female readers. Milena's friend Margarete Buber-Neumann, incarcerated with her at Ravensbruck, provided a loving, idealistic portrait closer to hagiography. Mary Hockaday tries to give us the "real" woman, in all her imperfections and contradictoriness, and it's a measure of her success that she makes us see how the final acts of heroism grew out of the complexities of the life. Coping with her own psychic wounds meant Milena could not be indifferent to the pain of others.

The child of nationalist, bourgeois parents, Milena grew up in Prague. Well-educated, her talents recognised, but motherless early on, she accelerated through a rebellious adolescence to become an ardent young woman looking for adventure. She experimented with Bohemianism, cafe society, sex and drugs, had passionate friendships with other women, shop-lifted occasionally, stole food and money from her wealthy father to give to her poorer mates, followed politics, read voraciously. She took as a lover the Jewish intellectual, Ernst Pollak, and finally married him against her father's protests. She and Ernst settled in Vienna where Milena began to earn some money, at least, by becoming a stringer for a Prague newspaper.

She wrote about daily life in a rapidly changing culture. Her vignettes of urban style and customs have been disparaged as mere feminine feuilletons, but her sharp-eyed relish of human foibles, added to her humour and her compassion, made her a good journalist. Vienna in 1920 was reviving. Milena wrote about this in terms of restaurants, haute couture, the black market, and the cinema: "Here are wicked women who smoke and lie about half-dressed on the ottoman, and good women who sew linen, read books, play the piano and love little curly-haired children ... Here the heroes, honest men, risk their lives for their beloved ... And others, who just want a woman, approach her from behind and with a devilish expression take her by the shoulders ... they sit 'afterwards' on the sofa ... they smoke a cigarette out of the corner of their mouth and look very cynical, they wear pyjamas and have black hair, you can recognise them immediately and scorn them with proper hatred."

Milena also worked as a translator. She translated works by, among others, Jules Laforgue, Rosa Luxemburg, Gorky, Flaubert, Poe, Stendhal, Stevenson - and Kafka. Their daily letters raced back and forth between Prague and Vienna, between Vienna and Merano, where Kafka was trying to recover from tuberculosis. The relationship appears to have been honest, intense and equal, at least to start with. Later it became complicated by their commitments to their separate lives. Kafka made love to Milena by writing her letters. His desire depended on her absence. She was a "storm" and a "fire", he felt, and he recognised that he was incapable of listening simultaneously to her and to the "terrible voice" within himself that issued in fiction. He perceived her as strong, and so feared her, yet wrote beautifully to her about this. When their fantasies no longer meshed but dissolved, the unconsummated affair ended. When Kafka died in 1924, Milena's last act of love was to write an obituary praising his brilliance as a writer and his goodness as a man.

Back in Prague, Milena lived in actively cosmopolitan circles in which art, politics and journalism exuberantly mixed. When war broke out, she became increasingly involved in helping Jewish people escape. Even in Ravensbruck she retained her capacity for passionate love. She died in May, 1944, aged forty-seven.