Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Most Preposterous Marriage Proposal of All Time by Florian Illies

‘The Worst Marriage Proposal in the World’: on June 8, 1913, in Prague, Franz Kafka has finally begun to ask for Felice’s hand in marriage. But he breaks off mid-sentence, and it’s not until June 16th that he is able to bring himself to finish the letter. It ends up being over twenty pages long. Kafka begins with a detailed account of how he needs to look for a doctor –what exactly he wants to certify, perhaps fertility or sanity, is unclear. Or maybe it’s all just a pretext to delay the inevitable marriage and its consummation: “Between you and me there stands, apart from everyone else, the doctor. It is doubtful what he will say, because the medicinal diagnoses are not really the crucial factor in such decisions, and if they were, then it wouldn’t be worth taking them into account. I was, as I said, not really ill, but I am.” Hmm. Then follows a passage in which Kafka, that wonderful, sensitive stylist, established a form of written stuttering:

Now bear in mind, Felice, that in the face of this uncertainty it is hard to say the words, and it must sound peculiar. It’s simply too soon to say it. But afterwards it will be too late, and then there won’t be any time for discussing such things as you mentioned in your last letter. But there isn’t any time to hesitate for too long, at least that’s how I feel about it, and so that’s why I’m asking: in view of the above premise, which is sadly ineradicable, do you want top consider whether you want to become my wife? Do you want that?

In fact, what he probably wanted to write was ‘Do you really want that?????’

Then, in a rare moment of clarity, he presents Felice with the cost-benefit calculation of a potential marriage:

Now give some thought, Felice, to how marriage would change us, what each of us would gain and lose. I would lose my –for the most part, terrible – solitude and gain you, whom I love more than anyone else in the world. But you would lose your former life, with which you were almost entirely content. You would lose Berlin, the office you love, your friends, little pleasures, the prospect of marrying a healthy, cheerful, good man, and of having beautiful, healthy children, which you, if you stop to think about it, really long for. And on top of this inestimable loss, you would gain a sick, weak, unsociable, taciturn, sad, stiff, pretty much hopeless human being.

Who could turn down an offer like that? A proposal of marriage disguised as a confession.

Kafka is still uneasy, for he suspects he has stuck his neck out on this occasion, even though he tried, with hundreds and hundreds of words, to cover up and mask his question. But he knows that, somewhere in the middle of his letter, he did ask her to marry him. He hems and haws before putting the letter in an envelope, then goes on a laborious search for a bigger envelope, because the letter is now so thick. Then he goes out on to the street, but dawdles, waiting so long that all of the post offices have closed for the evening. Then he is suddenly overwhelmed with the desire for Felice to have the letter on her desk first thing in the morning, so he runs to the station, where urgent post can be put on the fast train to Berlin. On the way, sweating and in a panic, he meets an old acquaintance. Kafka tries to excuse himself, saying he is in a hurry and has to get the letter to the station. What kind of letter is so urgent, asks the acquaintance in amusement. ‘A proposal of marriage’. Says Kafka, amid laughter. .  .

So how did Felice Bauer react to reading the most preposterous marriage proposal of all time? She was distraught. But even she, hardened as she is by now, probably hadn’t thought Kafka capable of surpassing that disastrous note of self-incrimination masked as a marriage proposal. But then Kafka writes his ‘Letter to the Father’. It never became as famous as the one he wrote to his own father. But it deserved to, because it’s simply incredible. On August 28th, Goethe’s birthday, Kafka asks Felice’s father whether he would entrust his daughter to him. Or rather: he implores him desperately not to entrust his daughter to him:

I am taciturn, unsociable, morose, selfish, a hypochondriac and genuinely in poor health. Among my family, the best, most loving people you could ever encounter, I live as a complete stranger. In recent years I’ve spoken and average of less than twenty words a day to my mother, and I’ve barely ever exchanged more than a few words of greeting with my father. I don’t speak to my married sisters and their husbands at all, unless I have something bad to say. I have no sense of how to co-habit normally with my family. And yet your daughter is supposed to live alongside a person like this, a healthy girt like her, whose nature has predestined her for genuine marital bliss? Is she supposed to bear it, leading a cloistered existence alongside the man who, admittedly, loves her as he has never been able to love anyone else, but who, by virtue of his unalterable destiny, spends most of his time either shut away in his room or wandering around alone?

1913; The Year Before The Storm by Florian Illies. Melville House, 2013. Pages 139 & 173


  1. Though seminal in many respects, 1913 was a difficult, even depressing year for the Arts in Europe, as Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ perhaps best attests. Of the First German Autumn Salon at the Sturm Gallery (patterned after the N.Y. Armory show that February) the press reported: Never has pretension been more presumptuous, never less well founded. . . In fact it is a rough fiddle-faddle, this great mass of absurdities, of ludicrous scribbles. You think you are coming out of the art gallery of a lunatic asylum.” Just 14 years old Bertolt Brecht wrote ‘My Girlfriend’:
    You ask what love is –
    I didn’t feel it, -
    you ask what joy is,
    it’s light has never shone for me.
    You ask what worry is –
    Her I know
    she is my girlfriend
    she loves me.

    Oswald Spengler wrote “Life in this century oppresses me. Everything redolent of comfort, of beauty, of color, is being plundered.” Ludwig Meidner began painting his Apocalyptic Landscapes. Oskar Kokoschka was in the midst of his doomed obsession with Alma Mahler.

  2. The euphoric, scatterbrained visionary Lasker-Schuler grabbed testosterone-fueled men by their poetic hearts and propelled them to unsuspected heights. But men afraid of too much femininity –Rainer Maria Rilke and Franz Kafka, for example – were startled by her surging sexuality and tended to run away. And the women of her time despised this unkempt femme fatale by day for her negligence, her irresponsibility, her licentiousness – and secretly admired her in the evening, when their husbands had gone out for a drink and they were left by themselves to flick through a magazine from their lonely armchairs. Only Rosa Luxembourg admired her unreservedly, and pointedly walked down the streets with her in the hot summer months of 1913.

  3. One evening in May Else wrote to Frank Marc to tell him how in love she was with Gottfried Benn: “When I fall in love a thousand times, it’s always a new miracle, it’s the same old thing when someone else falls in love. I have to tell you. . . he’s out of the Nibelungs.” But Marc, whether his wife wouldn’t let him or whether he himself was already too exhausted by his demanding Berlin girlfriend, took a few months to write back. To which Else replied by return: “You are glad about my “New Love” – You say that so easily, and have no idea that you should be weeping along with me –because –it has already gone out of his heart, like a sparkler, like a burning Catherine wheel –which has rolled over me.” Write quickly if you want to congratulate Else Lasker-Schuler on a new love, otherwise it will be too late.

    Oh let me leave this world

    Then you will cry for me.
    Copper beeches pour fire
    On my warlike dreams.

    Through dark underbrush
    I crawl,
    Through ditches and water.

    Wild breakers beat
    My heart incessantly;
    The enemy within.

    Oh let me leave this world!
    But even from far away
    I'd wander – a flickering light –

    Around God's grave.

  4. Freud continued to work on his theory of parricide. At the same time, in the newly founded film studios in Potsdam-Babelsberg, filming begins on The Sins of the Fathers, starring Asta Nielson. In keeping with the title, Nielson feels partly to blame for the ‘kitsch in that early dawn of film’. The film poster shows her wearing a tight skirt and plunging blouse. She was slim, unusual at the time, and a source of great joy for the cartoonists, who immediately saw a stick figure in the making. Most men too were quite happy with how she looked. In 1913 Asta Nielson was the ultimate sex symbol, and a big contract led to her making eight films between 1912 and 1914, which were filmed and released back to back. The new magazine Bild un Film put it like this; “People are queuing up to see the film as if they’re at a bakery during a famine, almost breaking their necks to get a ticket. Many people watch the film two or three times in quick succession and are enchanted by it again and again.”

  5. Bruno Franks wrote review of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice:
    When metaphysics still existed, it meant comparatively little to be a hero. But now, with an inanimate floor of rock beneath us and an empty sky above, where we have no faith, only hunger for it, where we are so disconnected from one another, thrown back into ourselves, probably more than any preceding generation, it is at this very moment that Thomas Mann appears, wakefully and courageously placing this writer into a completely godless world.
    So there you have it. Gustav von Aschenbach, the last tragic hero of Modernity.

  6. It’s the end of March. Marcel Proust pulls his fur over his night-shirt and goes back into the street in the middle of the night. Then he stares for two whole hours at the Saint Anne portal of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. The next morning he writes to Madame Strauss: ‘For eight centuries on that portal a much more charming humanity has been assembled than the ones with which we rub shoulders.’ This is what is known, logically enough, as being In Search of Lost Time.