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The Washington Times: Making a Life Beyond Kafka

By Carol Herman

There is something a bit odd, if not Kafka-esque, about the way Kathi Diamant describes how she came to write "Kafka's Last Love: The Mystery of Dora Diamant":

"I was nineteen the first time I heard her name. It was spring 1971 in a German Language Literature class at the University of Georgia. We were translating 'The Metamorphosis,' a short story by Franz Kafka, when the instructor interrupted class. 'Are you related to Dora Diamant?' he asked. I had never heard of her. 'She was Kafka's last mistress,' my teacher said. 'They were very much in love. He died in her arms and she burned his work.' I promised to find out and let him know."

From this arguably awkward prelude there follows an improbably rich and gracefully written tale about the woman who shared Kafka's last months. The book begins with an already frail Kafka on the verge of death, working on the galleys of "The Hunger Artist," which his publisher had sent for perusal. As the biographer writes, "The irony of Franz's story - about a sideshow artist who starves as an art form - and his current emaciated state and inability to eat was not lost on anyone."

After this snapshot of the dying but determined Franz, the narrative shifts to a time 11 months earlier, when an only slightly healthier man encountered the woman who would help him live and would help shape the way he would be remembered.

Dora Diamant, the Polish daughter of a strict Hasidic family from which she escaped, met Kafka at a summer holiday camp at Haus Huten in Muritz, a seaside resort on the Baltic Sea. The young woman was charmed by the man with the "mesmerizing eyes" and the "gentle voice." And he was impressed by Dora's knowledge of Hebrew and her Zionist dream to live in Palestine. After three short weeks, they discussed moving together to Berlin, a journey that intellectually exhilerated Franz but further sapped his strength.

The early chapters of this book in which the doomed artist and his cheerful new friend go about their largely pedestrian undertakings are heartbreaking. In them, the author describes the ways in which the (relatively) young couple (Dora was 25, Kafka was 40) grew to know and depend on each other, defying their parents - Dora by living with a man, Franz by the simple act of traveling.

The question of whether they were in fact sexual partners is one that is referred to at intervals in the book but never resolved. Nevertheless, in the author's exhaustive examination of Dora's newly discovered notebooks, letters and diaries, material from Comintern and Gestapo archives and writings of prominent Kafka scholars, there appears to be no doubt that the two loved each other very much.

On this subject Max Brod, the friend and biographer of Kafka who engineered the publishing of the writer's work, cited evidence of Dora's "loving and self-sacrificing care for Kafka" with the story of the trip to the clinic in Vienna in April 1924, two months before the writer's death.: " 'The only car to be had for the journey from the sanatorium to Vienna was an open one,' he wrote. 'It rained and blew. The whole journey through Dora stood up in the car, trying to protect Franz with her body against the bad weather.'"

One amusing side to this story is that in it Brod mistakenly wrote that Dora was 19 years old. From that time forward, Ms. Diamant writes, "Dora dropped those six years from her life."

During the brief time they had together, Kafka, living on a government pension, spent his days writing and reading "from one of his favorite stories by one of his favorite writers - 'Hermann and Dorothea' by Goethe." He loved exotic fruits such as pineapple and banana and hated noise. Dora was sensitive to his preferences and they enjoyed a quiet life that included visits from friends such as Brod, someone who did not burn Kafka's work as the writer requested. Ms. Diamant is at pains to explain that while Dora may have burned the final missing pages of "The Burrow," she didn't burn everything, and "it was an act of love that elicited reproach and criticism for the remainder of her life."

In the early chapters of the book, Ms. Diamant sheds light on Kafka's difficult relationship with his parents, particularly his father, drawing parallels to Dora's estrangement from her own family. After Kafka dies, the narrative shifts to the life Dora made on her own, and it is an indisputably fascinating one. It unfolds besides the darkest events of first half of the 20th century, and Dora proves to be courageous and wily as she travels from Germany to Russia to England, Israel and back to England again, along the way eluding the torments of the Hitler's Germany and Stalinist purges. She marries, has a child and is subject to more than her share of life's trials.

But the question lingers throughout the book as to whether anyone would be reading Dora's life story were it not for the fact of her union with Kafka. This is tricky territory to circumnavigate. Women made famous by their association with famous men are somehow always subject to suspicion. Though the book jacket heartily touts Dora as someone "who, like Vera Nabokov and Nora Joyce, is a woman in her own right," one wonders what her life — and legacy — would have been like without her brief and famous liaison.

For all of Dora's life that is conscientiously and vividly portrayed here, it is Kafka's haunting words that catch the book's most dramatic moments. Ms. Diamant, who is the director of the Kafka Project at San Diego State University (and appears not to be related to her subject), has chosen selections from his work as epigraphs to each of the chapters in which Dora's life unfolds. The effect is powerful and moving. Here is the passage from "A Little Fable" that heads the chapter in which Dora's hair-raising escape from Nazi Germany is explained:

"'Alas,' said the mouse, 'the world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid. I kept running and running, and I was glad when at last I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.' 'You need only change your direction,' said the cat, and ate it up."