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Story of Kafka's final love leaves lasting impression

By Judith Maas
Globe Correspondent

Among the lesser-known aspects of Franz Kafka's life have been his complicated relationships with women. The popular image of the writer, as anxious and solitary, leaves little room for romantic passion. Yet Kafka was inclined toward falling in love; his relationships with fiancee Felice Bauer and journalist Milena Jesenska are documented in his published letters. The last and closest relationship, with Dora Diamant, has been the most elusive. Kathi Diamant's (no relation) biography of Dora, ''Kafka's Last Love,'' based in part on newly discovered sources, admirably fills in the gaps, giving us an often surprising view of Kafka and introducing Dora as a compelling figure in her own right.

When they met in 1923 at a Baltic resort, Dora had accomplished what Kafka had not yet been able to do: in action and spirit, establish independence from home and family. Born near Lodz, Poland, in 1898, the daughter of Orthodox Jewish parents, Dora was a dreamer and searcher from an early age, a self-described ''receptive soul'' daring to envision a life beyond housekeeping. Against her father's wishes, she studied Hebrew and embraced the cause of Zionism, a passion she would share with Kafka. In 1920, Dora moved to Berlin, imagining herself taking her place among artists and social reformers.

Dora went on to live many lives in one. Yet while she sought liberation from the restrictions placed on women in Orthodox culture, she drew a sense of identity from her religion. In Berlin during the 1920s, she became an actress and joined the Communist Party. She married a fellow Communist with whom she had a daughter. In 1936, fleeing the Nazis, she went to Moscow, unprepared for the reality of Stalin's dictatorship. After her husband's arrest by the Communists in 1938, she escaped with her daughter to England. Following her release from internment, she devoted herself to preserving Yiddish culture and, in her last years, to writing down her memories of Kafka. In 1949, she realized her dream of seeing Israel.

Diamant conveys Dora's vibrant personality and expertly weaves in cultural and political context. Dora comes across as a creative, resilient spirit who, through great hardships, did more than survive. Whether caring for Kafka through his final illness or producing theatrical performances while interned, Dora infused vitality into the grimmest of situations. In Diamant's view, Dora's commitment to salvaging Yiddish culture through these performances ''was a way to participate in the war against the Nazis . . . to build pride and hope in Jewish hearts.'' Although Diamant's affection for Dora is apparent, she also reveals Dora's weaknesses, like the possessiveness that led her to hide the existence of Kafka's last notebooks from his literary executor, Max Brod. These were stolen by the Nazis and never recovered.

The most affecting parts of the book depict the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual ties between Dora and Kafka during their year together in Berlin. With Dora, Kafka found both freedom and security. Through Dora's eyes, we see Kafka as humorous, playful, and ardent, as approaching everything he did with devotion, whether making tea, comforting a child, listening to Dora's tales of Eastern Europe, or writing. Kafka encouraged Dora's acting and taught her about literature. The two found sustenance in Jewish traditions and rituals, which seemed to fulfill Kafka's yearning to believe in ''something indestructible.''

Dora always challenged those who insisted that Kafka was a nihilist, arguing that his struggles and fears reflected not defeatism but seriousness, a refusal to accept false comforts: ''When the solution of human confusion was in question, he would not have any half measures. . . . His inner life was of unfathomable depth and unbearable.'' Instead of finding weakness in Kafka's sufferings, Dora found strength in his honesty. Referring to Kafka's novel ''The Trial,'' she wrote: ''While K. [the novel's main character] was condemned at the trial, Kafka, having demonstrated the absurdity of the trial, never lost hope of reopening it. He led us, divested of lies, better armed to storm the great wall.'' In identifying this capacity ''to storm the great wall'' while being fully aware of obstacles and dangers, Dora not only adds to our understanding of Kafka but describes her own efforts, amid loss and ruin, to build a rich and generous life.

Kafka's Last Love: They Mystery of Dora Diamant
By Kathi Diamant
Basic, 304 pp., illustrated, $30

This story ran on page D2 of the Boston Globe on 8/13/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.