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View full screen - View 1 of Lot 199. Franz Kafka | Autograph letter signed, to Albert Ehrenstein, on his writer's block, [1920].

Franz Kafka | Autograph letter signed, to Albert Ehrenstein, on his writer's block, [1920]

Lot Closed

July 11, 01:19 PM GMT


70,000 - 90,000 GBP

Lot Details


Franz Kafka

Autograph letter signed ("Kafka"), to Albert Ehrenstein, CONFESSING TO A FRIEND AND FELLOW AUTHOR THAT HE CAN NO LONGER WRITE

"...wenn sich Sorgen bis zu einer gewissen Schichte der inneren Existenz durchgebohrt haben, hört offenbar das Schreiben, das Klagen auf, mein Widerstand war auch night allzu stark..." [When worries have penetrated to a certain layer of inner existence, writing and complaining obviously cease, indeed my resistance was not too strong]

1 page, 8vo (230 x 145mm), in German, [?Merano, April-June 1920], small tears at head and foot of letter not affecting text

[with:] airmail envelope addressed by Ehrenstein to Dolly Perutz, with the poet's return address; torn at right from removal of stamp

This poignant letter was written to Albert Ehrenstein (1886-1950), an Austrian poet who first met Kafka in Berlin in 1913. Ehrenstein’s complimentary review of Kafka’s first collection of stories, Betrachtung, in Berliner Tageblatt, was one of the earliest published pieces of Kafka criticism, and the two men remained on friendly terms in the years that followed. By the time this letter was written, Ehrenstein was editing the expressionist literary journal Die Gefährten. He appears to have composed the letter after seeing new work by Kafka appear in print, possibly the short story collection Ein Landarzt (1919), which led him, presumably, to solicit a contribution to his magazine. This letter is Kafka’s response. Kafka’s melancholy reply comprehensively deflates Ehrenstein’s hopes: “seit 3 Jahren habe ich nichts geschrieben,was jetzt erschienen ist, sind alte Dinge, andere Arbeiten habe ich nicht, nicht einmal angefangene” [I haven't written anything for three years, what's published now are old things, I don't have any other work, not even started].

Although Kafka does not say so, his writer’s block had coincided with his tuberculosis diagnosis. The stories that had been published in Ein Landarzt were mostly written in 1917, and since then his main literary output had been aphorisms. He was physically weak and had spent extensive periods convalescing away from Prague; he firmly believed that that Ein Landarzt would be his last substantial literary work. This letter has been dated by Kafka’s editors to April-June 1920,when Kafka was undergoing treatment for his tuberculosis at a sanatorium in Merano in northern Italy. Despite the despair evident in his letter to Ehrenstein, it was at this time that Kafka began perhaps the most intense love affair of his life. He began corresponding with Milena Pollaková-Jesenská whilst in Merano about her translation of ‘Der Heizer’ [‘The Stoker’] into Czech, but their correspondence soon took on a powerful intensity. In June 1920 he returned to Prague from Merano via Vienna, where he spent four days in Milena’s company. Although his physical condition continued to worsen, Milena gave Kafka a new confidence in his writing: aside from the extraordinary letters that he wrote to Milena, it was under her influence and with her encouragement that he was to begin his final masterpieces including The Castle, and ‘A Hunger Artist’.

This letter is more than the pained words of a great writer who believes he can find nothing more to say: the idea that writing is a struggle is figured deep in our conception of Kafka as an author, as it is for certain other of the Modernist masters (Samuel Beckett is another example).Writing, for Kafka, makes intense demands on the writer and requires deep reserves of inner strength; he is an author with a mistrust of easy words, who grapples with his deep insecurity and worry about the futility of his work. Kafka’s diaries include some of the most vivid and excruciating accounts of writer’s block that have ever been put to paper, and his lack of confidence in his own writing found its final and most famous expression in his request that Max Brod burn his manuscripts after his death. Letters by Kafka that refer to his writing are rare on the market.



Franz Kafka, Briefe: 1918-20, ed. Hans-Gerd Koch (2013), no. 1266


Albert Ehrenstein; gifted to Dolly Perutz, July 1948; by descent; Sotheby’s, New York, 13 December 2011, lot 70 ($74,500)