“Kafka’s fucking muse”: an unpublished letter to the Guardian

Christian Michelides, Stolperstein für Milena Jesenska, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The Guardian did not think the following letter, responding to a column by the self-proclaimed feminist Zoe Williams, worth publishing. The “terrible gift” to which Williams refers was a book that she identifies as Kafka’s Milena: Life of Milena Jesenská. No such book exists: she might be referring to Jesenská’s daughter Jana Černá’s Kafka’s Milena (which has no subtitle) or Mary Hockaday’s biography Kafka, Love and Courage: The Life of Milena Jesenská. It probably doesn’t matter, since Williams considered her father’s gift an insult and didn’t bother to read the book.

19 December 2022

Dear Editor,

I take issue with Zoe Williams’s article “I unwrapped Dad’s terrible gift …” (December 19).  Humour is humour, but Milena Jesenská deserves better than to be ridiculed as “KAFKA’S FUCKING MUSE” (sic). Jesenská was a pioneering advocate of women’s emancipation, who as an independent journalist and translator practiced what she preached.

For the record: “Metamorphosis” was published in 1915, five years before Franz and Milena first corresponded in connection with her translating his work into Czech.  Their love affair was almost entirely epistolary, lasted less than a year, and was likely not consummated.  Jesenská was then in her early twenties.  She had a life before, after, and beyond Kafka. 

She went on to became one of Czechoslovakia’s most distinguished journalists, whose reportage on events in Central Europe in the 1930s (the rise of Nazism, the Vienna Anschluss, persecution of Jews, the Munich Agreement, the invasion of Czechoslovakia) is of lasting value to historians.  Her writings on refugees are especially moving and have lost none of their pertinence today.  

Milena was arrested by the Gestapo for resistance activities in November 1939 and died in Ravensbrück concentration camp in May 1944.  In 1995 the World Holocaust Remembrance Center Yad Vashem listed her as Righteous among the Nations—that is, “non-Jews who took great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust.”

Perhaps Williams should open that “terrible gift.”  Better yet, she could dip into Kathleen Hayes’s excellent selections in The Journalism of Milena Jesenská: A Critical Voice in Interwar Central Europe.  Zoe’s Dad was doing her a favour. What better role model could a young, female Guardian journalist ask for?

Sincerely,

Derek Sayer

Professor Emeritus

University of Alberta

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for sharing this article – I’m certainly going to read both books. Accuracy usually loses out when the outrage is confected .

    Martyn

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