correspondence and fellowship with the Czech writer

CULTURE FRANCE – WEDNESDAY, APRIL 13 AT 5:03 PM – DOCUMENTARY SERIES

First of all, it has to be said: the work done by Ruth Zylberman is not only absolutely remarkable, but as precious as it is wonderful. Precious, because it gives us access to testimonies from the greatest Kafka specialists: translators (Jean-Pierre Lefebvre or even, thanks to the archives, Marthe Robert, and her Delphine Seyrig-like voice), editors, biographers (thus Reiner Stach, author of the most exhaustive biography of Franz Kafka (1883-1924), some 3,000 pages to be published in French).

Wonderful, because it allows us to listen so well to the texts, languages ​​and sounds of the time, that it would almost be enough to close our eyes to find ourselves in Prague, with Kafka on the arm, reading some of the letters sent to “his” wives.

Because this is the theme chosen by Ruth Zylberman: Franz Kafka’s women. The French author and documentary filmmaker (particularly Children of 209, rue Saint-Maur Paris 10Yin 2017, so aptly covered in awards) chose four of them, which make up the four episodes of this series: Felice, Milena, Dora, Ottla.

Two failed engagements

First, then, Felice Bauer (1887-1960) (episode 1), this young woman from the independent Jewish petty bourgeoisie, whom Kafka first met in 1912. What can I say? That he first takes her for her servant, with her “empty bony face” and her hair ” bored “. However, it is undoubtedly thanks to her that Kafka was born as a writer. Proof of this is his abundant correspondence (more than 500 letters that he sent her over five years). Five years of driving her crazy. Five years and two aborted courtships, endless delays on the part of Kafka, torn between the hope of a “normal” family life and the need to be alone in order to write.

With Milena Jesenska (1896-1944) (episode 2), arguably Kafka’s best-known correspondent, things also start with a lot of mail, but are significantly different as this flamboyant, non-conformist figure is even less willing to compromise than she is. the. . “You are the knife that I return in my wound”, he writes to her.

Less well known is Dora Diamant (1898-1952), to whom the beautiful episode 3 is dedicated. An adopted Berliner, who speaks Yiddish and Hebrew, Dora was “the incarnation of this ‘authentic’ Judaism of ‘ostjuden’ that so fascinated Kafka”, as Ruth Zylberman so aptly reminds us. she also represents “the radical possibility of breaking, finally, with Prague and family responsibilities”. In September 1923, Kafka finally manages to achieve what he had dreamed of for many years: to leave Prague, settle in Berlin and live there with Dora, despite increasingly serious attacks of tuberculosis, which will prevail on June 3, 1924. .

Also read: Article reserved for our subscribers Kafka: a diaspora of archives

“Emancipation of the family order”

At the beginning – but therefore at the end, since this is the theme of episode 4 – there is also Ottla (1892-1943), the youngest of her three sisters and the one who resembles her the most, in particular “in his attempt to emancipate himself from the family order ruled by that famous father, Hermann, to whom Kafka wrote a no less famous letter that he never sent.”

Ruth Zylberman, documentary filmmaker: “I realized that all these women have in common having been in rebellion with their father, and having managed to overcome it”

Because this is what surprised Ruth Zylberman, who nevertheless cultivates a long friendship with the Czech writer: “I realized that all these women have in common having been in rebellion against their father and having managed to defeat him. »

The writer-filmmaker had been thinking about this idea of ​​Kafka and his women for twelve years, thinking of making a movie out of it. He eventually opted to do a radio series, which took two years to complete. Two years but, in short, a piece of life also to read it, to read them. In particular the letters to Felice: “It was overwhelming to immerse myself in his letters in this way. Sometimes get mad at him. Often having the impression that he was there, on my shoulder.” she confesses

On his shoulder and down to his feet. Although 30 years have passed since she made Prague her heart city, Ruth Zylberman has for the first time taken the path that leads from Staromestske Namesti (Old Town Square), where Kafka has long lived, at 7 Na Porici, where I work. . For a long time she will have given up on the business that surrounds the writer. This time she made it. Fifteen short minutes for an incredibly intense experience: “I felt what it meant to live in such a narrow perimeter in which Kafka felt confined. I measured it on my feet. »

read also Article reserved for our subscribers Jean-Pierre Lefebvre: “Kafka, an incredible style of clarity”

So from this walk with Kafka, Ruth Zylberman brought four hours of rare density and richness. Strange, because it is Kafka in his diversity who makes himself heard. Rare, because rich in readings and long interviews with Ruth Zylberman who, like Tom Thumb, has put enough stones in the way for us to want to (re)read it.

Felice, Milena, Dora, Ottla: four women with Kafka, documentary series by Ruth Zylberman, directed by Julie Beressi for France Culture’s documentary series LSD (Fr., 2022, 4 × 52 min). On the application of France Culture and that of Radio France.

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