News | June 4, 2024

Kafka Letter Complaining of Writer's Block to Auction


Kafka letter and envelope

Franz Kafka's deep insecurity about his work is the focus of a letter coming to Sotheby's in which he describes his problems with writer's block.

In this moving and personal letter, addressed to his friend Austrian poet Albert Ehrenstein, Kafka confesses that he can no longer write. Little is known about the writer’s block that plagued Kafka for the latter part of his career and only uncovered from his personal diaries after his death. This one-page letter dating to spring 1920 will be offered at auction with an estimate of £70,000 - £90,000 as part of Sotheby’s Books & Manuscripts online auction, open for bidding 27 June - 11 July.

Kafka and Ehrenstein first met in Berlin in 1913 when Ehrenstein produced one of earliest published pieces of literary criticism on Kafka, a flattering review of his first collection of stories in Berliner Tageblatt. The two remained close friends in the following years and by the time this letter was written Ehrenstein was editing the expressionist literary journal Die Gefährten. He wrote to Kafka after seeing new work published in print, possibly the short story collection Ein Landarzt (1919). This led him to ask Kafka for a contribution to his magazine, and in this letter, Kafka lays out his response with a defeated admission that he can no longer write:

“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… When worries have penetrated to a certain layer of inner existence, writing and complaining obviously cease, indeed my resistance was not too strong…”

Although Kafka does not say so, his writer’s block coincided with his tuberculosis diagnosis in 1917. The letter was composed during the period in which Kafka was undergoing treatment for this at a sanatorium in Merano, Northern Italy. Yet despite his apparent despair, it was also at this time that Kafka began the most intense love affair of his life, corresponding with the Czech journalist and writer Milena Pollaková-Jesenská. Although he continued to physically deteriorate, Milena gave him a new confidence and it was with her support that he began his final masterpieces including The Castle and A Hunger Artist.

“This rare letter provides a rare glimpse of the great writer’s state of mind during a tumultuous period in his life," said Dr. Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s Books & Manuscripts Specialist. "The letter reveals how writing made intense demands on him and required deep reserves of inner strength as he grappled with deep insecurity and worry about the futility of his work.”

The Bodleian Libraries in Oxford are currently showing a major exhibition about the writer, Kafka: Making of an Icon, running until October 27 marking the 100th anniversary of his death. It features materials from the archives of the Bodleian Libraries which hold the majority of Franz Kafka's papers including literary notebooks, drawings, diaries, letters, postcards, glossaries, and photographs.