WHEN I WAS contemplating a book about Nora Joyce, the chambermaid who became the wife of James Joyce, the late Richard Ellmann, Joyce’s biographer, warned me off. ‘I really am not too keen’, he wrote, ‘on book-length studies of people who are clearly not of great importance in themselves, but only as an adjunct to others, whether male or female.’
So why write biographies of adjuncts? Perhaps because every life is interesting; Joyce maintained that he had never met a boring person. Perhaps because even unimportant spouses and partners throw light on a famous person and his or her work. Or simply because – two compelling reasons – the biographer is obsessed with the subject and new information has come to light. Kathi Diamant, the author of Kafka’s Last Love, is director of the Kafka Project at San Diego State University. Although she shares her subject’s surname, she is no relation; yet she has conducted a fifteen-year personal quest for traces of the life of Dora Diamant, a young Polish-Jewish CmigrCe to Berlin who met Kafka in 1923 when she was cleaning fish in a kitchen at a resort on the Baltic Sea.
Dora fell in love with the forty-year-old tubercular Czech-Jewish author and persuaded him to leave his parents in Prague and live with her in Berlin. He had never lived with a woman before. They were drawn to each other not only by physical attraction but an unreligious shared passion for Jewish tradition. Dora was fluent in Yiddish and Hebrew as well as Polish and German. They dreamed of a new life in Israel.
Like D H Lawrence, Kafka was often joyful in spite of his consumption, relishing the homely rituals of daily life even as his strength ebbed. Like another tubercular writer, George Orwell, he resolved on a deathbed marriage; unlike Orwell’s, however, Kafka’s never took place. Dora’s father refused his consent. Even so, they considered themselves married. On his instructions and before his eyes, but unwisely for her later reputation, she burned the work that Kafka had written during their time together. She accompanied him to Vienna, where he died in June 1924. He left his then pitiful (though later ample) royalties to her.
But does half a year’s cohabitation justify a biography? If courage (amidst the Jews’ 1930s nightmare) and pathos are the measure, the answer is a resounding yes. What’s more, there is voluminous new material. Newly opened archives in Berlin, Moscow and eastern Europe reveal the details of Dora’s wanderings I in the post-Kafka years. ~avi;~ trained (as Kafka had urged her to do) as an actress, she married a ~eiman-~ewisCho mmunist, Lutz Lask. in Berlin. Lask was arrested bv I the Gestapo and put in prison, where he was languishing when their daughter, Marianne, was born. Unusually, Lask received permission ‘ I to go to the Soviet Union – a seeming Utopia for Jews. In time Diamant: burned Stalin’s state allowed Dora and her child in as well, along with Lask’s father. It then repaid Lask’s socialist loyalties by arresting him as a spy and sendlng him to a Siberian work camp. Dora never saw him again. When the frdl Marianne got scarlet fever, Dora took her to Sebastopol to recover, lugging with her a collection of Kafka’s papers containing his last diaries from Berlin and his letters to her.
The subsequent saga is heart-wrenchingly familiar, an endless quest for ‘letters of transit’ as in the film Casablanca. Dora got from Russia to Switzerland, to Holland, then, a week before the Nazis invaded, to England, only to be interned, with her sick daughter, as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man. The child’s story is an agonising one in itself, of being shunted between hospitals and boardlng school while her mother at last found work and satisfaction acting in Yiddish theatre in London’s East End. In later years mother and daughter made their home in West Hampstead. Dora Diamant began to make a reputation as Kafka’s wife and threw herself into the task of keeping the flame alight. The problem was that his posthumous reputation was never in jeopardy. Indeed, her intense guardianship of his letters and diaries and her granting of interviews may indicate that Dora misinterpreted his message. She saw it as one of hope – not the obvious conclusion to be drawn from Joseph K’s execution in The Trial for an I offence which is never explained to him.
Kathi Diamant has, through her work, reunited Dora’s relatives in Israel and the Lask family in Berlin. She is continuing her search of the Nazi archives for traces of those Kafka papers confiscated from Dora by the Gestapo. Thanks to her research, there is now a gravestone for Dora Diamant, who died in 1 1952, in the United Synagogue burned his work Cemetery in East London.
She is a good historian, presenting a concise and comprehensible summary of the deterioration of the Weimar currency in 1920s Berlin. She does the Berlin club and theatre scene of the period without turning it into Cabaret. She explains clearly the effect of the restrictive British quotas set for British immigration to Palestine and – always painful with hindsight – the crude and useless medical treatments of the time. Kafka, suffering from a lesion of the larynx, was treated with alcohol injections into the nerve and forced to overstuff himself with butter, eggs and beer.
It must be said, however, that Diamant has over- historicised her biography, relying on background detail when the figure of her subject is especially shadowy. She is clumsy, too, in dividing her material throughout into chronological sections, the constant sub-headings working against the narrative flow. Still, she illuminates a little-known and crucial time in Kafka’s life. Her book is deeply moving and will be of particular interest to students of Yiddishist groups in Berlin, London and Austria.