Discover something new.

In the early 1980s, when I first began to encounter the work of Franz Kafka, I was struck by the proximity of his work. Or no, not his work but his circumstances, which felt as contemporary as it gets. His death, of tuberculosis in 1924, occurred less than forty years before I was born. Much has been made of Kafka’s writing as predictive, in some sense, of the Holocaust; an assimilated Jew living in German-speaking Prague, he understood, as Cynthia Ozick once observed of him, that

Jews who wrote in German … resembled trapped beasts, neither at home in their native idiom nor alien to it. They lived, moreover, with three impossibilities: ‘the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing German, the impossibility of writing differently.’ To which he added a fourth, ‘the impossibility of writing.’

Carry that metaphor a little further and you end up facing the Łódź Ghetto or Auschwitz, where the author’s three sisters would be killed.

At the same time, and as relevant as Kafka’s writing feels, it’s a fantasy to say that literature, or any art, can be prescient in this way since all creativity exists, as it must, as an expression of its own time.

What interested me was not that I could have known him. The gap between us was too great for that. But what about those who had known him? Perhaps I might run across someone like that. This notion, of bringing an artist I admire into proximity, has long been one I’ve found deeply attractive, an aesthetic version of a child’s speculation game. What if, what if, what it? What, then? Life in the actual world of Kafka, what would that be like? How might it feel to be so close?

In the novel Life After Kafka by Magdalená Platzová we get a glimpse of such a circumstance: not the life of the writer but that of his first fiancée, Felice Bauer, who, as it turned out, survived the war and lived until 1960, when she died in Rye, New York. During the 1950s, she ran a knit shop in Los Angeles, and some sections of Platzová’s novel take place there. What a glorious overlay and opportunity: Felice Bauer, born in the grim expressionist landscape of the Old World, considering and reconsidering her connection to Kafka beneath the flat and unrelenting Southern California sun.

To close out issue nine of Air/Light, we are showcasing Life After Kafka, which will be published in the United States in August 2024 in a translation by Alex Zucker. Here, you will find a chapter of the novel in both the original Czech and in English, as well as a conversation between author and translator. Literature, of course, is all about these confluences, these conversations; it is a domain in which time, for a moment anyway, becomes slippery and fluid, although (of course) it never stays that way. Something similar, I suppose, might be said of Kafka, that great shape shifter, who a century after his death—the anniversary falls on June 3—continues to embody, in a very real way, the disruptions and estrangement of this dark and fallen world.

–David L. Ulin


from Life After Kafka by Magdaléna Platzová, trans. Alex Zucker


1955 Los Angeles


Had everyone suddenly lost their minds?

Brod wrote her again, this time directly, instead of through Sophie, and once more he enumerated all the reasons why she ought to sell her letters to Schocken.

Then, in early February, a few weeks after Joachim’s visit, a stranger called on the phone. He spoke in German and said his name was Casimiro Appelbaum.

It struck her as unusual for someone in America to introduce himself over the phone using his full name.

He asked if he could visit her, saying he had something very important he needed to ask.

She said she was ill and not receiving visitors. If he wanted something from her, he could tell her over the phone.

“I am the son of Grete Bloch and Franz Kafka,” he said. “The doctor might have told you about me when you saw him.”

“What doctor?”

“Your son.”

“You say you’re the son of Franz Kafka?”

“And Grete Bloch, your friend. I didn’t want to shock you like this, over the phone. Which is why I would rather come see you in person.”

It took her a moment before she could bring herself to speak. Then it occurred to her to ask, “And where are you?”

“I’m in New York. But I can come anytime.”

“Give me your number, I’ll call you back.” Practical, quick-witted Felice.

She took down his number, hung up, and dialed Joachim at his office. Luckily, he was on break and the secretary put her through right away.


Yes, that man, Appelbaum, had been to see him. Twice, as a matter of fact. The first time Joachim agreed to talk; the second time he refused. How the man knew Joachim had been to see his mother in LA, Joachim had no idea; maybe his secretary had let it slip.

He did bear quite a resemblance to Kafka, he told her.

“Nonsense, sheer nonsense! The idea! Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t want you to be needlessly upset. I wasn’t sure he was telling the truth, but he does know an awful lot of details about Grete, especially from the last few years. He says the story about the bayonet is a rumor and Grete died in Auschwitz. There are witnesses, or one anyway. Still, Mr. Schocken is convinced Appelbaum is an impostor.”

She cried out, “Of course he’s an impostor! And what does Schocken have to do with it?”

“Just calm down, Mom. Appelbaum went to see him, too. He wanted to know how much he would pay for Kafka’s letters to Grete.”

“He has Franz’s letters?”

“Well, not yet. But he thinks he might be able to get them, if he can convince someone—like you—that he actually is Grete’s son. He doesn’t have any proof. His birth certificate and all his other documents were in some bag that went missing. Before she was deported, Grete placed her letters in the safekeeping of a lawyer in Florence, but obviously he isn’t just going to hand them over to Appelbaum.”

“Letters! Again with the letters. You really all have lost your minds. Brod, Schocken, and now to top it all off, this Appelbaum fake. Please, how could Franz have had a child with Grete? It’s a lie.”

“You’re probably right, Mom. In any case, don’t invite him over—don’t even give him your address. If he calls again, just tell him to stop harassing you. But as for the letters, you really should get rid of them. With Schocken, at least they’ll be in good hands and finally you can have peace of mind. Not to mention you need the money.”


When they broke up, she didn’t promise that she would destroy his letters, nor had he asked her to. On the contrary, he had always made it clear that he still wanted to be with her, even if only through his letters.

Now she had to get rid of them, though. She should have done it a long time ago.

After her conversation with Joachim, she hardly slept a wink all night. Every time she dozed off, Kafka’s son, or whoever he was, came leaping out at her. In her last dream, she was trying to stab him with a knife, but it was an old jackknife and the tip just kept glancing off of him while he stood there laughing, until she stabbed him in the eye.

As morning came, she made up her mind to settle the matter then and there. No more putting it off.

She got out of bed. Day was just breaking, the birds chirping in the jacaranda boughs.

She took off her pajama top and, using a washcloth dipped in cold water, washed her face, breasts, and underarms, as she did every day. She rinsed out her mouth and got dressed, but instead of a house frock, she took from the closet a dark blue pleated dress. Finally, after pinning her hair up in a bun and smoothing the hair above her forehead into two neat waves, she hung a necklace of red coral beads around her neck.

She went into the kitchenette, brewed her morning coffee with milk, toasted some bread, and ate breakfast, more festively than usual, at the table in the living room.

Once she had eaten, washed the dishes, and swept up the crumbs, she was ready.


The Bata shoe box traveled from the sideboard to the dining room table.

She opened the lid.

Here we go.

It almost felt like the letters were cowering from her.

All night long she had been thinking about how to destroy them, mulling over the various options in her mind. She couldn’t burn them. She didn’t even have a stove. She remembered how swiftly her own letters, which she had brought with her from Prague, had disappeared in flames. There had been a pretty nice stack of them, too. While Felice fed the stove, her mother had stood looking on from behind, making cutting remarks. She had known all along her relationship with Kafka would come to nothing.

Throw them in the trash as is? Impossible.

She had to tear them up.

Rip them into tiny shreds that no one could ever piece together. Then pour them back into the box, take them to the ocean, and bury them in the sand. Find a spot that even he would have liked and lay them to rest. The thought of it appealed to her.

She untied the ribbon and picked up the first letter, the one he had typed. She took it out of the envelope and set it aside.

Slowly she made her way through the first bunch, then the second, until she was holding one of the last letters. Written in the summer of 1917, a year after their accord in Marienbad. The end of the war was not yet in sight. Again he made excuses for why he couldn’t marry her, again enumerating all of his bad attributes, his unsuitability for marriage, his writing. He was living at the time in a damp, freezing apartment with no kitchen or bathroom, though it did have a view of the garden; he commended it for that. Nor was he eating properly; no wonder he had fallen ill. Europe was burning, yet he wrote only of himself. For her, Felice, he felt sorry, too, although not because it was hard for her surviving in that third year of war while supporting her mother and sister besides, no. He felt sorry for her only because she loved him. It was an ugly, selfish letter. That one definitely deserved to disappear.

It was two densely handwritten pages on thin wartime paper. She slowly tore it into two halves. The paper was old and put up no resistance, surrendering with a soft crinkling. She laid one half on top of the other, then tore them in two again, as easily as the first time. It wasn’t until she tried to rip up several scraps together, laid one on top of the other, that she had to exert her strength. Her hands were shaking by the time she was through.

But she didn’t give up. She picked up another envelope and removed from it the next letter, even worse than the one before.

The little bits covered with spidery writing floated down to the floor around her, featherlight flakes a mere puff of air could have blown away. They were nothing.

Dust you are, and to dust you shall return ran through her head, which was throbbing from lack of sleep. She was cold.

She got up, leaving the letters on the table, and dragged herself to bed. She climbed in, fully dressed, and pulled the blanket up to her neck. Tears ran down her temples, tickling her in her hair and behind her ears. She was useless. She had destroyed only two letters and was already too drained to go on. Meanwhile, there was still a whole stack of them left. This was going to kill her. And anyway, it was all going to end up with Schocken, who was just waiting for her to die. Joachim wouldn’t think twice about selling him the letters; he had already threatened he would.

Schocken, Joachim, Brod, and now this Appelbaum fellow to boot. Circling her like a pack of hyenas smelling blood.

She couldn’t trust anyone.

Exhausted, she finally fell asleep. When she opened her eyes again, she was feeling somewhat better and had an appetite. She knew now what to do. She would call up Masha and ask her to come over after she closed the shop. Then she would tell her friend everything. Masha had no personal connection to any of it, and this would be her first time hearing about the letters. She was a sensible, honest person, the kind you could count on for good advice.


Masha hurried right over. Felice barely had time to gather together the letters, put them back in the box, sweep up the scraps of paper, make tea, and spread a piece of bread with butter and jam.

She settled her girlfriend down at the table, poured her a cup of tea, and explained the whole thing to her. Well, not the whole thing, but enough for her to be able to help Felice reach a decision.

Masha wasn’t too interested in literature. She had heard Kafka’s name; that was about it. Yet she immediately grasped how difficult, if not impossible, it would be for Felice to hand over the letters. With her kind heart, she could sense it; she didn’t need a lot of words.

“Here’s what I think,” Masha said, stroking the back of Felice’s hand. “If this Kafka person really was as great a writer as you say, destroying the letters would be a shame. I think they’re right about that. And when it comes down to it, it’s not about the money, although eight thousand dollars, in your situation, is certainly nothing to sneeze at. The thing is, if you don’t give them the letters now but you also don’t destroy them, which I don’t think would be good and you don’t really want to do, either, you won’t have any control over what happens to them later. Who knows whose hands they might fall into? This way, you don’t have to worry. From everything you’ve told me, it sounds like this Schocken’s a reputable man, someone you can trust. It’s funny, I had no idea he had anything to do with books.” She smiled. “I remember the department stores—we used to go shopping at Schocken. The one in Frankfurt had a lovely café.”

Masha went on: “You don’t have to sell him all of them, either. No one but you knows how many there are. I can go through them with you if you want. You can pick which ones you don’t want anyone to see and we’ll burn them together. I’ll help you. Then the rest you can sell to Schocken, and that’ll be the end of that.”

Excerpt from Magdaléna Platzová’s Life After Kafka. Translation copyright © 2024 by Alex Zucker. Published by Bellevue Literary Press: Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.


1955: Los Angeles


Copak se najednou všichni pomátli?

Znovu jí napsal Brod, tentokrát přímo, ne přes Sofi, a opět jí vyjmenoval všechny důvody, proč by měla dopisy prodat Schockenovi.

A pak, na začátku února, několik týdnů po Joachimově návštěvě v Los Angeles, zavolal nějaký cizí člověk. Mluvil německy a představil se jako Casimiro Appelbaum.

Pomyslela si, že je v Americe neobvyklé, aby se cizí člověk do telefonu představoval plným jménem.

Poprosil ji, zda ji může navštívit, prý se jí potřebuje na něco velmi důležitého zeptat.

Řekla, že je nemocná a návštěvy nepřijímá. Pokud jí něco chce, může jí to povědět i po telefonu.

„Jsem syn Grety Blochové a Franze Kafky,“ řekl. „Možná vám o mně pan doktor vyprávěl, když u vás byl.“

„Jaký pan doktor?“

„Váš syn.“

„Vy že jste syn Franze Kafky?“

„A Grety Blochové, vaší přítelkyně. Nechtěl jsem vám způsobit šok, takhle po telefonu. Proto bych za vámi raději zašel.“

Chvíli se vůbec nezmohla na slovo. Pak ji napadlo zeptat se: „A kde jste?“

„V New Yorku. Ale mohu kdykoli přijet.“

„Dejte mi svoje číslo, já vám zavolám.“ Praktická, pohotová Felice.

Poznamenala si jeho telefonní číslo, zavěsila a vytočila Joachimovu ordinaci. Naštěstí měl zrovna pauzu a sekretářka ji hned přepojila.


Ano, ten člověk, ten Appelbaum, za ním opravdu byl. Dokonce dvakrát. Jednou jej přijal, podruhé už ne. Jak se dozvěděl, že byl za matkou v L. A., to netuší, možná mu to vyzradila sekretářka.

Kafkovi je docela podobný.

„Nesmysl, naprostý nesmysl! Něco takového! Proč jsi mi o tom nic neřekl?“

„Nechtěl jsem tě zbytečně rozrušit. Nebyl jsem si jistý, zda mluví pravdu, ale ví o Gretě spoustu detailů, zvláště z posledních let. To o bajonetu je prý povídačka, Greta zemřela v Osvětimi. Je na to svědek, nebo spíš svědkyně. Pan Schocken ovšem přesto nepochybuje o tom, že Appelbaum je podvodník.“

Vykřikla: „Jistě že je to podvodník! A co s tím má společného Schocken?“

„Uklidni se, mami. Appelbaum za ním byl. Chtěl vědět, za kolik by od něj koupil Kafkovy dopisy Gretě.“

„On má Franzovy dopisy?“

„Právě že nemá. Ale domnívá se, že by je mohl získat, kdyby někoho přesvědčil, třeba tebe, že je opravdu Gretin syn. Nemá na to žádné důkazy, jeho rodný list a všechny ostatní dokumenty byly v nějaké tašce, která se ztratila. Kaf-
kovy dopisy Greta uložila ještě před deportací u právníka ve Florencii, ale ten je samozřejmě Appelbaumovi nevydá.“

„Dopisy! Zase dopisy. Vy jste se opravdu všichni pomátli. Brod, Schocken, a teď ještě tenhle falešný Appelbaum. Prosím tě, jak by mohl mít Franz dítě s Gretou? Vždyť je to lež.“

„Asi je to lež, mami. Každopádně ho k sobě nezvi, ani mu nedávej svoji adresu. Kdyby volal, požádej ho, aby tě už neobtěžoval. Ale těch dopisů by ses měla zbavit. U Schockena budou v dobrých rukou a ty budeš mít konečně klid. A peníze potřebuješ.“


Když se rozešli, neslíbila mu, že jeho dopisy zničí, ani to po ní nežádal. Naopak jí dával vždy najevo, že s ní chce nadále zůstat alespoň prostřednictvím svých dopisů.

Teď se jich ale musí zbavit. Měla to udělat už dávno.

Skoro celou noc po rozhovoru s Joachimem nespala. Jakmile upadla do dřímoty, hned na ni odněkud vyskočil Kafkův syn, nebo kdo to byl, v posledním snu do něj bodala nožem, ale hrot nože, byla to stará zavírací kudla, po něm sklouzával a on se jen smál, dokud mu jej nezabodla do oka.

K ránu se rozhodla, že tu věc vyřeší, hned teď. Nebude to déle odkládat.

Vstala z postele, teprve se rozednívalo. V korunách žakarandových stromů hlasitě štěbetali ptáci.

Svlékla si kabátek od pyžama a žínkou namočenou v chladné vodě si omyla obličej, prsa a podpaží jako každý den. Vypláchla si ústa. Potom se oblékla, ale ne do domácího, vybrala si ve skříni tmavomodré šaty s plizovanou sukní. Nakonec, poté co si vlásenkami sepjala vlasy do drdůlku a z vlasů nad čelem vytvořila dvě úhledné vlny, si na krk zavěsila šňůru červených korálů.

V kuchyňce si uvařila ranní kávu s mlékem, opekla si toust a posnídala, trochu slavnostněji než jindy, u stolu v obývacím pokoji.

Když dojedla, umyla nádobí od snídaně a smetla drobky, byla připravena.

Krabice od Bati putovala z příborníku na jídelní stůl.

Odklopila víko.


Jako by se před ní schoulily.

Celou noc přemýšlela o tom, jak je zničí, obracela sem a tam v hlavě různé možnosti. Bylo jasné, že spálit je nedokáže. Ani nemá kamna. Dobře si pamatuje, jak bleskově mizely v plamenech její vlastní dopisy, které si přivezla z Prahy. Byl jich také pěkný štos. A zatímco je ládovala do kamen, matka stála za ní, přihlížela a trousila jedovaté poznámky. Od začátku přece věděla, že známost s Kafkou bude k ničemu.

Hodit je do smetí, tak jak jsou? Nemožné.

Musí je roztrhat.

Rozškubá je na drobounké útržky, které už nikdo nikdy nedá dohromady. Pak je nasype zpátky do krabice, odveze k oceánu a tam je pohřbí. Najde nějaké místo, které by se líbilo i jemu, a tam je zakope. Ten nápad se jí zamlouval.

Rozvázala stuhu a vzala do rukou první dopis, ten psaný na stroji. Vytáhla jej z obálky a zase odložila.

Pomalu se probírala první hromádkou, pak druhou, až držela jeden z posledních dopisů. Tenhle psal v létě roku sedmnáct, rok po jejich úmluvě v Marienbadu. Konec války byl dosud v nedohlednu. Zase se vytáčel, proč si ji nemůže vzít, zas vypočítával všechny své špatné stránky, svou nevhodnost k manželství, své psaní, bydlel tehdy v nějakém vymrzlém, vlhkém bytě bez kuchyně a koupelny, zato s výhledem do zahrad, to si pochvaloval. Ani pořádně nejedl, není divu, že se z toho rozstonal. Evropa se měnila ve spáleniště, ale on psal jen o sobě. Ji, Felici, také litoval, ale ne proto, že bylo těžké ve třetím roce války přežít a ještě podporovat matku a sestru, to ne. Litoval ji jen proto, že ho miluje, zrovna jeho. Ošklivý, sobecký dopis. Ten si rozhodně zaslouží, aby zmizel.

Byly toho dva hustě popsané listy tenkého válečného papíru. Pomalu je roztrhla na dvě poloviny. Starý papír se nezdráhal, poddával se jí s hebkým praskáním. Položila půlky na sebe a opět je přetrhla, i to šlo snadno. Teprve když se snažila přeškubnout víc na sebe položených útržků, musela použít sílu, snad proto se jí, když z dopisu konečně zbyla jen hromádka papíru, třásly ruce.

Ale nevzdala se. Vytáhla z obálky následující dopis, ještě horší než ten předchozí.

Kousíčky popsané pavoučím písmem se snášely na zem všude kolem ní, lehounké vločky, které pouhý výdech mohl odfouknout. Takové nic.

Prach jsi a v prach se obrátíš, táhlo jí hlavou, která bolela nevyspáním. Byla jí zima.

Vstala, nechala dopisy na stole a odvlekla se do postele. Lehla si tak, jak byla, a přikryla se dekou až po krk. Po spáncích jí stékala slza za slzou, šimraly ve vlasech a za ušima. Je bezmocná. Podařilo se jí zničit pouhé dva dopisy a už nemůže dál a taková hromada jich ještě zbývá. Tohle ji zabije. A všechno stejně připadne Schockenovi, který jen čeká na její smrt, Joachim nebude váhat a dopisy mu prodá, sám jí tím přece pohrozil.

Schocken, Joachim i Brod, a teď ještě tenhle Appelbaum. Obcházejí kolem jako hyeny, když větří kořist.

Nikomu nemůže důveřovat.

Vyčerpáním nakonec usnula. Když opět otevřela oči, cítila se o něco lépe a měla hlad. Už věděla, co udělá. Zavolá Maše a poprosí ji, aby za ní přijela, až zavře krám. Všechno jí poví. Maša s tou historií nemá nic společného, o dopisech uslyší poprvé. Je rozumná a upřímná, určitě jí dobře poradí.

Maša přijela rychle. Felice sotva stačila uklidit rozházené dopisy zpátky do krabice a zamést útržky papíru, uvařit čaj a namazat si kus chleba máslem a džemem.

Usadila přítelkyni ke stolu, nalila jí šálek čaje a všechno jí vysvětlila. Tedy ne úplně všechno, ale dost na to, aby jí Maša mohla pomoci s tak obtížným rozhodnutím.

Maša se o literaturu příliš nezajímala, Kafkovo jméno znala jen z doslechu. Zato hned pochopila, jak musí být pro Felici těžké, ba nemožné dát dopisy z rukou. Svým laskavým srdcem to dokázala vycítit, nepotřebovala mnoho slov.

„Já myslím takhle,“ řekla, když všechno potichu vyslechla a pohladila Felici po hřbetu ruky. „Jestli byl ten člověk, ten Kafka, opravdu tak velký spisovatel, jak říkáš, byla by škoda ty dopisy zničit. V tom oni mají pravdu. O peníze nakonec ani nejde, i když osm tisíc v tvojí situaci není k zahození. Jde spíš o to, že když jim ty dopisy nedáš teď ani je nezničíš, což by myslím nebylo dobré a ani to nechceš opravdu udělat, nebudeš mít později žádnou kontrolu nad tím, co s nimi bude. Kdo ví, komu nakonec padnou do rukou? Takhle můžeš být klidná. Ten Schocken, alespoň z toho, co jsi mi řekla, je přece seriózní člověk, dá se mu důvěřovat. To víš, já ani nevěděla, že má něco společného s knihami,“ usmála se. „Pamatuju jenom na jeho obchodní domy, jak se chodilo nakupovat k Schockenovi. U nás ve Frankfurtu měl báječnou kavárnu.“

Maša pokračovala: „A nemusíš mu přece dát všechny. Stejně nikdo neví, kolik jich bylo. Probereme je spolu, jestli chceš, jeden po druhém. Vybereš ty, které opravdu nechceš nikomu ukázat, a ty spolu spálíme, já ti pomůžu. Zbytek prodáš panu Schockenovi a bude klid.“

Excerpt from Život po Kafkovi. Copyright © 2022 by Magdaléna Platzová. Published by Argo: Reprinted by permission of the author. All rights reserved.

Magdaléna Platzová is the author of nine books, including three novels published in English: "Aaron’s Leap," a Lidové Noviny Book of the Year Award finalist, "The Attempt," longlisted for the Dublin Literary Award and a Czech Book Award finalist, and "Life After Kafka," a Magnesia Litera award finalist.

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Alex Zucker is the award-winning translator of several books by Czech authors, including Magdaléna Platzová’s novels "The Attempt" and "Life After Kafka."

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More from Issue 9: Winter/Spring 2024


The Chowdhury Distinguished Speakers Series: Maxine Hong Kingston in Conversation with David L. Ulin

by Maxine Hong Kingston, David L. Ulin


The Suspension of Disbelief: A Conversation Between Magdaléna Platzová and Alex Zucker

by Alex Zucker, Magdaléna Platzová