An Ailing Franz Kafka Curses Writer’s Block in This Handwritten Letter to a Friend

“I haven’t written anything for three years,” he admitted in the note, which will go to auction this summer

Letter and Envelope
The correspondence is undated, but experts think Kafka wrote it in the spring of 1920. Sotheby’s

One of Franz Kafka’s characteristic lamentations of writer’s block, captured in a handwritten letter from a sanatorium, is heading to the auction block.

Scrawled in neat German cursive, the undated correspondence is thought to have been written in the spring of 1920, nearly five years after the publication of The Metamorphosis, Kafka’s best-known work, according to a statement from Sotheby’s. The writer was ailing from tuberculosis at the time, receiving treatment in northern Italy, and, as he expresses, experiencing a creative dry spell.

“I haven’t written anything for three years, what’s been published now are old things, I don’t have any other work, not even something I’ve started,” reads his letter to Austrian poet Albert Ehrenstein.

Kafka was writing to his friend Albert Ehrenstein, an Austrian poet and editor of the literary magazine Die Gefährten. Sotheby's

Scholars presume Ehrenstein must have seen a work of Kafka’s in print, which prompted him to ask Kafka to contribute to Die Gefährten—the Expressionist literary journal Ehrenstein was editing, per the auction house.

Kafka wrote this letter only three years after his 1917 tuberculosis diagnosis. But even before illness, he was no stranger to unproductivity. As Gabriel Heaton, a books and manuscript specialist at Sotheby’s, tells the Guardian’s Kate Connolly, the novelist is “the laureate of writer’s block, as we see from his diaries.”

For example, Kafka’s frustration is especially apparent in a set of journal entries written in the winter of 1915:

January 20, 1915: The end of writing. When will it take me up again?

January 29, 1915: Again tried to write, virtually useless.

January 30, 1915: The old incapacity. Interrupted my writing for barely ten days and already cast out. Once again prodigious efforts stand before me. You have to dive down, as it were, and sink more rapidly than that which sinks in advance of you.

February 7, 1915: Complete standstill. Unending torments.

March 11, 1915: How time flies; another ten days and I have achieved nothing.

Kafka was born in 1883 in Prague, where he lived most of his life. After graduating from law school, he eventually landed at an accident insurance company. According to Prague’s Kafka Museum, Kafka didn’t consider himself a writer, as he wasn’t a “literary professional” who made a living with words.

His writing career consisted of “short periods of relative satisfaction and long periods of despair over what he had and hadn’t written,” per the museum. As CNN’s Amarachi Orie writes, Kafka struggled with anxiety, hopelessness and isolation throughout his life—feelings that both inspired and hindered his work.

“When worries have penetrated to a certain layer of existence, the writing and the complaining obviously stop,” he wrote in the letter to Ehrenstein. “My resistance was not all that strong either.”

Franz Kafka was born in 1883 and died in 1924. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Sotheby’s will open bidding on June 27. According to the auction house, the letter is expected to sell for roughly $90,000 to $115,000.

Four years after this correspondence, Kafka died of tuberculosis at just 40 years old. In an unsent letter addressed to his friend Max Brod—found in Kafka’s desk after his death—he asked that all his writings be burned unread. Brod disregarded his friend’s request, and three of Kafka’s now-famous novels were published posthumously: The Trial, The Castle and Amerika.

“The life and works of Franz Kafka have long been a source of fascination throughout the world,” says Heaton in the statement. “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. We can also all be thankful that Kafka would continue to pick up his pen despite his crippling writer’s block.”

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