by Catherine Petruccione

#53, 3 October 2005

An Interview with Kathi Diamant

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Kafka's Last Love: The Mystery of Dora Diamant (Basic Books, NY, 2003) is the story of Dora Diamant, Franz Kafka's mistress during the last year of his life.

Dora was at his side when Kafka, only 40 years old, succumbed to tuberculosis in 1924. He deeply affected her life, and she never forgot him, though she did go on to marry, bear a child, and survive some of the worst upheavals of the 20th century.

Kathi Diamant, author of Kafka's Last Love, was born the year that Dora Diamant died.

And thus the mystery began. During her college years, it was simple curiosity, not knowing if she was related to Dora or not, but it ultimately grew into a full-time activity culminating in the establishment of the Kafka Project at San Diego State University, not to mention world-wide travel and research. The outcome of Kathi's enormous undertaking is a moving and detailed biography of Dora's life, which also provides new insight into Kafka himself.

Kathi Diamant now lives in San Diego with her husband Byron LaDue, where she is an adjunct professor at San Diego State University. Among her many successful pursuits, she is also an actress, guest lecturer, journalist, and formerly a morning talk show host/interviewer for KFMB-TV in San Diego from 1983-1990. She received her B.A. degree in Theatre and Speech Communications from Florida State University and also attended the American Film Institute's Screenwriting Program in Los Angeles and the University of Georgia. She is founder and Director of the Kafka Project at San Diego State University, established in 1998. She has won numerous awards for her writing, acting and journalism, including the Geisel Award, "The Best of the Best," San Diego Book Awards, 2004. Currently, she is Anchor/Producer for KPBS TV-FM stations in San Diego, California.

BookThink: Kathi, I understand you began pursuing this story because of your curiosity about the possibility of being related to Dora Diamant. Can you tell us how this question came up and how it influenced you during your research?

Diamant: I was 19 years old in a German language literature class in college, reading and translating Kafka's The Metamorphosis. I had taken the class because I had grown up in Germany. I thought I had retained enough of the language so that I'd ace the class, but I hadn't counted on Kafka - and here we were translating a story that was absolutely inexplicable to my 19-year old person. The only thing that was keeping me in class was the instructor, who was young and cute! And also the fact that he engaged me in conversation in front of the other students, thinking I might have some information that I might be able to impart - was I related to Dora Diamant? I hadn't heard of anybody else with my last name. I asked whether she was Jewish, because my father's family was Jewish. And he said "Yes, I think she was." And I said, "Well, yes, then we probably are related." I promised to find out and let him know, and after class I went running to the library.

BookThink: Have you had any contact with this professor since that time?

Diamant: Well, this is so ironic. When the book was in the final stages of writing and editing, I realized that I needed to thank this guy. I was working on the acknowledgements for the book, so I got boxes out of storage and found my transcripts from 1971. It simply said "Instructor" - no name. I contacted the University of Georgia German Department. I had thought he was a Ph.D. candidate, but it turned out they didn't have a Ph.D. program in those days, so he must have been a graduate student. Then I looked through all the rolls of the graduate students during that time period, but no name stood out. I worked with the registrar's office as well but was not able to come up with an answer. With everything I was able to find out about Dora, I wasn't able to find out the name of my German teacher. I often tell the story of how his question planted the seed for this whole project, and perhaps some day he will come forward so I can thank him!

BookThink: Did you find an answer to the question, or are there any lingering doubts?

Diamant: The fact is, I don't know. It's possible, but it's not the point. The point is that we are all connected, regardless of blood or birth. The question could be answered with a DNA test, but it's not necessary for me to know. Life is a great mystery. There aren't explanations for a lot of things. There aren't explanations for why I was able to find Dora's diary in Paris when other scholars had gone before me, or how I was able to figure out things about Dora before I found proof of them, or why coincidental connections led to the greatest discoveries. There is no way to understand what connection exists between us other than to honor it and make sure it brings the greatest good to the most people. One of the most important lessons I've gotten out of this is that life may end, but love doesn't die, and that we can influence others we will never meet through the way we live our lives. The love that Dora engendered in her life is visited on me by those who loved her, who have come to love me and who I now love. Dora's vibrancy, her life force, is still present.

BookThink: Your book exposes aspects of Kafka that are very different from the Kafka we usually envision from his writing - a surprisingly light, fun, happy and optimistic side. Do you think it was his relationship with Dora which brought out these qualities late in his life or do you think they were always there?

Diamant: They were always there. That's what attracted Dora to him. Everyone mentioned his cheerfulness, his kindness, his playfulness. Max Brod said that Kafka was the most amusing man he ever met. He was often called a saint, not because he imposed his will or he was "holier than thou" but because he held himself to such a high standard.

One of the great stories I had to cut out of the book was about Kafka's guerilla law career. He used to wage what he called "campaigns for justice." Kafka was a lawyer for the Workers' Accident Insurance Company and was supposed to represent the state against the workers. He also wrote guidelines for safe practices for workers, but he was primarily the representative for the insurance company. In this case, an old man, a day laborer, had had his leg crushed in an accident with a crane. He had submitted the paperwork for his claim, but it wasn't in the proper form and it would have been denied, dooming him to a life of poverty. However, all was saved when one of the leading lawyers in Prague showed up at this poor laborer's door and offered to take on his case pro bono, which he successfully argued against Kafka. The old man later learned that it was Kafka who paid for that lawyer so that he would receive his just and fair compensation.

Johannes Urzidil, who wrote the account of Kafka's funeral in my book, said Kafka was the capstone of the Prague writer's community, that he was the spirit behind them all, even though he wasn't the most successful, the most outspoken, or the most prominent, that he was the essence of them. He also said that it was impossible to know Kafka and not love him, and moreover, that his friends loved each other for his sake. Kafka was an extraordinarily loving person who was beloved by all who knew him. One of the reasons I feel it was important to publish my book was because Kafka has become a caricature of his fictional protagonists - a monstrously lonely, alienated, deeply depressed man. This distorted view of Kafka has come from the literary perspective, from academics who have taken his literary works and applied it to his life and announced: this is Kafka. But that is not the picture presented in writings of people who actually knew him.

BookThink: Although it is obvious that Kafka had a charismatic personality (and it is easy to imagine how Dora falls in love with him), she definitely comes across as the strong, self-possessed one of the pair. Do you think it was primarily these qualities, or others that were so attractive to Kafka?

Diamant: Overwhelmingly, it was her independence, the fact that she was able to do at 25 what he at age 40 had still been unable to do, break away from his father and his expectations. I think that her courage inspired him and gave him not only hope but strength. He thought she was living an authentic life, and this was something above all that he admired.

She was doing work at the Jewish People's Home to help others, work that he had for many years encouraged and supported, that he believed would lead the workers on a spiritual path to salvation even before the people being helped. That's what made her such a good partner for him. She didn't want what all the other women of her time wanted, which was a solid marriage, central heating, and, as Kafka said, "heavy German furniture." These things were not essential to Dora. He thought he couldn't have a marriage because most women wanted security and luxury. He wanted marriage, wanted that connection to someone, but there was no one appropriate until he met Dora. Max Brod said that had he met Dora sooner, his will to live would have been stronger sooner and in time. I also believe that had he not been so ill and died that they would have stayed together and been devoted for the rest of their lives. Dora continued to love him. She had a photograph of him at her bedside when she died.

BookThink: The largest part of this book, of course, is about Dora. What did you find most admirable and memorable about her?

Diamant: The passion with which she led her life. The fact that she was someone who faced some of the greatest challenges of the twentieth century, and she came out of it not unscathed but with her optimism and her belief in humanity intact. As Hanny Lichtenstern told me, Dora understood human nature and made allowances for all, and she was able to find the good in any given situation.

This is a gift, and it is practicable. It's not elusive. We just have to do it, in any given situation, say, "Okay, what do I have to be grateful for in this situation?" It's something I have practiced because of Dora's influence. Dora's quote has become my motto. Her last words on her death bed were "Mach was du kannst," [Do what you can]. It is a bit of a double-edged sword because it means to do what you can, which can let you off the hook in one way, but on the other hand, you have to do what you can.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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