Kathi Diamant has been haunted by the ghost of Franz Kafka's last love for more than three decades. Not in a creepy “I see dead people” kind of way, but in the way that someone's spirit can pervade your consciousness, setting up camp like some unrelenting squatter.
Diamant is a writer, actor, professor, public speaker and anchor/producer for KPBS-TV. She is perhaps best known for her stint throughout the 1980s as co-host of the television talk show Sun Up San Diego. In 2003, Diamant added biographer to her lengthy list of professional credits with the publication of Kafka's Last Love: The Mystery of Dora Diamant.
Dora's specter first appeared to Diamant during a college literature class. At the time, Diamant was far more intrigued by her possible blood relation to Dora than Kafka's purported literary genius. This curiosity launched Diamant on a decades-long quest that took her across Europe, deep into Kafka scholarship, and finally resulted in the award-winning biography on Dora.
“She's been haunting me since 1971, since I learned about her in that class,” said Diamant in an interview. “She's been guiding me through the first half of my life.”
Until Diamant's book, little was known about Kafka's last-and perhaps greatest-love. Dora met Kafka, 15 years her senior, at a Baltic seaside resort and it was-please pardon the cliché-love at first sight. But Kafka's health was already failing. Less than a year later, at 41, he died from tuberculosis in his lover's arms.
Part of the reason Diamant wrote the book was to “correct” a faulty but common representation of Kafka. “That he couldn't love, or settle down-it's a myth. He became a caricature of his fictional protagonists, and the real man got lost,” Diamant said. “The image of Kafka being this lonely, haunted, alienated man was a falsehood that's been kept alive through succeeding generations.”
Yet Diamant felt Dora's own remarkable story warranted the telling. After Kafka's death, Dora-a communist and a Jew-fled with her husband and daughter from war and political upheaval. The biography is set against a historical backdrop that includes some of the century's most significant incidents, including the rise of Nazism, Fascism, Stalinism and the creation of Israel.
“She was a survivor, someone who with optimism faced some of the greatest challenges of the 20th century and came out of it not unscathed, but with hope, optimism and her belief in humanity intact,” Diamant said.
The book is also a tale of enduring love. Throughout Dora's life, she seemed intent on keeping Kafka's memory alive. She promoted his work and even named her daughter Franziska. The story has a rather tragic ending-Dora died at 54 of an incurable kidney disease, and her daughter didn't have the means to give her a proper burial. Franziska Marianne Lask was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, and died penniless and alone in 1981.
You might guess that with the publication of Kafka's Last Love, Diamant would finally be able to purge the ghost of Dora. But you'd be wrong.
“Dora continues to inform my life,” said Diamant, “and no, she hasn't gone away.”
There are echoes of Dora in Diamant's current project, in which she returns to her first love-the stage. In Kim Porter's new play Munched, Diamant plays a mother convicted of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, a psychological disorder that leads a mother to fabricate or induce symptoms in her child to fulfill her own need for attention and sympathy.
The play opens Thursday, Aug. 25, at the Lyceum Space downtown as part of the Fritz Blitz, a four-week festival of new plays produced by the Fritz Theatre (www.fritz
“For Kathi, acting is easy because she's just so well rounded,” said Fritz artistic director Duane Daniels. “One of the reasons that Kathi was so perfect to me in this role is that the mother may well be a victim of the system in this play. But the last thing I wanted was someone who was victim-like. Kathi has an inner strength and a beauty that transcends everything else. It's sort of a way to play against type.”
Munched deals with separation, reunion, loss and the mutability of history-themes that have swirled about Diamant in her extensive research for Kafka's Last Love.
In 1999, she found Dora's unmarked grave in London and reunited the remaining Diamant family members for a stone-setting ceremony. The highlight of writing the book, Diamant said, came in 2004, when she brought the lovers' families together for the first time since Kafka's funeral.
“We were all able to experience the very real-life connection that those of us who've researched Dora have experienced-that we are all connected, regardless of blood or birth,” Diamant said. “So whether I'm related to her or not doesn't matter.”
As it turns out, she's not. At least, there's no evidence that they're related. But Diamant still has Dora in her-somehow. She plans to write a book about the search for Dora and how, through the process, she found Kafka. A documentary film is also in the works.
“She's still sitting on my shoulder,” said Diamant. “I think one of the greatest lessons I've learned-through the research and writing, getting this book published and meeting all the people I met in the process-is that love doesn't die. The love Dora engendered in her life, I've been able to experience in mine, even though we never met. That life continues on; it doesn't disappear just because I'm not writing about it.”