Closely Reading Kafka

It is good to remind ourselves from time to time that theory is in service of practice, and practice is in service of understanding, of pleasure, and even of insight. The complexities of grammar, the intricacies of critical thinking, and the many ways we have to stylize our sentences all make the art of writing a serious enough affair. But the effort and time it takes to sit comfortably with all that theory can produce quite a yield in its time. What we read and write—the form or structure of the language before us—is what conveys the meaning; and if we can see that structure at work, know its architecture and design, we can give ourselves the possibility of seeing things that might have otherwise passed us by.

The great twentieth-century novelist Franz Kafka wrote a short story entitled A Country Doctor, a strange tale, as we might expect from Kafka (he is, after all, the eponym of our adjective Kafkaesque, a surreal, nightmarish quality that mysteriously complicates mundane affairs), and it begins with this imposing first sentence:

I was in a most awkward predicament: I needed to leave at once on an urgent journey; a seriously ill patient was waiting for me in a village ten miles away; a heavy snowstorm filled the wide interval between him and me; I had a carriage, light, with large wheels, perfectly suited to our country roads; wrapped in my fur coat, my instrument bag in my hand, I was already standing in the yard ready to go; but I lacked a horse, a horse.

Kafka wrote in German, so we must trust the work of the translator and consider the English he or she has written as an accurate rendering of the original (this version is taken from 100 Great Short Stories, edited by James Daley, Dover, 2015, and no translator is named). It is right to remember, in other words, that we are analyzing a translation, not the original, whose own peculiar structure will signify ideas that simply cannot be carried across in any translation.

That said, though, Kafka’s story in English begins with this 84-word sentence, kept balanced and poised with one colon, five semicolons, and a handful of commas. What are we to make of it? It behooves us first to remember the purpose of the semicolon: to distinguish but not entirely separate. Semicolons most often group clauses, combinations of subjects and verbs which each represent a thought: I needed to leave; a patient was waiting; a snowstorm filled; I had a carriage; I was standing; I lacked a horse. The five semicolons differentiate these six thoughts, and because the author (or translator) could have chosen another form in which to state those thoughts (each as a simple sentence followed by a period, for example, producing what is called a segregated style; or two or three clauses in various combinations of compound sentences, each statement closed with a period), we are warranted to ask what the intention of the writer might have been with the structure and style he ultimately settled on.

If semicolons distinguish but do not completely isolate one thought from another, then perhaps here we are to sense in the grammatical structure the urgency the narrator explicitly refers to in the first line: he must leave, he says, on an urgent journey. The proximity of the six thoughts, their pressing close on one another, does not allow our attention to pause, to gather and steady and ready itself for another thought. Instead, we are rushed along grammatically, just as the narrator is rushing and bundling himself to reach his pressing, needful duty. Had the writer employed commas instead of semicolons between the clauses, the thoughts would have rolled out as the sentence proceeded, and the result would have been of calmer effect, perhaps like that of washing waves. But because the semicolon stands in strength between a comma and a period, the six thoughts edge one another, and this creates a constricting, rough-edged tension that mirrors the meaning: something is to be done; efforts have been made; but, but—and the sentence ends with twice naming the lack that could bring all this rushing to good effect: a horse, a horse. We sense the futility of preparation without means, of action without meaning or fruition.

We forget sometimes that our writing begins with an empty screen or blank piece of paper, just as a painter begins with a vacant canvas or a musician with silence. And remembering that reminds us that our choices are significant, that they have meaning because we could have chosen otherwise. In writing, as elsewhere, the choices are legion, and so we are justified is asking why the writer did this instead of that, as we have here asked why Kafka’s first sentence is constructed as it is. Reading closely like this brings us higher, or deeper, into the world of ideas from which the story is born. If we are being rushed along grammatically, if anxious, fruitless urgency is not only named but embedded in the sentence structure, then what is in store for us as we continue, and what could be the meaning of the thwarting lack of a horse? The structure of this very first sentence has stirred us, troubled us a little, and that is right where Kafka, certainly Kafka, wants us to be.


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  1. These posts just keep getting better and better, They are begging to evolve into a book.

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