Kafka, “Description of a Struggle” (1909)

Frank kafka

“… that it might be a good idea to go to church and pray at the top of one’s voice in order to be looked at and acquire a body.”

At a party. The narrator is disconcerted by an acquaintance’s confessions of recent intimacies. He leaves the party with him on a pretense, supposedly to save him “from disgrace.” The man has nothing to recommend him but for some reason “he must always remain with me, always.” He’s uncomfortable with his lanky body. There’s an odd, misplaced eroticism between the two, more from the narrator’s perspective. That, or paranoia: he thinks the acquaintance will murder him. He falls. Gets up. Tells him to tell his life story. Jumps on his back, rides him like a horse. Says meaningless lines: “We walk along so happily, a fine wind is whistling through the gaps made by us and our limbs. In the mountains our throats become free. It’s a wonder we don’t break into song.” His acquaintances knee is injured. He abandons him to the vigil of vultures he’s summoned with a whistle: a touch of magic realism. The moon recurs, “terrifying.” He sleeps in a tree. He wakes up. Falls. “I could not bear the strain of seeing around me the things of the earth. I felt convinced that every movement and every thought was forced, and that one had to be on one’s guard against them.” Sound of sobs. His? Depression.

Then the section called The Fat Man. Meditation on a mountain. Men carrying the fat man drown. The fat man drifts down the current. The narrator loves the fat man, thinks by following him he could “learn something about the dangers of this apparently safe country.” Memory of church, attended for the love of a church-going girl. “For since my arrival in this town clarity had become more important to me than anything else.” He wants to know why a supplicant made such a spectacle of his praying in church. They develop the same strange semi-seductive courtship as with the other acquaintance until the supplicant agrees to sit down and answer questions about his praying. “Oh, I just get fun out of people watching me, out of occasionally casting a shadow on the altar, so to speak.” (Isn’t that half the reason people go to church? Or a third, the half being to show off wardrobes and flirt?) Now all of a sudden “this creature had practically forced me to listen to him.” Again with the fluidity of testimonies: Now it’s the supplicant who wants to learn truths from the narrator. (It’s all in his head.) A girl speaks a few good lines to the supplicant: “‘There’s no doubt, sir, that for you the truth is too tiring. Just look at yourself! The entire length of you is cut out of tissue paper, yellow tissue paper, like a silhouette, and when you walk one ought to hear you rustle. So one shouldn’t get annoyed at your attitude or opinion, for you can’t help bending to whatever draft happens to be in the room.’” Of course the reality of that and other scenes is put in question. Long disquisition, meandering, missing lyricism’s mark because lyricism is not intended as much as mocked.

The conversation with the supplicant takes on tones of revelation. Why do you pray in church every evening? “Oh, why should we talk about it? People who live alone have no responsibility in the evenings. One fears a number of things — that one’s body could vanish, that human beings may really be what they appear to be at twilight, that one might not be allowed to walk without a stick, that it might be a good idea to go to church and pray at the top of one’s voice in order to be looked at and acquire a body.”

”The Drowning of the Fat Man” sequence is more surrealism. Arms as huge as the clouds, legs sprawled over mountains. Then we’re back where we started, with the man from the party following the narrator. He speaks of his lotharioism. He’s lost. “You’ll have to kill yourself,” narrator tells him. The man stabs himself in his upper arm. “I sucked a little at the deep wound.” (More jarring eroticism.)

The end is as abrupt as the story’s entire rhythm, as dissatisfying and frustrating. Meandering self-indulgence that fits in a collection only because Kafka wrote it, but without his name it’s a fat story drowning in murky prose and murkier surrealism. There are glimmers of beauty but the art is on a distant shore.