I was introduced to Kafka’s diaries around the same time I first read Pale Fire. I only discovered ‘A Country Doctor’ a couple of years ago, however, as the first story in Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories (1958, republished by NYRB in 2002). In his introduction Jarrell writes:
‘One of the things that make Kafka so marvellous a writer is his discovery of – or, rather, discovery by – a kind of narrative in which logical analysis and humour, the greatest enemies of narrative movement, have become themselves part of the movement. In narrative at its purest or most eventful we do not understand but are the narrative … in fiction, to understand everything is to get nowhere.’
In other words, a story can carry us to its conclusion but one of us will have to walk home again.
Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories is often astounding and the stories in it, alongside that introductory essay, challenged my preconceptions of what a short story is for and what it can be; nothing in that statement is an exaggeration. Get hold of a copy before it slips out of print again.
First published in A Country Doctor (Ein Landarzt), Kurt Wolff, 1919; translated by Edwin and Willa Muir, first published in The Metamorphosis, The Penal Colony, and Other Stories, Schocken Books, 1948. Now available in various translations, including online in Ian Johnston’s translation here)