Today’s poem begins by offering a tale about the celebrated writer Franz Kafka cheering up a little girl who has lost her doll in a park, producing a succession of letters for her from the absent doll. The second “half” of the poem then offers an alternative version of events, before trailing off with a sense of uncertainty and incompleteness.
At Poetry in Aldeburgh: Ian Duhig will read alongside Geraldine Clarkson and Eric Berlin as part of ‘The Poetry Society Reading: National Poetry Competition Winners’ on Saturday 5th November, 11.30am to 12.30pm in the Jubilee Hall
Half the Story
Franz Kafka, the story goes, encountered a little girl in the park
where he walked regularly. She was crying. She’d lost her doll.
Kafka helped the girl search for the doll but they couldn’t find it.
They arranged to meet there next day to look again for her doll,
but still they could not find it. When they met for the third time,
Kafka gave her a tiny letter that he told her he’d found nearby.
She read, “Don’t be sad: I’m only travelling. I’ll write I promise!”
And every day that summer, when Kafka and the little girl met,
he’d read a new letter to her describing places the doll visited,
what it did there and who it met. The little girl was comforted.
When the holiday was over and she had to go back to school,
he gave her a doll that he said was the lost prodigal returned,
and, if it seemed a little different from the doll of her memory,
a note pinned to its scarf explained: ‘My travels changed me.’
Or so ends this version of the story, popular with therapists,
but in Dora Diamant’s own account, our one first-hand source,
there was no new doll, not a message of change and growth;
instead, Dora had described a final letter sent to the little girl
detailing how the doll met its soul mate and had married him;
how it would be too busy with its new family to write again,
enjoining the little girl to seek similar fulfilment in her own life.
Dora also noted how this affair had driven Kafka to distraction,
who’d endured white nights, tortured by his own compassion,
feverishly thinking up new adventures for his changeling doll
made out of letters and lies and love; how this correspondence
had been maintained in this fashion for a period of three weeks –
as long as that holiday when Dora Diamant had first met Franz,
a place with a name that I only half-recall now, Graal-something.
from The Blind Roadmaker (Picador, 2016)
Writing Prompt: But I Digress
Laurence Sterne’s novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is full of the uncertainty contained in that final word of ‘Half the Story’ (“Graal-something”), it’s almost a celebration of it, the narrator saying “I begin with writing the first sentence – and trusting to Almighty God for the second.”
Tristram Shandy is also a fan of digressions: “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;—they are the life, the soul of reading;—take them out of this book for instance,—you might as well take the book along with them;” Today, bask in this “sunshine” and craft a poem that deviates wildly from its apparent original premise and takes a circuitous route to a destination it is not aware of. Allow yourself to veer in unpredictable directions. Follow the principle Rebecca Solnit states in her Field Guide to Getting Lost, “Leave the door open for the unknown.”