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Kafka Stories - 2014 > Discussion - Week One - Kafka - Description of a Struggle

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message 1: by Jim (new)

Jim | 3055 comments Mod
This discussion covers the story, Description of a Struggle


Guy’s at a party gettin’ his drink on when some chapped-lipped playa starts talkin’ ‘bout how he’s been hittin’ on some fine piece, when – stop me if you’ve heard this one before…

What starts out as a seemingly simple social encounter at a late-evening party, quickly devolves into a surreal roam around town. Who’s saying and doing what to whom is often unclear and up for interpretation. Welcome to Franz’s World.

As a starting point, let’s begin with a quote from group member, Gregsamsa*:

“I just re-read "Description of a Struggle" and were this group not named BRAIN PAIN I would be wary about starting with it. Still, readers should begin with a caveat in mind, something like "Consider these collected fragments as trial runs for later more polished weirdness."”


In Description of a Struggle, we are given what feel like fragments, but they seem to hold together okay as a reasonable narrative. Were you able to follow the narrator(s)/protagonist(s) through the events of the evening? What might have been going on as the descriptions shifted from real to surreal? What did the surreal elements suggest within the context of the story?

Over the next nine months, we’ll be exploring many of Kafka’s short stories. When we reach his most well-known work, The Metamorphosis, it will be interesting to look back at the “unpolished weirdness” of Description of a Struggle, and see how it holds up as a story.




*Yep. That’s a Kafka reference…


message 2: by Zadignose (last edited Feb 02, 2014 04:27PM) (new)

Zadignose | 444 comments Will I re-re-read it? Hmmm...

Well, for the moment, I definitely got a very strong positive feeling from the beginning of this one. There's something at once familiar and peculiar in the awkward social moment when the protagonist comes to the rescue of his acquaintance--though his acquaintance has no awareness of needing to be rescued, and though it is against the protagonist's own inclination to try to help this man--by loudly "accepting" his proposal to go climb a mountain. He of course creates a situation that is even more awkward and undesirable than the one which he was hoping to avert, though it seemed for a moment essential that he should speak up and do something!

This story, on a whole, seems already expressive of a theme which I see as a constant in Kafka's work: reversals and undermining. Impressions are always being wrought, sometimes bluntly, and sometimes so subtly that we are hardly aware of them, but only so that these impressions can be challenged. We are thrown into a state of perpetual vertigo. There will be no restful moments, because the moment we achieve any kind of stability and restfulness, we anticipate the rug being pulled out from under our feet... even if it isn't pulled out, we're unsettled by the anticipation.

Of course, there is the potential for thrill and laughter within this perpetual vertigo as well.

Now, I'll admit that I wasn't entirely satisfied with some of the... incohesiveness of parts of this particular story. I'm not entirely confident that I enjoyed the swim-flying moments, for instance, which do invoke a real (and I suppose common) dream state. As much as I tend to think of Kafka as exhibiting dream-logic in his stories, this came a little too close to portraying his tale as literally a dream on display. But... I'm uncertain in my judgment here. I would just be offended if anyone (Kafka, for instance) were to suddenly pull away the curtain and say: "Aha! it was just a dream... so it makes sense... because dreams aren't supposed to make sense..." or something like that. But the swim-flying seemed perilously close to just such a conclusion.

I did quite like the bizarre compulsion that our narrator had to gradually, unobtrusively, hopefully never to be discovered, reduce his height by bending until he was literally doubled over (and of course he got caught). It seemed a kind of exaggerated version of the familiar situation where a slightly intoxicated person might step-by-step, speaking up here and there to cover his tracks get closer-and-closer to the exit in such an awkward way that everyone is bound to notice, and it would have been far less embarrassing for all concerned if he had just had the courage to boldly declare "I'm leaving NOW!" and walk out the door.

But this, too, is a very Kafka-style dilemma. If he or one of his characters ever does take such a bold move as to declare "I'm leaving NOW!" then he and others will soon conclude that he was being an ass, and it was wrong to make such a production of it. There's no escape, then, as he can never boldly nor subtly evade the traps his anxiety sets for him.


message 3: by Jim (new)

Jim | 3055 comments Mod
Zadignose wrote: "Will I re-re-read it? Hmmm...

Well, for the moment, I definitely got a very strong positive feeling from the beginning of this one. There's something at once familiar and peculiar in the awkward s..."


Good stuff Z!!

The anxiety of traps - social, psychological, emotional - and the discomfort they create in the characters and the reader. A good starting point for digging into Kafka's cosmos...


message 4: by Zadignose (last edited Feb 03, 2014 03:12AM) (new)

Zadignose | 444 comments I also thought it worth pointing out the strange and inconsistent way that the protagonist identifies with his acquaintance. The acquaintance can provoke a bit of jealousy or merely disgust at his crude manners, while our protagonist is only a lone bachelor (a man sitting alone drinking Schnapps) who should be spared any talk of flirtation... yet later the protagonist believes that the girl with the black ribbon, whom he had to tip with a coin to get her away from the embraces of the acquaintance, is actually his own lover, and one he need not feel jealous of (he was loved "if not passionately, at least faithfully"). And in reference to an imagined conversation between the acquaintance and the supposed other girl Anna/Annie, it becomes somewhat unclear, I think, who is having the conversation and who is truly being mocked. The alternately infatuated condition and murderous intention of the acquaintance also seems as though it were a projection of the protagonist's own will/whims. So the identification is there, yet they cannot possibly be one person, they are distinct and at odds.

So... okay, perhaps we can say the protagonist has a compulsion to identify with, love, and hate this near stranger. May we also suppose the acquaintance is more potent than he, and more... primal? More "id"?


message 5: by Henry (new)

Henry Martin (henrymartin) I'm sorry for not participating yet. I requested a copy from my library, but, alas, I'm still waiting.

This is one I've been looking forward to.


message 6: by Gregsamsa (new)

Gregsamsa | 74 comments My favorite thing about this story (or fragment collection) was definitely the first fragment's use of the tensions that manifest in social situations where one feels a duty to a propriety whose definition and boundaries are unclear. He feels he must do something to reduce the perceived potential embarrassment, but once he does so by leaving, so it's just the two of them, then there's the strange no-man's-land of social interaction between standoffish formality and T.M.I. or inappropriate intimacy, and how every act and utterance is staking out a spot--desired or not--one might regret taking. It felt to me that the narrator was equally afraid of losing control and being responsible for any control he would exert.

I'm with Zad on how it's too easy just to say "it's dreamlike," but this sort of hard-to-name anxiety the story begins with and the way this evolves into the reeling between the extremes of alienation/enmity and familiarity/intimacy seems dreamlike in how their inability to settle on polite mutually-understood ground itself is what propels their pointless trek, with each action and snatch of dialog launching so much second-guessing and self-conscious analysis that the narrator becomes estranged from his own words and actions. And then it gets weird.

I'd be curious to know what you guys think about the other fragments and how they work with this one. Does anyone have any info on whether Kafka himself planned these to be part of a whole or whether that was a unity later imposed? The episode with the Fat Man illustrates something that comes up over and over in K's work: oscillation between obeisance and repulsion to/from an other, but for me that's the only thing that links it, tenuously IMHO, to the first fragment.


message 7: by Book Portrait (new)

Book Portrait | 31 comments Hi all & thank you Jim for this Kafka group read. :)

I just finished reading the story and what a ride! Zadig's comments on Kafka's "reversals and undermining" and the induced "vertigo" and Gregsamsa's on alienation track some of the impressions I got too.

I actually enjoyed the free-flowing middle part: between weird tales, non sense and surrealism it made me wonder what Kafka was onto (or what he was on!) and if the fragmentary nature of what feels like a collage was out of necessity or on purpose. He seemed to be searching for a new form to express his sense of disconnect or entrapment, in particular in relation to what society expects from young men (a fiancée? Oh the Horror!)...

In the middle of it all, this line actually made me laugh out loud:

Er unterbrach mich: "Ich bin froh, daß ich das, was Ihr sagtet, nicht verstanden habe."

(loosely translated: He cut me: "I'm happy I didn't understand a thing you said.")

At several points in the story I wondered if the "friend" wasn't after all a double of the narrator, an "imaginary friend"... a drunken man talking to himself while trekking across town on a cold night...


Jim wrote: "In Description of a Struggle, we are given what feel like fragments, but they seem to hold together okay as a reasonable narrative. Were you able to follow the narrator(s)/protagonist(s) through the events of the evening? What might have been going on as the descriptions shifted from real to surreal? What did the surreal elements suggest within the context of the story?"

I'm going to have to mull over these questions! :)


message 8: by Book Portrait (new)

Book Portrait | 31 comments The book's Wiki page informs us that the narrator treks across Prague and Petřín hill (in German Laurenziberg):




and that:

John Updike, in his foreword to an English language collection of Kafka's stories calls it (along with "Wedding Preparations in the Country," another early story) "repellent" containing "something of adolescent posturing" and advises new readers of Kafka to skip them.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Descript...


message 9: by Jim (new)

Jim | 3055 comments Mod
Book Portrait wrote: "John Updike, in his foreword to an English language collection of Kafka's stories calls it (along with "Wedding Preparations in the Country," another early story) "repellent" containing "something of adolescent posturing" and advises new readers of Kafka to skip them..."

Thankfully, Updike is dead, so we can ignore his condescending advice!


message 10: by Gregsamsa (new)

Gregsamsa | 74 comments It's a compliment to Kafka, to get such a remark from Mr. Conventional. As Gore Vidal once quipped about him: "He never met a received notion he didn't warmly embrace." (or something to that effect; don't have the essay handy)


message 11: by Gregsamsa (new)

Gregsamsa | 74 comments Book Portrait wrote: "At several points in the story I wondered if the 'friend' wasn't after all a double of the narrator."

This reminds me, did anyone else, around the point where the narrator sees his companion wound himself, get the fleeting impression that they had switched places?


message 12: by Jim (new)

Jim | 3055 comments Mod
Gregsamsa wrote: "This reminds me, did anyone else, around the point where the narrator sees his companion wound himself, get the fleeting impression that they had switched places? .."

Yes!! Which is why I put "(s)" after the words narrator and protagonist in my opening post above. There are definitely a few places where the pronouns are ambiguous.


message 13: by Gregsamsa (new)

Gregsamsa | 74 comments Ah, I did not note that clue of yours. I don't remember what I thought the first time I read it, but this time I wavered back and forth between thinking that it was actually the companion riding the first narrator (after the switch), and then thinking I'm just crazy trying to impose too much of an interpretive scheme over it, sorting things into easy slots.


message 14: by Gregsamsa (new)

Gregsamsa | 74 comments On another note, there's something I like about Kafka that bores me in other writers. He has such a flat-affect, deadpan, matter-of-fact way of delivering the strangest actions and thoughts.

"I could not immediately put my finger on the reasons in favor of this form of death, but I couldn't afford to spend my last remaining seconds looking for a reason."

Although passages like this neither extend nor compress time, for me they do do something strange regarding temporality; the urgency of the situation is frozen by the contemplation of the fact that there isn't time for contemplation.

Then he uses this tone to quite different effect:

"Meanwhile the banks of the river stretched beyond all bounds, and yet with the palm of my hand I touched the metal of a signpost which gleamed minutely in the far distance. This I really couldn't quite understand. After all I was small, almost smaller than usual, and a bush of white hips shaking itself very fast towered over me. This I saw, for a moment ago it had been close to me."

I don't remember where I read some writer saying that one should use extraordinary language when relating ordinary things, and use ordinary language to relate fantastical things. I personally don't believe in shoulds like this in any general way, but here: what a strange effect is given this extraordinary scenery by the very plain sentence "This I really could not understand"!

I don't speak a word of German, so I'd be very curious as to the exact sense of "usual" in the line "After all I was small, almost smaller than usual...." Does this mean smaller than average, or smaller than he usually is? Ordinarily one might be inclined to presume the former, but since it's Kafka...


message 15: by Whitney (new)

Whitney | 326 comments I had no clue what this story meant, so as I usually do when that's the case I sent searching for what others had to say. I didn't see where anyone here had posted a link to this statue in Prague inspired by 'Description of a Struggle'.



Interesting that the artist chose to make the acquaintance an empty suit. He seems to support the idea of the ambiguity between narrator and his acquaintance that's been bought up here, or even the idea that it's all an invention of the narrator.

Some great comments about this story. I especially appreciated Zad's comments about the vertigo and lack of restful moments in Kafka. Hadn't thought about it before, but very true. Once the nightmare world is entered, it's a constant. Even when the narrator of this story sleeps, he's precariously perched on a tree limb.


message 16: by Jim (new)

Jim | 3055 comments Mod
Whitney wrote: "I had no clue what this story meant, so as I usually do when that's the case I sent searching for what others had to say. I didn't see where anyone here had posted a link to this statue in Prague i..."

Great find!


message 17: by Zadignose (last edited Feb 10, 2014 02:28AM) (new)

Zadignose | 444 comments In structure, we've got an outer frame story of the protagonist and acquaintance. This is parts I and III. Within we've got the named section II: "Diversions, or Proof That it is Impossible to Live". The more oddball material is in this section. This section doesn't seem to interact much with the outer frame. Even the part with the "Ride" in which the Protagonist (P) rides Acquaintance (A) from the outer frame, and then abandons him, seems to be forgotten or reversed when we return to the interaction of P & A in section III.

The mid-section, part II has it's own subsection, and story nesting. In the story's own outlining we've got:

i A Ride
ii A Walk
iii The Fat Man
iv Drowning of The Fat Man

But my perception of it has two main parts: "A Ride" + "A Walk" = meditations on the limits of the protagonist's power, and the rest is The Fat Man Frame.

Within the Fat Man Frame, there are:

a An Address to the landscape
b Beginning of conversation with supplicant
c Supplicant's story
d Continuation of conversation Fat Man and Supplicant

The story gets, perhaps, progressively odder as we get deeper into the nesting, and ponder how the inner stories relate--if at all--to the stories that frame them.

Interesting to me is that the supplicant seems the most direct expression of the dilemma of a character questioning his own existence, and striving to assert his own existence through action. His conspicuous and even humiliatingly foolish prayer is what keeps him from fading out of existence.

In several ways, the characters seem somewhat spectral. Also, the supplicant seems perhaps closest in character to the Protagonist of the outer frame... or perhaps in another way he's an antithesis? Supplicant (the only male character with a name, if I recall, but I've forgotten the name...) doubts his own existence, whereas the Protagonist, at least within part II is almost a solipsist, imagining that everything derives its existence from his perception of it, or from his creation.

Which brings me back to why I called II i+ii "Meditations on the limits of the protagonist's power." At times he seems omnipotent, shaping the landscape to suit his own convenience, etc., yet one wonders whether the world is just going about its own business while he is falsely crediting himself with creation and alteration of the universe... anyway, whether he's restraining himself purposefully, or whether he is actually severely limited, he does not consciously and intentionally decide everything. For instance, when he is a bird on a branch, he forgets to let the moon come up, but then the moon comes up on its own accord and becomes terrifying. And, of course, he is ultimately unable even to stop himself from falling from the tree in the morning, and becomes dejected. So... okay, nothing concrete, but we can fluctuate between thinking that he is delusional in imagining his own omnipotence, or else that he could control everything in the universe if only he could first master himself, which is beyond him... and perhaps this comes to the same thing(?).

---------------------------------------
Another tangent... that statue where the acquaintance is only empty clothing, besides suggesting his illusory nature, may also reference the description of Paris, where some people are merely clothing.

----------------------------------------
And an irrelevancy: I was quite entertained by this (unspoken) line:

"Enough, enough! We can all see that you have trousers
on" ...

(When the "fat man", though perhaps not very fat at the moment, is exasperated by the conspicuous way the supplicant dusts off his pants in the church).


message 18: by Patrick (new)

Patrick Pray (prahasaurus) Whitney wrote: "I had no clue what this story meant, so as I usually do when that's the case I sent searching for what others had to say. I didn't see where anyone here had posted a link to this statue in Prague i..."

I used to work near Dusni, so I was surprised by the picture of this statue. I've never seen this before! But then I read it was finished in 2004, after I began working in a different part of the city. Now I will make a point to go there and see this the next time I'm in the neighborhood. Thanks for this!


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