Kafka and the Little Girl

Little girl in butterfly costume, Wildflower Preservation Society, Illinois Chapter, 1902, hand-coloured glass lantern slide
Little girl in butterfly costume, Wildflower Preservation Society, Illinois Chapter, 1902, hand-coloured glass lantern slide

Here is one of my favorite short stories that I’ve ever come across. It’s from a novel by Paul Auster entitled: The Brooklyn Follies.  In the book, Auster recounts a touching story about the writer Franz Kafka and his relationship with a little girl and her doll:

It’s the last year of Kafka’s life [NOTE: Franz Kafka died of tuberculosis before he turned 41] and he’s fallen in love with Dora Diamant, a young girl of nineteen or twenty who ran away from her Hasidic family in Poland and now lives in Berlin. She’s half his age, but she’s the one who gives him to courage to leave Prague. Every afternoon, Kafka goes for a walk in the park. More often than not, Dora goes with him. One day, they run into a little girl in tears, sobbing her heart out. Kafka asks her what’s wrong, and she tells him that she’s lost her doll. He immediately starts inventing a story to explain what happened.

‘Your doll has gone off on a trip,’ he says. ‘How do you know that?’ the girl asks. ‘Because she’s written me a letter,’ Kafka says. The girl seems suspicious. ‘Do you have it on you?’ she asks. ‘No, I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘I left it at home by mistake, but I’ll bring it with me tomorrow.’ He’s so convincing, the girl doesn’t know what to think anymore. Can it be possible that this mysterious man is telling the truth?’

Kafka goes straight home to write the letter. He sits down at his desk, and as Dora watches him write, she notices the same seriousness and tension he displays when composing his own work. He isn’t about to cheat the little girl. This is a real literary labour, and he’s determined to get it right. If he can come up with a beautiful and persuasive lie, it will supplant the girl’s loss with a different reality—a false one, maybe, but something true and believable according to the laws of fiction.

The next day Kafka rushes back to the park with the letter. The little girl is waiting for him, and since she hasn’t learned how to read yet, he reads the letter out loud to her. The doll is very sorry, but she’s grown tired of living with the same people all the time. She needs to get out and see the world, to make new friends. It’s not that she doesn’t love the little girl, but she longs for a change of scenery, and therefore they must separate for a while. The doll then promises to write the girl every day and keep her abreast of her activities.

That’s where the story begins to break my heart. It’s astonishing enough that Kafka took the trouble to write that first letter, but now he commits himself to the project of writing a new letter every day—for no other reasons than to console the little girl, who happens to be a complete stranger to him, a child he ran into by accident one afternoon in the park. What kind of man does a thing like that? He kept it up for three weeks, Nathan. Three weeks. One of the most brilliant writers who ever lived sacrificing his time—his ever more precious and dwindling time—to composing imaginary letters from a lost doll. Dora says that he wrote every sentence with excruciating attention to detail, that the prose was precise, funny and absorbing. In other words, it was Kafka’s prose, and ever day for three weeks he went to the park and read another letter to the girl. The doll grows up, goes to school, gets to know other people. She continues to assure the girl of her love, but she hints at certain complications in her life that make it impossible for her to return home. Little by little , Kafka is preparing the girl for the moment when the doll will vanish for her life forever. He struggles to come up with a satisfactory ending, worried that if he doesn’t succeed, the magic spell will be broken. After testing out several possibilities, he finally decides to marry off the doll. He describes the young man she falls in love with, the engagement party, the wedding in the country, even the house where the doll and the husband now live. And then, in the last line, the doll bids farewell to her old and beloved friend.

By that point of course, the girl no longer misses the doll. Kafka has given her something else instead, and by the time those three weeks are up, the letters have cured her of her unhappiness. She has the story, and when a person is lucky enough to live inside a story, to live inside an imaginary world, the pains of this world disappear. For as long as the story goes on, reality no longer exists.

-Paul Auster, “Brooklyn Follies” and here.

I wonder if this story is actually true. I hope it is, because it shows such a different side of Kafka.  In a recent interview with Goodreads, when asked what his favorite story is, Paul Auster replied:

I do have a beloved story about another author that I believe is true, and I hope is true, because of how I feel about that author. I used the story in my novel Brooklyn Follies. It is, I believe, a true story… It’s a wonderful story, not least because it shows such compassion on Kafka’s part.

7 Comments

Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

jane brunettereply
November 30, 2010 at 11:26 pm

I love this. I don’t remember who said it, but you’ve reminded me of this quote: “The world is not made up of atoms, it’s made up of stories.” Kafka replaced the story of loss with a new, more life affirming story. Wow. That we could all begin to do that for ourselves.

Luke Stormsreply
November 30, 2010 at 11:39 pm
– In reply to: jane brunette

That quote you mentioned is from the poet, Muriel Rukeyser (1913 – 1980). The only reason I know that is because I discovered it recently over at Andy Ilachinski’s remarkable photography blog.

I guess we need to be mindful about the stories we tell of ourselves and others, less we become frozen and fixated to them. I will always remember something I heard the theater director, Peter Brook say once: “As human beings, our greatest fear is the unknown. Yet it is the unknown that gives us life.”

I try to keep returning to that, and to not get stuck in dead concepts and ideas of myself and others. To fully embrace the idea of the unknown, that I really don’t know myself, can be very liberating. If I can empty this vessel, who knows what may inhabit it.

Why Everyone Should Love Kafka « ProgressDailyreply
October 30, 2012 at 2:38 am

[…] a true story and I have read different, but similar, versions different places.  Thankfully, Luke Storms was kind enough to type out the excerpt from the book, so you will all get to read the story […]

Paul Oakleyreply
October 24, 2013 at 1:44 pm

This narrative from the life of Kafka is included in Kafka: A Guide for the Perplexed (2010, pp. 62-3) by Clayton Koelb, who is the Guy B. Johnson Distinguished Professor of German, a Professor of English and Comparative Literature, and the Department Chair of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. So I’m willing to trust that the story is true.

Jean-Pierre Daeschlerreply
August 25, 2014 at 3:20 am

One Of m’y favorite novel also.
Except last page.
Friendly yours from France
JP

10 Curious Anecdotes About 10 of the Most Famous Writers of all Times – By Annarita Tranfici | Uvadahlia Magazinereply
December 31, 2014 at 4:01 pm

[…] 8) Franz Kafka (1883-1924) Kafka was a Czechoslovakian writer who started writing since 1918 and is one of the major figures of German literature of the twentieth century. It is said that when he was a child, since he hated school so much, he was dragged there by the cook with slaps and threats, because his parents were never at home. Like all writers, he was equipped with a vivid imagination and a well-established sensitivity. One day, to comfort a little girl who had lost her doll, he began to write letters for her signed by the lost doll. In these letters, the puppet explained why he decided to leave: She had the desire to visit the world. (Anecdote taken here) […]

Jenreply
July 11, 2019 at 8:03 pm

But where are the letters? It stands to reason that the girl, now grown, would share those treasures. Oh no, don’t tell me she threw them away! :/

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