LONELY VOICE #17: In Love Again and Doomed (Part Two of Five Stray Thoughts on Kafka)


My lung was fair at least out there, here where I’ve been for the last fortnight. I’ve not been able to see the doctor. But it can’t be so bad considering for instance that I was able – holy vanity! – to chop for an hour and more without getting tired, and yet was happy, for moments.  – Letters to Milena (1917)

In the beginning his swing is wobbly, but gains a sort of clipped, if awkward, grace as he chops. It isn’t because he needs wood for any stove. He’s a guest at a spa. It’s only for the beauty of it. Only the desire to say later that he’s done it. And so he can write to Milena and say, well, I’ve been out chopping wood. Holy vanity. He who would later beg that every trace of him be obliterated. Even he can’t help wanting an image of himself as a man chopping wood to lodge in Milena’s imagination. For a moment? For a night? For good? He chops and he chops. A man with a good lungs. A hardy, hardy man.

Ali playing Kafka chopping wood.

He’ll be dead of TB in a few years. Milena, the daughter of a dentist. In her obituary of him she will write: “Few people here knew him, for he was a solitary, wise person terrified by life.” But now. Now he’s alive, in love again – doomed. Never more robust than when the end is in sight. He worries the ax from the log – its mouse-like shrieks. He raises the ax high, the wood waiting – then the sound – like a loud distant beautiful knock.

Peter Orner is the author of two novels, two story collections (Little, Brown), and the editor of two oral histories (Voice of Witness/ McSweeney's/ Verso). His latest book is Am I Alone Here?, an essay collection published in November, 2016 by Catapult with illustrations by Eric Orner. A new book of oral history set in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and co-edited with Dr. Evan Lyon, will be published by Voice of Witness/ Verso, in January, 2017. Peter Orner currently teaches at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers as well as at San Francisco State University where he is currently chair of the Creative Writing Department. More from this author →