Reading Matters

Kafka’s gift to a grieving girl

I am flying through a novel that’s full of the inner workings of a musing mind, full of failure and dislocation, full of joy and hope.

It’s Paul Auster’s, “4321,” due this month, and it’s my first foray into Auster territory, though he has written many books, including the memoir, “The Invention of Solitude,” as well as “The New York Trilogy,” three loosely connected and highly praised detective stories.

While reading about Auster, I found a wonderful story – supposedly a true story about Franz Kafka – which Auster includes in his novel, “The Brooklyn Follies.” It goes like this.

Kafka and his love Dora were out walking through a park one day when they encountered a little girl weeping as if her heart would break. She said she’d lost her doll, and Kafka told the girl he knew for a fact the doll was fine. How he could be so certain? Why just that morning, he told the girl, he’d received a letter from the doll.

No, he didn’t have the letter with him, he said, but tomorrow he’d bring it to the park and read it to her.

So Kafka goes home and writes the letter, hoping to invent a lie so beautiful and persuasive it will replace the child’s sense of loss with something else – a sense of adventure, perhaps, or a new and exciting kind of reality. Something other than loss.

For three weeks Kafka writes daily letters, and each day he returns to the park to read another letter to the girl. Oh, the doll still loves the girl, the letters say. But she wanted to see the world, make new friends, stretch. The doll promises to write each day about her new life.

Complications arise. The doll has met someone. Kafka, of course, is preparing the girl for the reality that the doll will not return. The letters describe the engagement party, the wedding in the country, the new house where the doll and her husband will live.

By now, the little girl is so invested in the doll’s exciting life that she is no longer unhappy. Kafka presents her with a new doll, so the story goes, and years later, when she’s grown, she finds a note tucked into the doll. It says: “Everything you love, you will eventually lose, but in the end, love will return in a different form.”

A story to remember as we step off into another year, which, if like other years, will inevitably hold loss. May it also hold the balm of the new.

Dannye: dpowell@charlotteobserver.com

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