Short Story #1: Untitled by Franz Kafka

This is the first post in what I am hoping will be a weekly (or something like that) series, in which I will pick up a short story I have enjoyed and examine it, praise it and sometimes just look at it and wonder what it’s all about.

In typically contrary fashion, I have chosen for my first piece a short story which doesn’t have a title (just to keep life nice and simple).

This untitled fragment was published in Franz Kafka’s The Lost Writings (translated by Michael Hoffman and published by New Directions in 2020).  It can be read on the New Yorker ( – it’s the second fragment in the set published in that article.

It begins very simply:

A large loaf of bread lay on the table.  Father came in with a knife to cut it in half.  But even though the knife was big and sharp, and the bread neither too soft nor too hard, the knife could not cut into it.

Nobody describes failure and confusion quite so beautifully, or so logically, as Franz Kafka, and this is one of his best, most succinct explorations.  There is so much going on in this short piece and yet, clearly, nothing happens at all – it could be summarised as, ‘A man fails to cut open a loaf of bread.’  Which is a ridiculous premise for a story (but coming up, in a few weeks maybe, we will also have ‘a man gets stuck in a jumper’).

I love the use of the first person plural when describing a shared consciousness and it is especially effective when showing children taking in the adult world.  So, we have this mass of consciousness, trying to understand the way the world works and we have the Father, to them a figure who should be able to do everything they cannot do.

Like, for instance… cut open a loaf of bread. 

It was only when looking at this again that I realised, having read this countless times, I have never questioned why the father is unable to cut the bread.  It seems I swallowed Kafka’s assertion whole:

“Why should you be surprised?  Isn’t it more surprising if something succeeds than if it fails?”

This feels like Kafka in miniature – as in The Trial, there’s a difficult, convoluted process (when the children wake the next morning it becomes apparent that the father has spent all night trying to cut open the bread); as in Metamorphosis, there is a physical change to the state of one of the characters as the bread suddenly becomes small and hard:

The bread seemed to shrivel up, like the mouth of a grimly determined person, and now it was a very small loaf indeed.

And with this, it seems to extinguish any hope that “it is sure to give in sooner or later.”

One of the things I love about short stories is that they are self-contained – usually they can be read in one sitting.  Stories like this piece of Kafka’s go a step further – there is something very satisfying about being able to see the entirety of a piece of work in front of you.  It is there, contained on the one page, as much an object as it is a story.

So, that was the first installment.  Maybe it did what you expected, maybe it didn’t.  But what did you expect?  Isn’t it more surprising if something succeeds than if it fails?

All Day Breakfast

Piece written on the theme Morning vs. Afternoon for Writers HQ Flash Face Off week commencing 1st Jan.

“Woke up this morning with a terrific urge to lie in bed all day and read.”
― Raymond Carver

Woke up to no alarm, an eggcup of deep nothing, a deep-fried fat old nothing, sunrise nothing, rain against the window nothing, empty bed nothing, cold hands, cold heat, feet on carpet, into the bathroom to empty bladder nothing.  I had squandered everything that winter thanks to a terminal compulsion to spend all day in bed reading novels – I offered excuses for my absence until I gave up, gave in, and stopped returning their calls.

I had only enough for one meal so I was going to spend all day eating breakfast.  Morning breakfast, afternoon breakfast, evening breakfast, night breakfast – like one note held down and made to stretch out, droning all day over everything else.  I had run out of books so I was re-reading: The Trial for the twelfth time, The Bell Jar for the thirteenth, some crime novel I had read so many times I had started siding with the criminals instead of the stuck-up detective, a collection of Raymond Carver short stories that made me want to take up drinking (all day, every day).

Breakfast then.  Slow eggs all morning, the yolk rising and setting like the sun; a sausage that stretched off into tomorrow; toast taken soldier by soldier and spread with jam eked out to make the most of it; yoghurt, a little dab of it here, a pinkie just dipped in; fruit nibbled at, nibble, nibble, nibbled at, so as not to waste, no, not to make haste of it.

Breakfast all day and nothing else around it, I was not coming back – I was not coming back from this.

Day #13785 :The Very Best Things I Read In 2021

These were my favourite three books this year – one is a novel, one is a manual on writing and reading and the other one is… I’m not sure what it is.  The one I’m not sure what it is, Checkout 19 by Claire Louise Bennett, was my favourite.  Her first book was sometimes described as ‘short stories’ sometimes as ‘a novel’ or maybe just as ‘fiction.’  This one is… a novel or an essay or a memoir.  I dunno.  Anyway.  It’s good.  I think the way to read it is to not worry about what it is, and just read.

Checkout 19 makes sure to acknowledge that this is not a story plucked out of the ether – there is a story, there is a reader, there is a writer (who may be the author, or may be a separate character).  As readers we feel seen, and the writer tells us about all the things they have previously read, all the things they have done and all the things that have happened to them… all of which inform the writing of the story at the centre of the ‘novel’, a fabulistic tale about a character called Tarquin Superbus, which has the air of something Borges or Calvino would have written.  Even this part is not as simple as that – it is a re-telling, a re-embelishing of a story the writer had written some time ago – the storytelling cannot be untangled from the writer’s own life.  Whatever else it is, it is completely itself, completely it’s own thing.

Jon McGregor wrote another great novel.  Following on from his previous, Reservoir 13, he appears to be mining a rich seam in writing stories that are about what happens after the big event – about life going on, or trying to get back to some kind of normality.  Where the story calls for inventive writing – a character experiencing breaking down of thought and loss of language – McGregor delivers, and when the story calls for simply telling the reader what happens next, he does this equally well, and presents characters and events without passing judgment.

The subtitle of George Saunders’ A Swim In A Pond In The Rain is In Which Four Russians Give A Master Class In Writing, Reading And Life, which sells the author short somewhat because it is George as our guide – through short stories by Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev and (my favourite) Gogol – who brings it to life and imparts much wisdom as he picks apart what makes them tick.  It is as much a guide on how to read as it is how to write.  In terms of writing advice, Saunders is much more focussed on process than on hard-and-fast rules, an approach which I am entirely in agreement with.  He stresses the need for constant iterative improvement of a line, a sentence, a paragraph, anything to constantly make a piece of work better via constant tweaks, the product of constant choices.  He writes:

I like what I like, and you like what you like, and art is the place where liking what we like, over and over, is not only allowed but is the essential skill. How emphatically can you like what you like? How long are you willing to work on something, to ensure that every bit of it gets infused with some trace of your radical preference?

I read lots of other great stuff, including:

Death In Her Hands by Otessa Moshfegh – a small novel not just in it’s shortness but also it’s scope.  It never makes it beyond the confines of the main character’s own mind, unwinding a wild murder mystery that could be something or nothing at all.

Long Live The Post Horn by Vigdis Hjorth – a novel about running a marketing campaign for the Norwegian Postal Union as they fight some new EU legislation.  No, come back!  Its way more engrossing than that sounds.

Pew by Katherine Lacey – I picked this one off the shelf at the library without knowing anything about it.  Sometimes the best way to find a good thing.  An unnamed character – whose description none of the other characters seem able to agree upon – and who either cannot or refuses to speak, appears one Sunday morning asleep on a church pew.  The character, christened Pew, is passed around the various families in the congregation and their presence acts as a mirror.  Both vague and incisive!

Morvern Callar by Alan Warner – in which the titular heroine finds a dead body and proceeds through a series of miniature hells, numbing herself from reality with her trusty walkman and endless southern comfort and lemonade.  Morvern is so detached from life that we get little analysis and lose all track of time, it is a portrait of a character sitting watching on from outside the world.

The Crying Of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon – I only just finished this the other week and I think this is a great introduction to an author I always thought might be right up my street.  This short novel has an interesting momentum, one thing leading to another to another, without it ever being entirely clear exactly, precisely why.


Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
The Double by Jose Saramago
A Spool Of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
Winter In Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin
Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt 

All recommended (as if anyone needs MORE to read).

Now-traditional Extra Music-Bloggery Content: My Favourite Albums Of 2021

ELORI SAXL – The Blue Of Distance
POM POKO – Cheater
DEERHOOF – Actually, You Can
HAIKU SALUT – The Hill, The Light, The Ghost
LANG LEE – There Is A Wolf
ST VINCENT – Daddy’s Home