To help you bulk up your reading list this summer, we’re offering you a selection of our Ploughshares Solos free your Kindle (or Kindle app) for the first five days of the month. Last month we offered you a free copy of Gina Ochsner’s story “Pleased to Be Otherwise,” and now that it’s July we have a new summer reading offering to bring you: Robert Cohen’s “Klopstock, or The Distant Sound.” In 1924, hoping to cure his illness, Franz Kafka traveled to a sanatorium in Kierling, Austria, run by a Dr. Hugo Hoffman. He would spend his last days there. In Robert Cohen’s story, we see the end of Kafka’s life through Dr. Hoffman’s eyes. The doctor attempts to decipher the dying man’s enigmatic communications, scribbled on scraps of paper, while being harried by Kafka’s friend, Klopstock, and a young woman who has fallen in love with the then-unknown writer. As the case progresses, the once practical and upstanding doctor gets pulled deeper and deeper into his strange patient’s world. Here’s an excerpt:
Oh, it was quite the party they had going up there in twelve. The beer, the wine, the sponge cakes, the chocolate tortes, the bowls of berries and bananas and cherries…sometimes Anna was forced to make two separate trips to the incinerator in the morning just to dispose of all the debris. And this wouldn’t do. Good hygiene was a fundamental precept at Kierling. Covering the mouth with a handkerchief, throwing one’s cigarette ends into the fire—such measures were essential for preventing contagion. We could not abide the presence of wine bottles, fruit peels or bakery wrappers, to say nothing of all those ragged slips of paper strewn about, crumpled and torn, on which the patient had jotted the newest in his series of baffling little notes…
A lake doesn’t flow into anything, you know.
And that is why one loves dragonflies.
Show me the columbine, too bright to stand with the others.
“I don’t understand, Doctor,” Anna said, when we examined these writings together in my office. “What do they even mean?”
I hesitated. Anna was a robust, green-eyed young woman from Sierndorf, a nurse of great competence, efficiency, and spirit. I knew she had troubles of her own, that she sometimes quarreled with the kitchen staff, or disappeared in the middle of her shift only to return an hour later, clothes rank with smoke, her fine blond hair flustered by wind. But she was very fond of the patient in twelve, and these cryptic little phrases of his perplexed her. Either they were too abstract and obscure to decode, or too simple—it came to the same thing. Like a puzzle she moved them around on the desk, seeking clarity in new combinations. And I was no help. I lacked the energy, the patience; ultimately I lacked the time. For me, the involutions of the human lung, the caprices of our financial situation, the whimsical truancies of my professional staff—these were puzzles enough.
“They mean,” I said, “that we have entered the final chapter.”
You can download your copy of “Klopstock, or The Distant Sound” here. Enjoy it for the month of July, and then come back for your next free Ploughshares Solo in August.