One thing that strikes me again and again in the pieces from Kafka’s Contemplation is the dizzying way they open up interior worlds – the way Kafka reveals the uncertainty beneath seemingly ordinary moments. In ‘The Men Running Past’, the narrator is out walking one night and sees a man running in the opposite direction, being chased by another, but chooses not to intervene. The next paragraph – another of Kafka’s swirling, open sentences – goes through the reasons why:

…it is possible that the two men have devised their chase for their own amusement, perhaps they are both in pursuit of a third man…

Some of these possibilities are quite fanciful, others reveal that ‘we’ are just afraid of the consequences of getting involved (“perhaps the first of them is carrying a weapon”). But the effect of this long chain of ‘perhapses’ is to dissolve a concrete opening of action into a swirl of uncertainty. As with ‘The Sudden Walk’, the last paragraph closes this off:

And finally, may we not be tired, and have we not had a lot of wine to drink? We are relieved not to see the second man.

But where ‘The Sudden Walk’ leaves us with a sense of a new beginning, the end of ‘The Men Running Past’ feels more like a truce: there will be no resolution – a story has been averted.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Contemplation (1913) by Franz Kafka, published in Metamorphosis and Other Stories(2007), tr. Michael Hofmann, Penguin Modern Classics paperback