Kafka’s Metamorphosis: Ten Thoughts

  1. A search on Google for Kafka’s Metamorphosis yields 3,400,000 results compared to 235,000 for Kafka’s The Castle. Every literate person, even if they have not read the short story know of Kafka’s tale about the man that turned into a “beetle”
  2. Fascination with Kafka’s writing stems from its inexhaustibility. All Kafka’s writing including much of his diaries, letters and the aphorisms can sustain a multiplicity of interpretation.
  3. Of all Kafka’s stories, Metamorphosis will keep readers and critics guessing and interpreting as long as literate people survive. Every age will have its own Metamorphosis. A psychological interpretation: of course; a Marxist reading: how many do you want? gender-based analysis: sure; feminist criticism: see Nina Pelikan Straus’s brilliant essay.
  4. Kafka, by his own admission, wrote better short stories than Metamorphosis, writing that the story originated “during my misery in bed and oppresses me with inmost intensity”. The ending, in particular, disappointed Kafka. I adore the ending, one of the coldest and most disturbing endings I have read.
  5. Endings nearly always disappoint me. This is an exception.
  6. I suspect that the appeal of The Metamorphosis is that the story expresses the hopeless sense of alienation and loneliness common to us all.
  7. Though The Metamorphosis is not my favourite Kafka story I read it yearly, two or three times. With Sartre’s Nausea it is an annual ritual.
  8. Kafka’s form is the short story, more so the aphorism. His impossibly high standards impeded him from finishing any of his longer fictions. Most Kafka stories including The Metamorphosis can be considered incomplete.
  9. Nina Pelikan Straus’s Transforming Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis is a favourite piece of Kafka criticism, offering a highly convincing feminist reading. Straus argues that Metamorphosis reveals the plight of “one who is caught between the shameful desire to identify himself with women and the consciousness that he cannot identify himself with men”. In her essay, Straus argues it is Grete’s as much as Gregor Samsa’s transformation at the heart of the story.
  10. The important picture that Samsa treasures, “a lady done up in a fur hat and a fur boa, sitting upright and raising up against the viewer a heavy fur muff in which her whole forearm had disappeared”, has yielded a myriad of psychological interpretations. The character in the picture was based on a book, widely popular at the time, and a favourite of Kafka and his cronies. The book, Venus in Furs, was written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from who’s name the term masochism is derived.
  11. Unfortunately Leopold von Sacher-Masoch never met Marquis de Sade, the latter died before Sacher-Masoch was born.

The Problem of Motivational Force

The mistake of most moralists has always been to consider man as an essentially reasonable being. Man is a sensitive being, who consults solely his passions in order to act, and for whom reason serves only to palliate the follies his passions lead him to commit.

Collected Writings
[via Simon Critchley: The Faith of the Faithless]

Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia by Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson fascinates me. A writer that single-handedly, over nine years, writes a dictionary is worthy of reverence. (I covet a first-edition of Johnson’s Dictionary). The dictionary contained 42,000 words, rich with literary quotations, and, unusually for a lexicographer, filled with opinionated humour. The best known of Johnson’s witty definitions is probably:

Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words.

First edition of Johnson’s Dictionary in contemporary calf: a beautiful copy ($29,500)

In Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, Samuel Johnson poses the same question as Chekhov in My Life, the Aristotelian ‘How to live?’ but  Rasselas is an undiluted philosophical allegory. Though presented as fiction it reads as Johnson’s personal discourse on the impossibility of finding earthly happiness, similar in purpose, but not message, to Voltaire’s Candide.

A bored prince and his sister escape the claustrophobic confines of Happy Valley because they wish a ‘choice of life’ (the book’s original title). Various sages and pundits offer different critiques on the pursuit of happiness. The fable ends without resolution.

In a different context I would have completed this book, turned back to page one to start again, pen in hand. Once the art of the novella challenge is complete, I will return to read this book more attentively. A single reading is an injustice to the exquisite writing, and to the remarkably modern ideas. It is an extraordinary little book.

[Read as part of Frances’s and Melville House’s The Art of the Novella Reading Challenge.]

Jakob Von Gunten by Robert Walser

In Kafka one also catches echoes of Walser’s prose, with its lucid syntactic layout, its casual juxtapositions of the elevated with the banal, and its eerily convincing logic of paradox.

It is not possible to read Robert Walser without thinking of how he may have influenced Kafka. The quote above comes from a superb article on Walser by J. M. Coetzee. Coetzee eclipses any maundering of mine on both Walser and the artistry that is Jakob Von Gunten.

Thus, read the Coetzee article if you need any encouragement to read Walser, then read Jakob Von Gunten, then finish with more Walser. A final Coetzee quote:

As a literary character, Jakob von Gunten is without precedent. In the pleasure he takes in picking away at himself he has something of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and, behind him, of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau of the Confessions.