Thursday, February 4, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

One of the first aspects of this story that struck both Laurie and I (and I think was most likely the aspect of the book we talked about most) was metaphor. One could look at the story about a man who literally turns into an insect. More likely, it's metaphor to some form of human dread and misery. With all of the talk about money, work and provision, I was certainly reminded of unemployment, the sudden apparently uselessness of who was up until recently a provider. There's also the possibility of looking at it through the lens of one who becomes injured, disfigured, handicapped, insane beyond the ability to function in society or otherwise incapacitated. There's also the possibility of there really was no Gregor. The insect was the family's paralysis and inability to function or provide for themselves (although, again I seem to be slouching toward yet another economics and social justice lesson.) When the insect dies, while they mourn a bit, they move on with their lives. Leading up to the insect dying, the father finds work, they take in boarders, etc.

So, Gregor wakes up as a giant insect. In an absurd first act, he spends a lot of time concerned about missing his train, getting to work, keeping his position and spends very little time thinking about how and why he is now a giant insect. Gregor's superior arrives and this heightens the exchange, especially while his door is closed and his superior speaks to him through it. He is cumbersome. He finds movement and control of his new body difficult.

Gregor does what he can to please his family by keeping out of sight. His sister makes some efforts to care for him while obviously being revolted at the same time. There's the wonderfully subtle section where Gregor is recalling his he was going to try to help her go to the music conservatory to study, but then he turned into a giant insect. The best laid plans of mice and men gang oft agley. So often dreams are dashed by unforseeable circumstances. There's a lesson in impermanence here.

The family continues to worry about money, missing what was formerly taken for granted. The family rises to the occasion as best they can, but still there is resentment. So much so that they lash out at Gregor, the only visible target although an innocent. Which brings remorse.
The third act brings in the charwoman. We hate the charwoman although she is all of us whenever we mock and scorn, seek to place ourselves higher than others, and gleefully take out our frustrations on the less fortunate. The charwoman is the embodiment of a very ugly side of humanity, although a seemingly ubiquitous one.

And the third act brings in the lodgers, yet another sign of the family's desperation and a vaguely sinister force both in their presence and even more so at the threat of the loss of them. Also there is the shame and dread of the thing in the room that one does not talk about. The unloved and neglected thing whose very presence brings misery, but what can they do? It's their son, maybe. The sister gives voice to the frustration"When one has to work as hard as we do, all of us, one can't stand this continual torment at home on top of it."

So, there's an element of human compassion and tenderness, how we're all alone, people don't reach out to one another and the consequences of a culture like that. Perhaps this is the real "wound" that kills Gregor or, at the very least, the actual wound is borne from this homelife.

This was one of my favorite pieces in this series so far. It's a very straightforward narrative, which I appreciate on some levels (although it brings to mind some other writers to come in the time after Kafka whose language, rhetoric and word choices are so stripped down as to make them bleak, surgically removing all poetry from language. Although, in this case, I think that the comparison would be unfair, a bit like blaming Walt Whitman for bad modern free verse slam poetry. Kafka is an amazing writer regardless of what trends are yet to come in the modern era.

Well, I hope that all of you enjoyed reading this as much as I did. I know I look forward to hearing all of your thoughts on it.

Remember, next time is Homer's Odyssey part 1. We will be reading through page 58 in my edition or up through Book V. Get a copy and start reading. We're going to stretch this one over 5 weeks to keep from having super-long passages each week.


  1. Part of the magic of any literary experience for me is the medium. There is something different about reading from a book that is 100 years old, or even 50 years old, than one that just came off the press before you plunked down your duckets at Borders. The beauty of this list from Penguin is each of the books is public domain, and I don't have to feel any guilt about not paying for a copy. There is also a difference between reading a book in bed, on the couch, on the toilet, on the bus, under a tree, at work on lunch, at a café, etc. The setting does make a big difference in how much you are able to read in a single sitting, and how much of your attention can truly be given to the experience.

    For Metamorphosis, which I have read before, I decided to embrace technology and listen to it as a podcast, distributed by I have a 45-90 minute commute, depending on traffic and whether it is morning or night, and the entire 3-part podcast was under three hours, so I knew I could finish it within a couple days of driving to work, without interrupting my current reading of the Zombie Survival Guide. I typically listen to podcasts in the car, mainly of talk shows produced by local unemployed ex-radio hosts. I even have a fancy car stereo that has an internal iPod controller which connects to my iPod in the glovebox, leaving all control of iPod functions on the stereo deck itself.

    I've listened to some books-on-cd before, and aside from the expense, enjoyed them mightily. I do find that depending on the reader and the recording, some can be hard to hear, especially if there's a lot of background noise to your environment.

    I must say that I was completely pleased with the Librivox recording of Metamorphosis. It is read by a middle aged Englishman with a deep, warm voice. If I could have his voice on my Tom-tom, I would opt for it (if I had or wanted a tom-tom!). I am very likely to attempt the same with other books in this series, especially the plays. If this is "cheating" or not, I don't know, but if it is, I will choose that guilt gladly.

  2. Part II:

    Now, as for the story itself. I don't have a lot of good to say about this story, but at the same time, I don't have much bad to say about it. From the very beginning, it sounds like a children's story. I think I may have even read a remarkably similar story to my daughter at some point, about the boy who wakes up in the body of a beetle. To its end, it remains a children's book, just with the beetle dying instead of the boy learning an important life lesson and being either allowed to return to human form or sent of to play with all the other beetle-children. What it does not feel like is a novel, at least not until midway through part II.

    At some point, the novelty of the kids-book shine wears off, and all the characters are fully exposed as their whining selves. Then the whining becomes incessant, and finally, even after the beetle dies, the whining continues a bit, although peppered with smoky pipe dreams. I've never been one to take pity on whining characters (see Walden reviews) and am certainly not going to start by pitying this family, or shell thereof. Each of them is petty, and caught up in the impossibly poor luck of their own situation. The father woes his business failure, the sister her needing to work around the house instead of laze about, and the mother her health and living conditions. Gregor whines about everything that he lays eyes on, including all the woes of the rest of his family.

    None of the characters in this story show any growth at all. For this reason, I really consider this a longer short story, rather than a short novel. If it left an open ending, I might consider it a vignette. However, it does have a standard beginning, middle, and end, and for that, I am appreciative.

    Once you take away any moral lessons or good from the characters, and the general absurdity of the premise, you are left with nothing remarkable. Nothing. There is nothing novel to me about this work. The language isn't particularly descriptive. While one might want to try and force a metaphoric quality to the story, I don't see it, and most of the metaphors mentioned don't really hold up that well, or are specious in their real connection with the text.

    Now, while the pure blandness of the overall book leaves me wondering why it is considered such a great work, and why it should be on reading lists and bookshelves, perhaps I am just missing something that I would capture if I looked at the book in context with the time it was written and the other writing that was going on at that time. If so, I apologize to the early 20th century for this oversight. I also don't really think of Prague as being a "western" city from which great works of the "western" canon would emerge, but that's likely my geographical bias, and I apologize to the continent of Asia and the region of Eastern Europe for not being very considerate of their apparent westernness. I don't see how it works that apparently 3/4 of the globe is apparently Western, while only China, Japan, and some island nations really seem to be Eastern. Perhaps that is partly why I am always tempted to identify myself as a Pacific Islander, as I was born on an island in the Pacific, and my father was Australian, which again - Australia is mostly a REALLY big island in the Pacific. Sure, I don't have asiatic features, brown skin, or chamorro pride, but still, in its truest nature, Pacific Islander does describe me. Wow - that ended far from anywhere I expected it to.

  3. Part III:

    So, enough of this whining! Sure, Metamorphosis is not remarkable, but I think that is one reason I enjoyed it. It's an interesting character study, at least in parts, and there is some anticipation and suspense built as you ponder what may come of beetle-boy. I certainly left the book thinking that I may enjoy reading more of Kafka's work, something I now have the ability to do, because aside from downloading the podcast, I also came across a 1952 collectionof Kakfa sh ort stories in my aunt's bookstore, and promptly appropriated it for my bookshelf. Drool all you want Paul, but it's not signed or anything. Somewhat unremarkable, in fact. Just like this story.

    Next up, Ulysses. I think I may try this as audio too, as I have read it, and I've read or watched several modern adaptations of it, or at least movies that hint at being modern adaptations like What Dreams May Come. Sorry, I haven't seen the musical. Still, I could see the epic story easily adapted into a miniseries, or even multi-season series. I think there is too much there to shove into one movie, but I'm sure that's been attempted more than once. Still, I am not dreading the experience, but looking forward to it eagerly.

  4. I must say (with my disability) I sure know the feeling of waking up and not being able to move and it is no picnic. I was surprised he was not more frightened or even considered how he could get back to himself. I did enjoy the story but did not understand the place in the story of the lodgers I guess other than it brought to light the fact they needed to get rid of the beast. I also found it strange that the family would so calmly accept the fact that this was their son. I do want to read more of Kafka after this so I guess it's good the book a bought has many more of his stories.