Saturday, January 05, 2008

Review of The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

That's right, "books for buds" is on an eponymous kick, and if I know a guy who insists on calling himself Gregor Samsa, then he'd have to be pretty damn forgettable to avoid this list. Gregor, as it happens, is not. He's interesting enough to get away with being a contrarian prick, a deadpan provocateur, and when misjudged, he can toy with his verbal opponents as if they were insects. The depth of his irony can be hard to judge at a glance, and you wade casually into his posts at your peril. His style is what makes him go though, a reasonable argumentative voice, and he uses that voice to be funny, wry, or, you know, seriously argumentative, or sometimes all those things at once. Almost like that Kafka guy.


The Metamorphosis is so canonical, it's hard to offer an honest (or an interesting) review. A story like this one especially, which is loaded with bizarre props in an otherwise realistic story, drives academic types to hunt hard for symbolism. The endnotes to the story contain the most tedious sorts of observations, whether offering strong hints that it's an allegorical story (the business with the father throwing apples at Gregor), or the cultural symbolism of open or closed doors and windows, or dreary notes on technique (the three boarders are indistinguishable, which cleverly adds to the spookiness of the story--sorry, if I saw it used in Bugs Bunny, then I refuse to be awestruck). It may all be true even, but although Kafka is careful about the mood he builds, the purpose of the story isn't quite that mind-boggling. Importantly, the story holds up just fine as a story. It's more an odd exhibit to be appreciated than it is a puzzle to be solved, and Kafka manages to evoke emotions and convey scenery with economy and skill, and on the basic level, here's one that doesn't shy from being read and enjoyed.

I'm sure that any pointy-headed academic would be the first to tell you that the sturdy storytelling is part of what makes this story so damn beguiling (and here I start off on my own wacky overanalyses). The style holds up against, and cleverly contrasts, the giant absurdity of the premise. Kafka avoids in his own language, as does Gregor himself, the predictable hysteria that would surround the appearance of a gigantic insect in Gregor's bed one morning. His bugginess is by no means ignored, but there is, in places you'd otherwise expect it, a big, beetle-shaped hole in the exposition. (It's a shame sometimes what breaks through into the vernacular. Wouldn't a cockroach upstairs be more evocative than proverbial family-room pachyderms?) It's a different sort of balancing act than Robbins was into, one that gets the very structure of the narrative up onto the tightrope with everything else.

And as much as I hate to dig into the comparative meaning of every-goddamn-thing here, Kafka does choose his language with precision. The opening, "as Gregor Samsa awoke from unsettling dreams" sets up his contrasting views splendidly. It's not just an opposition between the concrete prose and absurd circumstances, there's a deep division at work here between the intellectual (or realist) and emotional planes. Gregor is the thinker of the story, approaching his new body with (quite obtuse) rationalism. How will he open the door, he thinks, how will he explain to his boss that he's late? He's the character that is shown trying (and failing) to express himself with reason instead of the predictable alarm. But Gregor's every action is verminous, and without his point of view, would only be seen as mindless: he exudes filth and craves garbage, scuttles about the ceiling and stuffs himself into dark places. To his family, he hisses uncontrollably in anger, and creeps around stealthily surprising their conversations. The people in the story act, by contrast, emotional and un-intellectual when confronted with the monstrous Gregor. Their actions are all expected and natural, but Kafka robs them of their reason in the face of horror. Kafka pulls all sorts of switcheroos with these dichotomies, playing with Gregor's empathy (much stronger than his family's, though his sister shows glimmers of it), with physical strength (Gregor's and his father's waxes and wans), and morality.

The last contrast was perhaps Kafka's most dearly expressed. It's not hard to imagine how a young man working for an unappreciative, exploitive family (but one which is loyal in its fashion), could come to view himself as an unloved pest, with the story proceeding from there as a literal interpretation of that sentiment. He goes on to invert it however: Gregor's efforts to keep his family afloat had been enabling them to be lazy and useless, and through the young man's transformation and eventual death, they (especially the sister) grow, and become transformed themselves, in a positive, and conventional, human way. I think it lacked universality, frankly. Yes, it took some novelistic chutzpah to turn that blame the misfortunes on Gregor himself, and enable their growth only with his misfortune, but it read as more personal, more of a projection, than the rest of the story did. Kafka evidently hated the ending, and perhaps it was because the family's transformation wasn't as compelling as Gregor's.


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Very interesting review about Metamorphosis, I think that this situation can be real in the future, so I like a lot to read about Franz Kafka is a very good writer.

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