Kafka’s tale of a man who wakes to find he has changed into a giant insect still has the power to shock and delight a century after it was first published. Many regard it as the greatest short story in all literary fiction.
by RICHARD T. KELLY
- What need a modern reader know of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung) – arguably the most famous, also greatest, short story in the history of literary fiction?
- Of its stature, for example, Elias Canetti wrote that the story was something Kafka “could never surpass, because there is nothing which Metamorphosis could be surpassed by”. As endorsements go, the bar could not be set higher.
- Kafka’s place in the literary pantheon has been assured for some time, most pleasingly expressed by George Steiner’s suggestion that he is the only author of whom it may be said that he made his own a letter of the alphabet – K.
- Here, though, is a little novelty: in 2015, Metamorphosis is 100 years old. At least, 1915 is when the story was published, which is to say “finished”; and Kafka, famously, didn’t finish very much.
- Kafka worked on Metamorphosis through the autumn of 1912 and completed a version on 7 December that year. But negotiations with publishers were complicated, and circumstances – the first world war, among other things – intervened.
- Finally Metamorphosis was set before readers in October 1915, in the avant-garde monthly Die Weissen Blätter, then put between covers that December.
- A century on, why does Metamorphosis still attract readers? One reason is that it’s a horror story of sorts. Its premise – a man awakens in the body of an insect – exerts a ghastly fascination beyond anything in even the consummate short works of Chekhov or Joyce or Alice Munro.
- Another is that it is, amid its pathos, awfully funny. Gregor Samsa wakes to discover he has six legs and a shell, yet for some pages he thinks that what ails him might just be the kind of throat complaint that is “the occupational malady of travellers”. What can you do but laugh?
- And there’s more. As Gregor struggles to crawl off his bed, a clerk from his company calls at the Samsa apartment. As Vladimir Nabokov commented: “This grim speed in checking a remiss employee has all the qualities of a bad dream.” But it is also farce: a personal embarrassment raised to a debacle by multiple easily shocked persons arriving on the scene to witness it.
- Metamorphosis exemplifies the world Kafka invented on paper – recognisable but not quite real, precisely detailed and yet dreamlike.
- We call this world “Kafkaesque”, of course, while keeping mindful of Italo Calvino’s lament that one hears that term “every quarter of an hour, applied indiscriminately”.
- I’ll venture we mean “Kafkaesque” to denote a sense of suddenly inhabiting a world in which one’s customary habits of thought and behaviour are confounded and made hopeless.
- To dig a little deeper, the term evokes an individual’s sense of finding himself victimised by large impersonal forces, feeling after a while that he can’t but take it personally – and feeling haunted, too, by the sense that maybe, after all, he deserves it.
- If you grant the preceding, then Metamorphosis is perhaps the quintessential Kafka story.
- Given how well the story has aged, it is telling that Kafka at first didn’t wholly delight in his handiwork. Even as he inspected the proofs he was unpersuaded. (“Unreadable ending. Imperfect almost to its very marrow.”)
- But the very fact that Metamorphosis was read, chuckled over and frowned on while Kafka was alive may bear repeating; for the myth rather persists that Kafka was unknown and unpublished in his lifetime.
- Though his great fame was posthumous, he did have a reputation to speak of while he was alive. If a minor figure, he nonetheless had a better class of admirer (e.g., Robert Musil).
- In 1915 the dramatist Carl Sternheim, winner of the prestigious Theodor Fontane prize, bestowed his prize money on Kafka as a mark of writer-to-writer respect.
- (Can you imagine the Man Booker prizewinner of 2015 declaring from the dais that s/he plans to hand over the £50,000 to a rival novelist whose stuff s/he considers so much better?)
- Legendarily, though, Kafka had no bigger fan than his university friend Max Brod, who decided early on that Kafka was a genius, and duly ended up saving his works from incineration.
For the rest of the 100 thoughts, go to: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/18/franz-kafka-metamorphosis-100-thoughts-100-years