30 Day Book Challenge: Day Seventeen

Shortest book you’ve read: Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka

I have no idea whether this is actually the shortest book I’ve ever read – odds are it probably isn’t. Moreover, it’s more commonly known as a novella as opposed to a proper novel. Whatever. It’s still a book. All you purists can bite my shiny metal ass.

Kafka’s most celebrated work is famously known as “the story about a dude who turns into a bug.” While this essentially sums up the book, it doesn’t exhaust its content. Then again, maybe it does. It is a deeply perplexing story that raises questions of existentialism, angst, etc. Though I sometimes wonder if Kafka just thought “what if…” and followed the idea as far as it would take him.

It has all the reoccurring elements of Kafka’s canon: dehumanization (literally) and alienation in the workforce, guilt, politics of the family, and the body, just to name a few. I think perhaps the most jarring element of the story isn’t so much that the protagonist, Gregor, is transformed into a bug, it’s the characters’ reaction, including his own, to his transformation. There is little sympathy for Gregor as he quickly treated initially with disgust and shock to disdain. He eventually becomes just another nuisance for the family; a pest like any other bug. I think the utilitarian way in which Gregor’s family treats him is the heart of the story.

The book also has one of the greatest opening paragraphs in literary history:

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect-like creature. He was lying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.

Frightening stuff, yet it is told in a mundane, matter-of-fact voice. Kafka masterfully couches the supernatural in the mundane, creating that signature alienating style. Once you read Kafka, you come to appreciate the vast shadow that he casts across all art that has come after his death. It’s crazy to imagine that he never published anything during his lifetime and requested in his will that all his manuscripts be burned. Thankfully his friend couldn’t bring himself to do and the world is richer for it.

This is all I have to say about Metamorphosis. There is much that can be said of it, yet it is a deeply personal experience and I have no desire to venture out into those subjective speculations right now. I like what Vladamir Nabokov has to say:

We can take the story apart, we can find out how the bits fit, how one part of the pattern responds to the other; but you have to have in you some cell, some gene, some germ that will vibrate in answer to sensations that you can neither define, nor dismiss.  Beauty plus pity—that is the closest we can get to a definition of art.  Where there is beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die: beauty always dies, the manner dies with the matter, the world dies with the individual.  If Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” strikes anyone as something more than an entomological fantasy, then I congratulate him on having joined the ranks of good and great readers.

Here is Nabokov’s lecture in full.



~ by braddunne on August 3, 2011.

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