Sunday, December 10, 2023

Reading group: Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

I had left it far too long to suggest a book for our next meeting, so I plumped for this as something short that people would be able to read in the time left. The story of Gregor Samsa who wakes one morning to find himself transformed into a giant beetle-like creature, it has been subject to many interpretations - Marxist, feminist, Freudian and autobiographical - and it is cited as a major influence by many current authors who consider themselves writers of the 'Uncanny', which last made me especially keen to re-read it.

Gregor lives with his family - his parents and sister Greta - all of whom he has supported with gruelling work as a travelling salesman since the family business collapsed. A conscientious but downtrodden worker, he is very distressed to find that, trapped on his back with his little legs flailing, he can't even get out of bed to get the train to work, although for a while he tries to believe against the odds that he'll manage it. Initially his family, calling though his locked door, are worried about him, but when they finally see him they are horrified, his father in particular. Only Greta his sister is able to make herself enter the room and care for him, bringing him the kinds of scraps of food she thinks in his transformed state he would like, though he is unable to eat them. The chief clerk from his company visits to berate him for not appearing at work, increasing Gregor's distress by warning him that he risks dismissal. Eventually even Greta turns against him, seeing the creature in the room as no longer Gregor, and pronouncing that it has to go.

I said that of all the interpretations I'd read - the feminist interpretation concentrating on Greta, the autobiographical and Freudian view of the father as echoing Kafka's own harsh and dominating father - I was most sympathetic with the Marxist reading. In this Gregor's transformation is an acting out or a metaphorical fulfilment of a situation in which workers are trapped in a capitalist system that treats them like vermin - Gregor becomes the vermin he is considered to be. He has also been used by the selfishly bourgeois unit of his family: he will overhear a conversation between his parents in which it will turn out that, while he has been under the impression that his father lost everything when his business folded, and has been flogging his guts out to keep his family, his parents have been sitting on a nest-egg saved in spite of the business collapse. English translations, of which there are several, present Gregor's transformation variously: in one he is 'a gigantic insect', in others a 'bug', or, in Michael Hofmann's most recent translation for Penguin Classics, a 'cockroach'. Some, however, stay closer to the original German, the literal translation of which I understand to be 'a monstrous vermin'. This less concrete phrase does conjure the all too common attitude of employers in a capitalist system to workers requiring payment - as drains on their own wealth and thus blights on their own lives. It seemed to me indeed that as Gregor's state is revealed, the insect he most strongly resembles is a bedbug, that most intentional and covert of bloodsucking insects, and the most difficult to eradicate. He does after all begin the story in bed; his 'brown' belly, like that of a bedbug, is 'sectioned off by little crescent-shaped ridges into segments'; when Greta enters his room he scuttles and hides under the sofa with the pointed end of his body sticking out, as bedbugs can do; when eventually he crawls on the walls and ceilings, he leaves dark trails like the blood-smears of bedbugs. A monster, in other words, that is condemned as feeding off others while in reality being starved.  

It is interesting to note that, as Michael Hofmann records in the Introduction to his Penguin Classics translation, on publication of the book Kafka insisted that the cover should not portray an insect (as so many modern editions do), indicating a strongly metaphorical intention. Yet, as our group commented curiously, the story unfolds as a very literal development of a metaphor. There is that immediate anatomical description of his new body, and we are treated to an extended explication of Gregor's difficulties in adjusting to his new incarnation, his initial inability to get off his back, his surprise at finding that once he is on his legs they have the power to take him along fast, his lack of knowledge as to what he can eat, and, for a long while, his ignorance of his ability to crawl on the walls and ceilings. This is nothing of the kind of transformation occurring in fairytales, in which the prince turns magically and instantaneously into a frog or vice versa, and that's that: here it is something much more laborious and concrete, and indeed intellectualised. (And indeed both Clare and I did find it all got a little boring in the end.) There is much contemporary writing that self-consciously references Metamorphosis by using this literalising technique in portrayals of transformations, and it is usually labelled 'Uncanny'. Personally I don't think it merits the term, since the concrete nature of the mode dispels the sense of unease and the unknown that the uncanny - works such as Poe's or Shirley Jackson's - provokes in the reader. For this reason, I find, it is never successful unless it is used in service to a political point, drawing the reader towards it on an intellectual level, as here.

But what is that political point in Metamorphosis? Ann had an interesting take: she saw the whole thing in the context of Kafka's position as a German-speaking Jew in Czech-speaking Prague, and could see that it was about othering. Clare concurred, and saw it as possibly about disability. John, a psychologist with a particular interest in perception (ie how one perceives what one experiences through one's senses), read it all as deeply psychological: Gregor, downtrodden at work, used by his family and despised by his father, comes to see or feel himself as an insect: it is all inside his head. But because he yet retains his human consciousness (and is thus aware of the horror of the situation), John saw the piece as a horror story. We did all feel that the end of the story, which deals with Gregor's final treatment by his family and their subsequent progress without him, occurs in a hurry and the story fizzles out. It seems that Kafka was never satisfied with the end, which, since Kafka is known to have had a difficult relationship with his own family, does seem to support an autobiographical reading. 

It seems to me that Metamorphosis encompasses all of those meanings: that the things in Kafka's life - his own employment as a cog in the wheel, his cruel and domineering father who saw him as weakling, his experience of antisemitism - would have contributed to its composition. Mark and others wondered why it has lasted and has become so vastly popular, and this is the reason, we decided: it is a story about power, capable via its metaphorical character of accommodating various schools of thought that have arisen since.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here