Sunday, 25 March 2012

Metamorphosis - the cockroach in the room

Rubbish picture this week, as I'm
in Essex, sans camera. Soz.

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (originally published 1915. My copy is from Penguin Modern Classics: 2007) A short story of a hardworking man who finds difficulty supporting his parents and sister when he finds himself turned into a cockroach.

Kafka is a name I’ve only really become aware of in the last few years. Slowly but surely, you’ve started to hear his name uttered here and there. Maybe I’ve just been in the literary cold for most of my life. It’s not like I ever go too far out of my way to find stuff, and my formal education pretty much started with Lord of the Flies and finished with Seamus Heaney (and didn’t make too many major stops in between).

So I thought I’d give him a go. And if you’re going to give someone a go, then you might as well start with what they’re most famous for, which I’m reliably informed by the blurb at the start of this book is the short story entitled Metamorphosis. It’s tucked in amongst a bunch of other short stories in this book, many of which I read as well, but let’s focus our attention on that one, eh? Makes this thing a whole lot easier on us both.

First things first; it’s bizarre. Properly bizarre. You’re landed right from the first sentence in a world where someone can just wake up one day as a cockroach. There’s a certain amount of confusion, disgust and embarrassment (naturally), but not really any disbelief. More like the guy has just woken up and all his hair has fallen out. Inconvenient, but not something to call the national press or police (or whoever else you can think of) about.

It gives the whole story an edge that works really well (something he does in a lot of his writing, but I promised not to talk about that, so I won’t. Disregard this whole bracketed section immediately, unless you want to turn me into a liar). You’re suspended in a constant state of what-the-hell-is-going-on-ness throughout the story. Kafka never really lets you off the hook from that feeling. He explains in excruciating and sometimes graphic detail the problems of the situation, the feelings of isolation, the discomfort, the changes in relationships - everything. But he ignores the most obvious questions. Why? How?

Got to assume that’s on purpose. I mean, you don’t write that someone’s turned into a cockroach and just forget to explain how or why. Kafka presents a reach-out-and-touch-it world, populated with solid people (and one giant cockroach). He relates the story of a man and a family, beholden to work and duty in a way that plucks one or two heartstrings (fairly gently). By concentrating on those sorts of factors, and ignoring the elephant in the room, the story has more life, more tension. If it was just about the “why” or the “how”, then I’d probably lose interest.

Downsides? I get nervous here, to be honest. It’s Kafka. One of those I don’t really feel qualified to criticise too much. But I will. The language is a little grey in places. And the main character (Gregor) changes quite a bit. I was never sure if it was intentional, and supposed to signify the effect of his metamorphosis, but I just felt his personality swung a bit too violently. His reaction to some things came off as unrealistic, and his opinions seemed to vary from one page to the next. I’m sure this was all done on purpose, but the pace of it stopped me sympathising and identifying with him in any real way. And I’m not interested in a hero that I can’t connect to in at least some small way.

Kafka, on the GBR scale?


Really interesting read. A different one. And only a short story, so why not give it a go. And while you’re at it, pick through some of the other stories on offer in here.

Next week (if I finish it in time) a modern Hungarian book that is apparently “Kafka-esque”. I now know more about what that means. Gold star for me.

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