Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Metamorphosis

Franz Kafka The Metamorphosis (1915)
The Metamorphosis is, as everyone presently alive probably knows, the tale of Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman who wakes up one morning as an enormous beetle much to the understandable distress of his family. I seem to recall its having been discussed at length in Trillion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss's history of science-fiction literature, but I can't be arsed to have a look and see what the guy said right now. Clearly The Metamorphosis isn't science-fiction - which probably wasn't what Aldiss said in any case - but it's surprising how many other general categories it resists with equivalent certitude.

The story, which is much shorter than you may realise, focusses mainly on Samsa's physical deterioration, and the breakdown of communications with his sister and parents in whose home he lives as principle breadwinner. As is my custom, I gave this one some thought before reading, anticipating certain themes and by extension what sort of thing I should therefore be looking for. I imagined there might be something to gain from considering the general symbolism of the dung beetle, all the stuff about shit and death, maybe even the sun as a great celestial ball of poo rolled daily across the heavens as it was in ancient Egypt; but I was wrong. Samsa is not, it turns out, a dung beetle. In fact his precise entomological credentials are unclear, perhaps even irrelevant beyond their association with death, decay, and detritus, and the numerous descriptions mostly point to something along the lines of a cockroach. Furthermore, it seems I'm not the only one to get a bit ahead of myself in this respect, and two thirds of this edition are taken up with commentary and related essays to varying degrees of relevance and value. One guy argues that Samsa is in fact a woodlouse, based on his interpretation of a single somewhat vague sentence, although our boy potentially being a woodlouse makes no difference to anything. Another argues that the apple which Samsa's father hurls in anger at his six-legged son must be viewed as an apple from the tree of knowledge of the kind which the Biblical Eve famously found so nummy. This too is bollocks, as are many of the other available interpretations, because all the information you need is already present in the text, and I presume the apple to have been an apple simply because that's just the sort of thing Gregor's father would have had to hand.

Gregor, you see, has a shitty, soul-destroying job and more responsibilities than he can handle. Those of us who have found ourselves in such circumstances will therefore recognise his situation immediately and have no need for further explanation. Life repeatedly kicks Gregor in the sack, then asks him for a contribution towards its next shoe shine, over and over and over; and it isn't so much that he becomes a shit-eating beetle, but that he is revealed as one, or, as Wilhelm Emrich puts it in one of the more helpful essays Kafka does not create "surrealist" phenomena but, on the contrary, creates our reality with utter artistic truth. So it's an allegory, but not one upon which we should get too hung up in view of that which is allegorised, as detailed here in Kafka's diary:

...breakdown, impossible to sleep, impossible to stay awake, impossible to endure life, or, more exactly, the course of life. The clocks are not in unison; the inner one runs crazily on at a devilish or demoniac or in any case inhuman pace, the outer one limps along at its usual speed. What else can happen but that the two worlds split apart, and they do split apart, or at least clash in a fearful manner.

Personally speaking, I've been there. The Metamorphosis rings a lot of bells, although it should probably be noted that the metamorphosis of the title most likely refers to the transformation of Samsa's family near the close of the story, a vaguely redemptive ending which Kafka himself grew to dislike.

The Metamorphosis is good enough to preclude the need for further discussion, and is not a difficult text by any description. Everyone should read it, and not least because even without its saying all that it says, it's also very funny.

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