The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Who will ever forget this first sentence: "One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug."? In fact, I prefer the original German "Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt." It makes less of a fuss of the transformation, and to my ear, it makes the event sound more natural.
Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" was first published exactly 100 years ago, in 1915, and I read it for the first time exactly 50 years ago, in 1965; I remember it because I was in the freshmen grade of high school in Poland. Of course, at that time, I was fascinated by the fantasy aspect, and if I remember correctly, I found the whole premise humorous. Well, although my wife does not believe it, I have matured a bit during these 50 years, and do not find any trace of humor in the novella - exactly the opposite.
I am reading possibly the worst edition of the novella, in the so-called Enriched Classic series by Simon and Shuster, where as many as 55 pages (while the whole novella takes 80 pages) are dedicated to Kafka's biography, interpretations of his work, explanations of such esoteric terms as "servant girl" or "slight indisposition", and - horror of horrors - "Questions for Discussion". The edition is clearly designed for use in schools or book clubs.
I am of a rather extreme opinion that a true work of art should not be interpreted; it should stand on its own. Do we ask why in some Picasso's works the left eye is almost perpendicular to right one? Do we ask why "Guernica" is not realistically painted? Why are Beethoven's late string quartets so "abstract"? In the same way, it does not bother me that Mr. Samsa, a traveling salesman, wakes up as an insect. I can only shrug at the early attempts to interpret the novella as masochistic, as showing "a man becoming a beast", as an allegory for alienation. I can add my own, equally idiotic interpretation. One day, when I was 37, I woke up and with utter clarity realized that I am not young any more; I realized I am now middle-aged, and the days of youth are irretrievably gone. This was my metamorphosis.
Gregor Samsa changes into a monstrous verminous bug, but it is really his family, and primarily his loving sister Grete, who are subject to real metamorphosis. The used to love Gregor, the family breadwinner. Now, when he loses his usefulness and his looks, even Grete wants "it" to disappear. Gregor (the "it") understands it well: "He remembered his family with deep feelings of love. [...] His own thought that he had to disappear was, if possible, even more decisive than his sister's." How inconsequential we are!
The last sentence of the novella is even more terrifying than the first one: "And it was something of a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions when at the end of their journey their daughter got up first and stretched her young body."
Great work of literature.
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