It has become fashionable of late to claim that Franz Kafka is overrated as an author, even though his slender body of work stands as one of the most influential of the 20th century. Indeed, his novels, short stories, parables and autobiographical letters express the anguish of existence, its fundamental burden, better than almost any other European writer of the past 100 years.
Albert Camus comes close. As does Samuel Beckett. But their works would have been much different without the precedent set by Kafka’s “The Trial,” “The Castle” and “The Metamorphosis.”
The latter, a novella published in 1915, is arguably Kafka’s most famous book and has been read in college literature classes nearly as often as Camus’ “The Stranger.”
Both books deal with alienation, and both focus on the quotidian physicality of their protagonists’ existence. But Kafka’s portrait of a traveling salesman transformed into a hideous, human-sized bug teems with a relentless imagination that shocks, amuses and bemuses unlike any other modernist writer.
In barely 100 pages, Kafka guides us through a range of emotions that resound like movements in a concerto – humor, irony, pathos, revulsion – expertly sustaining a single point of view, albeit one that is suddenly cut short the way you would, say, squash a bug.
Susan Bernofsky’s new, exacting translation shows just how ingenious the structure of the book is, and just how difficult it is to render Kafka’s German into English. She succeeds brilliantly, however, with a vivid fidelity to Kafka’s vision, driving home the way he makes us at once sympathetic to his anti-hero, Gregor Samsa, and repulsed by him.
The storyline sounds simple enough: Gregor, a salesman who supports his father, mother and sister with his meager earnings – “an indentured servant to pay off his parents’ ancient debts”– one morning turns into a monstrous, nasty insect (at least that’s the closest English equivalent for the untranslatable German Ungeziefer; a less abstract version comes from the family’s charwoman, who calls Gregor “a dung beetle”).
Here’s how his metamorphosis begins:
“When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed right there in his bed into some sort of monstrous insect. He was lying on his back – which was hard, like a carapace – and when he raised his head a little he saw his curved brown belly segmented by rigid arches atop which the blanket, already slipping, was just barely managing to cling. His many legs, pitifully thin compared to the rest of him, waved helplessly before his eyes.”
Baffled by his new incarnation, unable to communicate with his family through his “tortured peeping,” unwilling to eat the detritus swept his way (after his human diet disgusts him), and weighed down by his corporeal humiliation, Gregor wearily succumbs to despair and dies.
Before he does, we hear his family trying to make sense of the macabre change in him.
“You just have to try to let go of the notion that this thing is Gregor. … But how could it be Gregor? If it were Gregor, it would have realized a long time ago that it just isn’t possible for human beings to live beside such a creature, and it would have gone away on its own.”
And we wince as Gregor tries vainly to hold onto his humanity.
“Was he a beast, that music so moved him? He felt as if he were being shown the way to that unknown nourishment he craved.”
Bernofsky carefully captures every nuance of Gregor’s alienation: from his family, from his former life as a salesman, from his fundamental will to live, even from death itself, which in Kafka’s hands becomes just another matter-of-fact metamorphosis.
“He watched as everything began to lighten outside his window. Then his head sank all the way to the floor without volition and from his nostrils his last breath faintly streamed.”
Gregor’s affliction remains inexplicable, of course, but it can best be viewed as an outward, physical manifestation of an inward, spiritual bankruptcy. As his condition worsens, the absurdity of his situation only magnifies; the meaninglessness of his life literally devolves into dust:
“Thanks to the dust that lay everywhere in his room and would swirl up at the slightest motion, he too was covered in dust, hair and food scraps clinging to his back and sides.”
When his father hurls apples at him in a rage, trying to drive him back into his room where he can be locked away, we shudder at the visceral impact of parental violence. And we look askance as, wounded unto death, Gregor has in fact become “the beast unfit for sacrifice,” as Bernofksy tells us the Old German put it.
After Gregor expires, the charwoman quickly disposes of the body. And though the family sheds a few tears, the Samsas show no lasting signs of grief: Their son and brother had already long been dead to them. As a human being, he was a necessary inconvenience; as a human bug, a horrific embarrassment. Good riddance to both.
In her afterword, Bernofsky remarks that “metamorphosis” carries a connotation that Kafka didn’t intend. Gregor’s change is not a natural one, the way a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. Instead, it is a sudden rupture, a mutation, a violation abrupt to the point of paralysis.
Even so, it is fair to say that Bernofsky has made a metamorphosis of her own, transforming Kafka’s German into English, and proving that his relevance in the 21st century remains stronger than ever. Unlike Gregor and his family, we can’t do without him.