Monday, November 4, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“METAMORPHOSIS” by Franz Kafka (“DIE VERWANDLUNG” written 1912-13; first published in German 1915; various English translations)

            I have a number of problems with Franz Kafka (1883-1924).

The first and most obvious is the fact that I have only a phrase-book smattering of German, so I have to read him in translation. This is a great disadvantage when it is clear that Kafka indulged in a lot of wordplay and wry humour, quite at odds with the received image of him as a purveyor of dark nightmare.

The second is that, in the novels which were never published in his lifetime, and which he may sincerely not have wished to be published, he does have the tendency to flog allegorical ideas to death. Gore Vidal once made a complaint to the effect that “With Kafka you get the point early and then there is nothing further to get” (I’m quoting from memory here, but that was the gist of it.) That’s a little glib, but I do see what Vidal meant. Admitting that I have never read America, I did find that in both The Trial (Der Prozess) and The Castle (Das Schloss), the hero’s uncomfortable situation is established and then variations are played upon it, with no forward thrust – Joseph K. being meaninglessly victimised, harassed and interrogated; K. waiting and waiting in the village outside the castle. This hasn’t stopped people from dramatizing these novels, with variable success. Over the years, I’ve seen Orson Welles’s modernised and very-altered film version of The Trial (1962) as well as the more deadpan and true-to-the-novel remake, which Harold Pinter scripted in 1994; and also a very good stage adaptation of The Trial by the Auckland playwright Dean Parker. I’ve seen the 1968 film version of The Castle that starred Maximilian Schell and I’m aware that there have been many other stage and screen adaptations of Kafka more recently.

Even so, there really is something ragged about Kafka’s three full-length novels. Lack of development and repetition may be the essence of some nightmares (this horrible situation goes on and on without stopping….) and may be regarded as deliberate by some readers. But I would rudely remark that all three novels were left unfinished and unrevised by Kafka at his death, and the heretic in me suspects that had he lived, and had he actually decided to prepare them for publication, he would have trimmed them and tightened them up considerably. What we have are, essentially, drafts and not finished works.

Now what leads me to make this suggestion? (Especially as I am a non-specialist and in terms of your average tertiary Humanities Department have no right to an opinion on the matter.)

It is my awareness of how tightly-structured and carefully-crafted Kafka made the longest of the works that were published in his lifetime. Metamorphosis is about fifty average pages in length. I have read it in Edwin and Willa Muir’s venerable 1930s translation (which, rendering the original German title literally, they at first called The Transformation) and in Stanley Corngold’s 1972 translation. (There are many other translations available, too.) The Bantam Classics edition of the Corngold translation, which sits in front of me as I type, emphasises how much this tight and perfect tale has been subjected to analysis. Its fifty pages of text are surrounded by 20 pages of introduction and fully 130 pages of explanatory notes and exegesis. In other words there is three times as much apparatus criticus as there is text. This is one of those works that “everybody knows” without having actually read it, so the opening sentence was familiar to me even before I began: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin [ungeheures Ungeziefer]”. That opening has passed into the general cultural consciousness like such openings of novels as “Aujourd’hui, Maman est morte” or “He was a inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built…”.

Given that I couldn’t help having some foreknowledge of Metamorphosis, I decided to consult no commentaries whatsoever until after I had read it for myself and formed my own opinions. This is how it played out.

(A.)    What I took from my own reading.

1.) It is the story of a man, Gregor Samsa, who turns into a monstrous insect, and the consequences this has for his family (his parents and his sister) and himself. Gregor is essentially trapped in one room throughout the story.

 2.) It is written in the third-person limited style. This is a key to much of its power. It is only Gregor’s thoughts that we share, so that the reasons for the actions of the human beings in the story have to be guessed by us, or pieced together in inferences taken from the limited things they say. There is therefore a radical alienation of viewpoint – but by writing in the third person, Kafka is able to shift the viewpoint in the last few pages after Gregor’s death.

3.) It is highly schematised. Although the main “event” of the story – Gregor’s transformation into a “vermin” - has happened before the opening sentence, the “geography” of the story is like a stage play – there is Gregor’s room with the (condemnatory) voices of his parents and employer coming through a door on one side; and the (more conciliatory) voice of his sister coming through the door on the other side.

Equally schematised and ‘theatrical’ is the action of the story. It is in three acts. (i.) Gregor’s transformation and the loss of his job when his employer visits. (ii.) The family’s failure to adjust to his insect-hood, including his father’s hurling of the apple which becomes embedded in Gregor’s back and is implicitly one cause of his death. (iii.) The family’s finally rebelling against the conditions they have been reduced to by Gregor’s lack of earning power. They expel the lodgers they have taken in, and blatantly condemn Gregor as vile. And Gregor sickens and dies, rejected by them.

So much for my description of the most basic things I got out of Metamorphosis on my unaided reading. I found it very, very hard not to jump at once into interpretation and load the tale with perceived symbolism, especially as it is so potent a story and every phrase seems pregnant with meaning. Is it an allegory of alienation? Is it a psychological sketch of Kafka’s own sense of confinement in his bourgeois family, or as a German-speaking Jew surrounded by Czech speakers? Is it a caricature of the earning man (Gregor Samsa has been a travelling salesman) who is dehumanised by the capitalist system, reduced to being an economic unit, and discarded when he can no longer earn? Etcetera. Etcetera. Etcetera.

On reflection, I still think there is something to be said for each of these theories. But none really captures the visceral impact of the prose upon the page. For what I found most striking in Kafka’s telling was his insistence on the insect’s physicality – the complete reality of its body. I do now know the theory that the story is meant to be the projection of a neurotic character’s mind. This theory has been promoted by the fact that the original German-language publication of Die Verwandlung had on its cover an image of an anguished human being rather than an image of a disgusting insect. But I cannot buy this theory, for we are repeatedly told that while Gregor may have elements of human consciousness, he is also genuinely an insect. He chooses to eat what an insect eats (rotten food and mouldy cheese). He hides in the darkness (under the sofa) as an insect hides. He is almost incapable of walking backwards. And what makes this especially chilling is the absolutely deadpan way it is narrated. We expect some scene of horror or shock or disgust on Gregor’s part, but it never really comes. He is made happier by having the room cleared a little so that he can more freely scuttle around. When we expect him to have some profound philosophical thoughts on his condition, he instead has some animal instinct for food or warmth. The shock and horror is in his family’s reaction (as when he climbs up the wall), and not in his own reaction.

So what did I conclude the story was essentially “about”? I read it as a story about the strangeness of having a body that compels us to act as we act – insect or human being – and hence in a way as a dramatization of human duality: the ultimate alienation. Is my body the same as my mind? Does my body make my mind think as it does?
B.) And then I read some of the critics.

And what did the critics say it was mainly about? They seemed to be obsessed with the psychological nature of the story, and the levels of cognition and consciousness, which it expresses. OR they see it as an implicit critique of, or commentary upon, the traditional middle-class family unit.

THUS, they say, it is a story about duality – the division between the “real” and the “social” self. Gregor has surrendered his “real” self to the social demands of work and providing for his family. He has surrendered to what is only apparently human. The insect-form he takes is the perverse rebellion of his “real” self against the social demands made upon him. In his insect form he is not able to work, but he still wants to do so. The insect form he takes is his family’s judgement on his “real” non-working self. He is, in their view, a parasite. So much has he internalised their view that in the end he willingly dies to relieve them of the burden he has become.

OR, say the critics, the story is a symbolic Freudian psycho-drama of Oedipal conflict. By working and supporting his family, Gregor has usurped his father’s position. His father withers and becomes dependent. The insect form is Gregor’s punishment, which allows his father to once again blossom as an earner. Gregor liberates his family by dying.

OR…. well any number of things, actually. Academic critics do have to theorise. That is what they are paid to do. Some of these ideas may even be relevant to the story and some do add dimensions to it as I re-read it.

But it is still the physicality of the insect that most strikes me in Metamorphosis. If the story is really symbolic, then the symbolism cannot be neatly nailed down to any one thing. The deepest meaning of the story is the most literal, and the deepest impact of the story is of something that is physically horrible breaking in upon Gregor and his family. It is a masterpiece of horror. All the interpretations we impose upon it are simply our attempts to tame it and to make ourselves feel more comfortable with it. Gregor Samsa’s transformation still shocks the way Dali’s and Bunuel’s slicing of an eyeball does.

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