The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

I was surprised by how short and easy to read this was. My experience of this book before I read it had frequently included groans about how heavy and deep it was, usually by those who had not read it themselves. Others have had to read it as part of a course. Some adopt an air of intellectualism, as if they alone are truly in touch with what Kafka was about. After watching an excellent play based on the book I wanted to investigate for myself.
I was intrigued by the idea of someone transforming into a beetle, but knew little more before seeing the play. It is a very human story, told in a straight forward way, of how Gregor becomes a giant beetle over night and how this affects him and his family.
The narrator takes Gregors point of view for the majority of the story and I found the text in translation added an endearing and vulnerable side to him, an innocent abroad feeling, as we are taken through his difficulties and the repulsion and rejection towards him of those he loves. He finds himself unable to communicate with them, although at no time does he blame his family or show anything less than love for them, as they withdraw from him and eventually inflict a cruel series of rejections in which they feel justified because of his distasteful and embarressing situation. It is easy for them to turn their back on him and treat him inhumanely, for his own good of course, now he is unrecognisable as their relation. This continues until his tragic end, when the family reflects little on his plight and more on their own relief.
Tied in with all of this is the fact that Gregor was the main breadwinner, saving his family from debt when their business failed. Now he is no longer useful and they must seek employment themselves to survive. The passages concerning employment provide a glimpse of the work ethics of Eastern Europe in the early 1900s.
There are lots of theories about Gregors transformation, and whether he physically transforms at all. Is it in his head? This adds further curiosities to the storys interpretation. In the play that I saw Gregor stayed a man, which I found incredibly moving and upsetting. We could see he was the same person, his family couldn't, as in the book.
There are many parallels drawn with those who are marginalised either by disfigurement or mental illness. I found this most profoundly when I considered reactions to the elderly, especially those with Alzheimers or other forms of dimentia, needing to be looked after, maybe a breadwinner earlier in life, unable to communicate, sometimes violent, and unrecognisable as their former selves. Not all of these people are unloved or cruelly treated as Gregor is, but how would we react? We would all like to think we would do the right thing by our family, but what if one of our family became a smelly, screaching insect for real. How happy would we be about it? Maybe the extreme reactions to this book are not because it is difficult to read, but because it raises difficult questions, things we don't want to think about.
Here are some links you may find useful...


Donigan said...

This probably doesn't belong attached to this post, but I couldn't figure out any other way to make the comment, which is stimulated by the Carlisle quote: The true university these days is a collection of books. May I recommend that you read "The Library at Night," by Alberto Manguel? One of the finest books of this year's crop.

Leah said...

Thanks for your recommendation Donigan, I will keep an eye out for that one. Hope you drop by again.

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye