In the spirit of vacation-time Kafka & Me full disclosure, I now bring you yet another old essay from the annals of Schumandom. You might think that with the thousands of words of prose I crank out for Slate, the Chron, and this blog, I have nothing left to write about anything–but terrifyingly, you’d be wrong. I will not stop. I am generally also working on some sort of long-form essay or another, most of which I decide to junk. But in the spirit of un-junkfification, I’ve decided You know what? Fuck it. I’ll publish it here. Why not? So, with “fuck it” in mind, I give you yet another Franz & Me story you probably never asked for: The Story Of the First Time I Ever Read Kafka And What It Did To Me.
My exposure to Kafka began, unsurprisingly, with The Metamorphosis (in German, Die Verwandlung), which is by far his best-known work; for anyone who has heard of Kafka, the name is almost synonymous with Gregor Samsa and the innumerable depictions (and translations!) of his preposterously unfortunate bodily development, which takes place shortly before the story begins.
For the vast majority of Kafka readers, the name invokes one sentence and one sentence only: the first line of this story, which reads: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself in his bed transformed into a…” and here’s where it gets tricky. The translation I read in 1991, after settling in to the most comfortable chair in my parents’ living room—a late-season-Mad-Men-looking caramel-colored contraption that featured shiny silver accents at the top and on the arms, and that I would later, long past its prime, take with me to graduate school and dub The Thinking Chair—read “monstrous vermin.” This is indeed the most popular translation—but as a 15-year-old, even a rather bookish one (when I wasn’t writing fan letters to Leonardo DiCaprio, who was at that point the Seavers’ dreamy foster son on Growing Pains) I wouldn’t have even begun to know what that was. That might, actually, have been the first time I ever saw the word “vermin” in print and really thought about what it was. At any rate, I didn’t have to think too long, because my mom had mentioned the book in passing earlier, by telling me “it’s about a guy who gets turned into a gigantic BUG!”
So I knew, somehow, that Gregor was some sort of many-legged gross creature—and indeed, that is how other translations choose to describe him. There’s my mother’s preferred nomenclature, and “enormous insect,” and of course “massive cockroach.” None of these are really correct, by the way—but not because the most famous story by the German language’s most-read author has yet to find a worthy translator. Far from it. No, there is not a single translation of The Metamorphosis that can do its first line justice because its author made that line hinge upon a word that has no translation: Ungeziefer (pronounced OON-guh-TSEE-fir), which is an unusual word derived from the Middle-High German for “creatures unfit for sacrifice and the Kingdom of Heaven” (I don’t see why that’s rare!). The word basically means “undesirable pest or parasite, usually of the insect variety” (don’t trust me; that’s from the Duden Bedeutungswörterbuch), but at its core is that it can mean any kind of undesirable pest or parasite, and the main important thing about it is that the human who sees it finds it super icky. If I had The Metamorphosis to translate today (I guess technically I do, but who has the time? Although I did translate all the sections you see here), I would finish that first line “parasitic monster,” which nobody has ever used before. But even that wouldn’t be very good.
Quite obviously, I didn’t know any of this when I was 15, and continued on in The Metamorphosis, sitting on that chair, until I had turned its last page—the story is only about ninety pages long, but for a fidgety teenager that’s a long time to sit rapt. Hell, with all the gadgets I have around me now, I don’t think I could sit through that story uninterrupted today.
Regardless, 15-year-old me was not thinking about the untranslatable quadruple-meaning of Ungeziefer, because 15-year-old me was acing Spanish III, and saw no reason whatsoever to learn an “ugly,” “difficult” language such as German. And while I’m here in the present yammering about high-school Spanish, past me is already two pages into The Metamorphosis at this point, in shocked disbelief that Gregor’s first thought upon recognizing what he looks like is that he’s going to be late for work:
“Oh, God,” he thought, “what an exhausting career I’ve chosen! Day in, day out on the road, and the little annoyances are so much greater than they would be if I had my own store here at home, and on top of that there’s the curse of traveling, the worry about missing my train connections, the irregular and terrible food, and the ever-changing, never-consistent turnaround of people that I can never get to know. The Devil take it all!”*
I was flabbergasted that Gregor would be talking about his job at such a time, when the only appropriate reaction would be this and this exclusively: HOLY SHIT, I’M A GIANT FUCKING BUG. My own job at the time was commandeering children’s birthday parties at the local gymnastics academy—that and being in the tenth grade, and had I woken up with even the slightest fantastical disfigurement—really one insect leg would have done it—I would have forgotten immediately about school, work, everything. I’m hideous! I would have said. I give up! So I just kept waiting for Gregor to break down in horror, to just freak out at his predicament—so I kept on reading, but to my immense frustration, such an emotional release never happens, not once in the entire story.
In the meantime, my frustration with Gregor did also turn, relatively quickly, into frustration on his behalf, when I read with mingled confusion and super-huge confusion Kafka’s description of Gregor’s first attempt to get out of bed:
It was easy to throw his blanket aside; he just had to puff himself up a little, and it and it fell away by itself. But to go any further proved difficult, particularly because he was so exceptionally wide. Would that he had arms and hands to right himself; instead, however, he had only these many tiny little legs, that were continuously moving in different directions, something over which he could not wrest control.
What I noticed then—and what, indeed, thousands of Kafka readers have noticed in the intervening near-century since this book was published—is that while the physicality, the sheer visceral realness, of Gregor’s horrifying new body is unavoidably, terrifyingly present, it’s actually still kind of impossible to picture him. I’ve now read this story probably a dozen times (most in the original German, ahem) and I still have no clue what Gregor really looks like.
Sure, most of these intervening reading experiences have blended in to one another, but that first time I remember so clearly still. And I remember not understanding what Gregor really looked like—being able to feel him but not see him, if that makes any sense. And part of what I was feeling was worry. My concern on his behalf then turned to fear, as his irate boss showed up to harangue him for missing his train, yelling at him from the other side of his locked bedroom door:
“Herr Samsa,” cried the Chief Clerk now with a raised voice, “What is the matter? You’ve barricaded yourself in your room, you answer only with yes or no, you worry your parents unnecessarily, and you fail—this I only mention by the by—in your business duties in a way that is frankly unheard of. I speak here in the name of your parents and your boss, and implore you with greatest seriousness for an immediate and clear explanation.”
It takes about fourteen pages for Gregor to reveal his new body to his family and boss—and I remember being simultaneously infuriated and spellbound at the methodical, unemotional pace of this narration, its wackadoodle subject matter almost an afterthought, and the horror with which the family reacts to Gregor’s appearance when he finally does get his door open and step out into the living room rendered with only slightly more emotional fervor than a shopping list:
With a look of loathing, is father clenched his hands into fists, as if he wanted to shove Gregor back into his room; then he looked uncertainly around the living room, covered his eyes with his hands and wept, such that his powerful chest quaked.
There are so many points when you are reading The Metamorphosis for the first time that you think to yourself: Look, this story cannot possibly get any weirder. And then something like this happens: Gregor, his disgusting/indescribable new body in full view and completely unable to talk in human language anymore, addresses not his family, but his boss:
“Now you see, Sir, I’m not stubborn and I like to work hard; the constant travel is challenging, but I couldn’t live without it. Where are you going then, Sir? To the office? Yes? Will you report everything accurately?”
In possibly the first moment in this story to make sense, the Chief Clerk screams bloody murder and beats a hasty retreat out of the Samsa flat, at which point Gregor is left alone with his family, and his father treats him…well, like he’s a huge bug. Namely, the elder Samsa rolls up a giant newspaper, grabs the walking stick the Chief Clerk left behind in his haste, and uses them both to whack at Gregor and shove him back into his room.
I still remember the piercing, full-throated sadness I felt when I read this scene for the first time—if I turned into a giant bug through no fault of my own, would my parents treat me that way, too? Couldn’t Gregor’s parents see that he was scared under there? That he needed love, and patience, and for them to help him?
For awhile, I was placated, as the middle section of the story is largely taken up with Gregor’s younger sister Grete—who I imagined, must have been about my age—helping him stay alive. She figures out that he only likes to eat garbage and rotten food and feeds him accordingly, and comes in to half-heartedly clean his room now and then. To my simultaneous relief and disbelief, it seemed as if the Samas were just going to get used to having their giant-bug son in the other room, and live weirdly ever after.
But this doesn’t last long—one day, when Grete and Frau Samsa are clearing the furniture out of Gregor’s room (after all, what use does he have for human furniture, aside from the couch under which he now lives full-time?), Gregor tries to protect his favorite picture, and in doing so shows himself to his mother, who faints; this then precipitates a fit of rage from his father, who starts throwing fruit at him, because at this point, why not?
It was an apple, and a second one flew at him after it. Gregor stood still in terror; running was useless, in that his father had decided to bombard him. Out of the fruit bowl on the credenza he’d stuffed his pockets full and now threw apple after apple, without even looking. These small red apples rolled around on the floor as if electrified, bumping against each other. A weakly-thrown apple grazed Gregor’s back but skidded off harmlessly. But another one, thrown immediately thereafter, drove hard into Gregor’s back. Gregor wanted to drag himself away, as if he could make this surprising and unbelievable pain disappear with a change of location; alas, he felt instead as if he were nailed to the floor, and lay stretched out in complete confusion of all his senses.
Again, I remember reading this enraged and hurt on Gregor’s behalf—how could his family treat him like this, just because of how he looked? It reminded me in a weird way of my own struggles with puberty—or, rather, with its frustratingly delayed onset, as in the tenth grade I was barely managing to fill out an “A” cup and thus, despite a body so taut from years of gymnastics that it makes me seethe with jealousy in my decrepit middle age, I was either teased or ignored by boys, indeed all because of how I looked. Meanwhile, when I was forced to observe the other changes that were occurring without my consent—most notably the onset of sadistic menses that often sent me doubled over to the nurse’s office in the middle of class—I did sometimes feel like a monster’s body had been swapped out for my own. And, though neither of my parents ever threw things at me, the outbursts that came standard with these hormonal changes had recently prompted my mother to exclaim: “I’m lucky that I only have to deal with your impossible personality until you’re 18—but you have to deal with it for the rest of your life!” Gregor’s side never heals from the apple that punctures it, and in a way I have also never completely healed from my mother telling me that—although to this day she feels so bad about it, and I often only bring it up to tease her.
Of course, my slight lingering trauma does not compare with what befalls Gregor in the wake of the apple incident. His sister—who until the final scenes I had thought of as my ally—turns on him rather inexplicably (though several generations of psychoanalytic Kafka critics do have their theories about this). After Frau Samsa refers to Gregor as if he might “come back” to them, Grete cuts her off, proclaiming instead: “I will not speak the name of my brother in front of this monster, and I say to you now, dear parents: we have got to try to get rid of it.” At this, Gregor loses what will to live he still had, and with two final inner-monologue words (“And now?”) he lets himself die.
Die! What? My teenage self could not believe this. The story is narrated from Gregor’s perspective, for Christ’s sake—he can’t die. But I’d never met Kafka before, you see, and I didn’t realize that authors were allowed to be completely inconsistent in their perspective—we hadn’t learned about that in Introduction to the Novel, my insufferable advanced English class where I was made to plod through Pride and Prejudice and the teacher, a dour Bryn Mawr graduate, had taken an instant dislike to me, and thrust upon me the first ever spate of B’s I had ever received in Language Arts in my life. I was actually reading The Metamorphosis on that day in specific avoidance of Jane Eyre, another book I am pretty sure puts entire generations of teenagers off the act of reading altogether. I don’t at all remember a single approach to the Great Literature I read that year in school, but I will never forget how hurt I was by the gleeful cries of the Samsa family cleaning lady, who, upon discovering Gregor’s corpse, lets out a loud whistle and shrieks for the family to come, because “look, it’s croaked! Here it lies, completely and totally croaked!”
This would have been bad enough on its own—but that’s not where The Metamorphosis ends. Instead, the Samsas gleefully leave their flat together for the first time since Gregor’s transformation, and go on an outing into the country, where they have a grand time. The story ends with the Samsa parents marveling that Grete has blossomed into such a beautiful young woman, and their wonder at how her “young body” moves. What?
I don’t know if I even remembered to breathe for the last ten pages of that book—but I shut it, and I remember looking around my parents’ living room skeptically, like: am I sure that this is a normal house? Come to think of it, I haven’t seen my brother lately. I looked down at the book, just stared at it, read and re-read its back cover copy, thinking that might help me make some sense of its contents. I knew I would never forget this story—and indeed, I most certainly haven’t—but I also had absolutely no idea what to make of it, not even the faintest clue. Twenty years and several advanced degrees later, I still mostly don’t—but I’ve never stopped trying to figure it out.
Since I first read that translated copy of The Metamorphosis because I didn’t want to do my homework on that Sunday afternoon over twenty years ago, I have undergone countless metamorphoses of my own: I have had eleven boyfriends and one miserably short marriage; I have learned three foreign languages subsequent to what was actually quite a pathetic command of Spanish; I’ve earned four increasingly unrewarding postsecondary degrees and lived in four different countries; I have held, with varying degrees of “success,” upwards of fifteen jobs. And throughout most of these years, the two decades of my adulthood, I have self-characterized as different degrees of brooding and anxious, and varying levels of something I’ll call “intellectual-unhappy,” a ludicrous but apt designation whose existence is possible entirely due to my continuous association with the one constant in all of this time: Franz Kafka.
Thinking back on that rainy Sunday (I can only assume it was rainy, as most Sundays in Oregon are), I have to wonder: what about the story of Gregor’s psychological transformation (which I now realize is independent of his physical transformation) spoke to me in such a way? What about it compelled me, in relatively short order, to consume not just every other word Kafka wrote, but to learn his native language to fluency despite what was at the time a complete lack of interest in anything else German?
And The Metamorphosis was just the tip of the frozen-sea iceberg: it was Kafka’s diaries and aphorisms that took me from infatuation to obsession. What about Kafka’s simultaneously emotive and distant, peculiar and familiar way of expressing (or failing to express) his feelings made me want to live those feelings, to go find his house and street in Prague so I could see if the same feelings would indeed be evoked in me? Something about that single day in my parents’ living room ignited a weird little spark of infatuation that I have, I am hesitant to admit, never possessed for a living human (and definitely never for any other author, blech!). And something caused that spark to ignite into a veritable inferno of literary-based longing—that would then produce a questionable influence, not just over my formative years like a normal teenage angst-fest, but over my adulthood, too. Until our relationship turned strictly professional around 2005, I spent my literary life wanting to be and date Kafka simultaneously. In the words of King Arthur, speaking of the taunting French knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “What a strange person!”
Today, having somewhat amicably divorced from Kafka—that is, being able to view him more or less as a mere author whose work I happen to know well and enjoy—I can’t help but wonder: did I gravitate to his writing in the first place because I was always just that sort of weirdo? Or did he make me like this? Kafka’s characters themselves would laugh at my implacable desire to answer such a question—for that kind of important truth about one’s nature resides in the same unreachable place that the Law does in the parable “Before the Law,” when a “man from the country” implores a Doorkeeper over and over for entrance to the Law, until the man realizes that this door existed specifically with the intent of shutting him (and only him!) out. You don’t find out the truth about yourself by asking directly, or expecting it to appear to you—after all, according to one of the many aphorisms that made my teenage self swoon, “The true way lies along a tightrope, stretched not aloft but just above the ground. It seems designed more to trip one than to be walked along.”
*I believe I translated these passages myself years ago, but it’s possible I used the Muirs as a placeholder and meant to replace them with mine. I honestly don’t remember. The BEST translation is Susan Bernofsky’s.