Book #118: The Metamorphosis (1915)

verwandlungaka: Die Verwandlung
author: Franz Kafka
language: English, translated from German
length: 44 pages
finished on: 30 October 2016

Kafka’s name has long been used as a shorthand for something surrealist or unbelievable, and I think this is his most famous novella. My interest was piqued about a year ago, when my Japanese coworker was reading it at work – I took it from him and read the first sentence, something like “Gregor Samsa was transformed into a horrific vermin”. I wasn’t about to read the rest of the book in Japanese – it’d take me too long, I think.

As I mentioned in my last book review, I just got a Kindle, and found that a lot of things, especially out-of-copyright stuff, but also a small selection of newer stuff, is available for free. I mean, I knew this; I got A Study in Scarlet and Gulliver’s Travels for free on the Kindle store when I owned my last Kindle (which keen-eyed readers might know went kaput about two and a half years ago). But I sort of rediscovered it this time. I also thought I’d like to read something short, and The Metamorphosis fit the bill.

So the story is short, and it’s about Gregor Samsa waking up one morning to find that he’s been turned into a giant insect. At least, the word insect is never mentioned, but the description is pretty clear, and virtually all covers that the book has had have depicted an insect, despite the author’s protests. He soon becomes unable to speak, and the others are horrified to see him, so he hides away in his room and is taken care of by his sister. He becomes an outsider witness to the financial ruin and subsequent transformations that his family goes through without him as a breadwinner.

The fantastical element is never explained, and the book only deals with the consequence of that. I could easily have envisaged the fantastical element being taken out, in which case it becomes a story of a fast-acting degenerative illness, which would enact the same kinds of transformations in the family.

A lot of the things the book talks about are very familiar – the way in which Gregor has to go to work and commute every morning, before his transformation, and the worries that he has are, one hundred years later, very familiar indeed. People still take the train to work, after all. But I think the book is hinting at societal transformation too, in the way that the family changes from Gregor supporting his sister and parents to the others having to fend for themselves and all get jobs. I’m wondering if it doesn’t also reflect the wartime milieu in which the book was written – the country being necessarily transformed as a result. There are a lot of layers to this, and people more experienced than me in literary analysis can probably come up with more eloquent reasoning for this!

One thing I’m a little interested in is Kafka’s sentence structure. The most famous is the opening line I mentioned above. Again, I can’t remember the exact wording, but it talks about Gregor waking up to find he’s been transformed. Now, German has a neat trick where you can put the verb at the end of the sentence in many contexts, and apparently Kafka uses this to create an element of surprise when readers discover the verb at the end of the sentence – like, oh, he’s been transformed into a vermin. Wait a second! And I actually had this effect when I read the first sentence in Japanese last year – Japanese also puts verbs at the end of the sentence, so it was like mentally I’d been predicting another verb, but then found something like 変わった (changed) and had a moment of “huh??”. In English, of course, this doesn’t work. So now I’m wondering if I’d have had a different effect if I’d read it in Japanese or German. The only problem is, I’m not quite proficient enough in either language…

Anyway, it’s a classic and it’s well deserving of that. It’s interesting and short, so doesn’t get distracted, which is nice. Has anyone else read it? I’d be interested to see what others’ take on it would be.

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