Source of book: I own this.
Hey, another installment of “Books I should have read in High School.” For those who do not know my history, I was homeschooled when the only curriculum options readily available were A Beka (which I used) and even more racist and fundamentalist ones from Bob Jones University and ACE. Looking back, although the History and Science ones were horrible - not just biased but often misleading - the rest were at least academically rigorous. The main issue I have with the literature ones was that the 20th Century was largely ignored or given minimal attention. Kind of the “when we stopped being a Christian Nation™ our culture became worthless” sort of thing. Thus, most of the gaps in my literary education have been the classics of the 20th Century, something I have had to remedy with my reading. Fortunately, unlike too many people, I have kept reading after finishing school.
Kafka is the rare author whose name has become a word in common usage. Just like “Shakespearean” conjures a specific image, “Kafkaesque” has a meaning beyond the man himself, applicable to any absurd and pointless situation.
I own The Trial as well as a book containing his shorter fiction (including The Metamorphosis), but decided to start here because it is so well known. I mean, who doesn’t know at least the premise - a man wakes up one morning to find he has turned into a giant insect. And it also has one of the best opening lines in all of literature:
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.
I read the book in one sitting - it is somewhere between a story and a novella at 56 pages in my edition - to experience it as a whole.
Having read it, I found myself entirely uncertain as to what it means, if anything. It seemed at first to be a depiction of hopeless labor in service of a capitalist machine. But then it went in completely different directions. Gregor is the sole support of the family, but when he changes, the rest of the family seems to thrive - to get off their butts and go to work themselves. His sister starts off being the only one with compassion for him, but she eventually becomes the most eager to be rid of him. It seems a truly nihilistic work, where even the idea of meaning or purpose is rejected.
I turned to the interwebs to see if I could find out if I was somehow missing the point. It turns out that there are many different interpretations. And when there are many answers, it usually means that none of them are particularly good. The one I thought was best was essentially “it’s a work of art that speaks for itself and thus needs no meaning.” In other words, like a symphony or a painting. I’ll go with that.
Kafka seems to have been a bit of an odd duck. He was Jewish, his family was from Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), but spoke German and Yiddish primarily. He is believed to have had some form of Schizo-affective disorder, as well as anxiety. He died far too young of tuberculosis.
He never found success from his writing during his lifetime, but gained in reputation after his death. An interesting thing about that is that he left his works to Max Brod, with the express instructions to destroy them. Which Brod didn’t do - he published everything, which eventually led to appreciation of Kafka’s works. Brod justified his defiance of the will by claiming that Kafka picked him because he knew Brod wouldn’t actually destroy anything. Which does sound like a possible premise for a Kafka story, if you think about it.
I intend to read the rest of the stories and novellas in this particular book, and also The Trial at some point as I continue my exploration of the great works of the 20th Century.