My step daughter Kim visited me recently. As is our wont to do we had a literary discussion about books and what books influenced us and why. Of course we talked about Hemingway and Camus. But then we landed on Kafka. What, she wanted to know, made me like Kafka so much?
Well, that gave me pause. I allude to Kafka a lot in my writing and in my conversations with people but is has been awhile since I last read his works. The best I could come up with was that I identified with his sense of alienation and absurdity and the bureaucratic nightmare that modern man seems to live under as depicted in his works. I got to thinking. Why else? Well, it had been about 40 years since I last read Metamorphosis, so I decided I would reread it.
I had it in my library. It was the original copy that I had read in the 1970’s. But the book wasn’t in very good condition. The pages had yellowed, there was mold or something growing on the frontispiece, and the spine was cracked and coming apart in the middle. I decided I needed another copy. So, I did what any respectable book buyer might do, I went on line. I found a book and ordered it. Not wanting to wait the two days for its arrival I decide to download a copy to my Kindle so that I could start reading right away.
Now, I remember the first time I read The Metamorphosis, as I say, some 40 odd years ago. I had taken the book along with me on a visit to the emergency room. I had just crashed my motorcycle and broken my leg. The attending physician looked at the book I was reading as I was waiting to be examined. He looked at the book, then looked at me, and then looked at the book again. “Pretty heavy reading isn’t it?” He asked.
Well that may give you an example of the absurdity of my existence up to that point right there.
As I remembered in the book, Gregor Samsa woke up one morning to discover he had been transformed into a gigantic bug. As I remembered it was a cockroach. I had already been disabused of that notion long ago and realized it was a beetle. Now when I stated reading my kindle edition it said “vermin.” Well that wasn’t good enough for me. I needed to see “beetle.” So, I decided I’d wait for the actual book to arrive. It came and I started in to reading it. I came to the fateful passage and it read “verminous bug.” Still not good enough! But I read on. This could go on forever, I thought. I guess there was something lost in translation or in my memory. Speak memory! Later on in the book there was a passage that referred to Gregor as a “dung beetle.” Now, feeling gloriously vindicated, I read the rest of the story in a condition of sublime justification.
Now that I have reread the story I feel that I can speak definitively as to what the book says to me. The story reflects thematically on feelings of alienation, anxiety, and guilt, which pretty well sums up man’s absurd relationship to the world in which he lives and one I have very much identified with ever since I can remember. The story operates in a random, chaotic, and absurd universe, as do we all. Do things happen for a reason or do they befall us purely by chance? That is the question Kafka seems to be exploring in this surrealistic story of transformation.
Another thing I like about Kafka is his take on the kinds of books to read and by extension the kinds of books to write. I also believe this can be applied to other types of art as well.
In a letter to a friend he says: “I think you should only read books that bite and sting you. If the book we read does not wake us with a blow to the skull, why do we read the book? To make us happy as you write? My God, we would be happy if we had no books, and such books that make us happy, we could write to the emergency. But we need the books that affect us like a misfortune that hurts us a lot, like the death of one we loved rather than us, as if we were going into forests, away from all people, like a suicide, a book must be the ax for the frozen sea in us.”