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VINE VOICEon 7 February 2010
Franz Kafka is one of the most celebrated authors of the 20th century. Metamorphosis and Other Stories contains English language translations of 42 short stories and 1 novella - Metamorphosis. Some of the stories such as Looking Out Distractedly are just a few lines long and clearly represent a thought that had crossed the mind of this genious while others including the acclaimed In The Penal Colony represent longer dialogues loaded with allegorical critique. For anyone new to Kafka like this reviewer, it might be a bit of a surprise to find the tales definitively not "Kafkaesque" but that may speak more to the inappropriate label Kafka is tagged with than anything else.

Of Kafka's most famous work, the one translated by Michael Hofmann in this ensemble is Metamorphosis. As with most of the tales, it is an interpretive piece and no doubt a reader could take a range of differing perspectives away from the text. At the heart though is alienation, a theme that runs through so many of the writings Hofmann presents. It is a particular kind of alienation though, it is not true divorce from the society in which the characters find themselves nor is it the selfish alienation of youth that expects the world to conform to the individual, this alienation is that of entirely understanding the world and society that surrounds but being unable to access it correctly.

The Rejection is a classic case in point. Kafka describes his feelings on seeing a pretty girl and the development of an inner monologue that was never intended by the girl in her gentle rebuttal. Kafka imagines the implications of the slightest of comments or actions and builds a plausible but self-damaging description of what he supposes others are thinking. His perceptions are so often too critical, they are the worst of scenarios that another might have concluded but Kafka clearly knows this. He understands the formality of his society and on occasion works read almost as a comedy of manners as in Unmasking A Confidence Trickster.

The society in which Kaka lives is fundamental part of his writing. Early 20th century Prague in the dying embers of the Habsburg regime is at a time of plummetting decline. It still retains the old aspirations and expectations built on centuries of the Holy Roman Empire and the aspirations of aristocracy but the modern world is intervening. The Stoker, a short story of a chance encounter on a ship to the USA and Aeroplanes in Brescia signify the coming age. Still, in Kafka's German speaking Prague in the midst of the Jewish middle class the old ways still ring true and Kafka is constrained by them as much as he is a fundamental part of their continuation.

That Kafka is a German speaker makes for an unusual reading experience in English. The original language of course places the verb at the end of the sentence which allows for expectations to be built and shattered in the course of a phrase. English does not have this feature and Michael Hofmann deserves credit for translating the often stilted and deliberately convoluted discussions that run through most of Kafka's dialogues.

The longest of the dialogues in this anthology is Metamorphosis. Heralded as a masterpiece, it does seem wholly in context with the rest of the stories presented here rather than being a class apart. The lead character Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning having found himself turned into a cockroach. Despite being a short story, there are several phases of activity beginning with Samsa coming to terms with how his new body functions and seeking to allay the fears that he has ceased to operate within societal norms before delving impact Samsa has on his family and loved ones, ultimately concluding with his descent into beastliness and the final resolution.

Throughout Metamorphosis, Samsa and those around him seek to continue their long-standing social interactions. Frequently characters interpret what it is that others are really meaning of what genuinely lies behind their actions and so often those interpretations have to be corrected. Samsa's boss attends to find out why his salesman has not come in to work for instance and makes assumptions about Samsa's ability to cope with the workload despite protestations to the contrary. Characters continually make mistake assumptions about the motivations of others - a theme running throughout most of this set of short stories.

Samsa is not an especially pathos-inducing character. He does do what he can to limit the harm he causes to those around him though is unsuccessful in that endeavour. Retaining his sense of decorum for long periods of time, the monstrous being he has become is a recurring mental battle he must face. Despite the monstrosity he now is, Samsa still regards the significant efforts he has achieved in supporting his family to be worthy of more praise and recognition than he was ever accorded. Being previously the sole earner in the family, they were all dependent on him but as a cockroach it is Samsa who must rely on others for everything. In particular his sister Greta who develops from a somewhat shallow young girl in Samsa's eyes to becoming the main decision maker and the future of the family.

There are many allegories that could be read into Metamorphosis but the most obvious is the one that pervades so many in this set - Kafka's understanding of the world around him but his inability to operate in it. Nowadays we would call it a disorder somewhere along the autistic spectrum but it is the inability to accurately perceive the motivations of others that make it such a difficult environment for Kafka to live in. It is not for a lack of understanding of the formalities, the social structure, or the expectations each has but the emotions that lie underneath another's responses that seem somewhat alien to many of the narrators across these tales. Some of the narrators indeed are aliens such as the ape from Report To The Academy.

Not all of the stories are based on this one issue of course and some such as In The Penal Colony pay significant homage to the end of the old era and the start of the new. The penal colony was once a brutal place of torture and death run by a horrific warden but those times have passed and the new warden has changed with them. No longer is such a cruel death penalty to be inflicted but the operator of that penalty longs for the good old days. He engages with the narrator in an attempt to gain influence and restore traditional values. The two exchange mainly emotionless logic on the situation, understanding the possible range of steps that the other may be making in what is an elaborate game of discussion. Ultimately, the new ways prevail. The same is true of The Hunger Artist who operates a form of entertainment that no longer seems suited to these times and whose hopes and aspirations fade away just as he himself does.

Some elements of the times in which Kafka was writing are more heavily critiqued such as the character of Josefine. The diva singer is a reflection of the roaring twenties in which a new wave of entertainers connected with audiences not purely on talent but on their own character. Josefine herself is a demanding and charismatic presence who clearly does not realise that she is just the latest in perhaps a line of entertainers who at one point hold the adoration of a fanbase in their hands. Kafka analyses the phenomenon that has created such focus on one person and savagely beats down the celebrity cause with cold and hard logic.

There is little in the story of Josefine or any other presented by Hofmann that could be described as Kafkaesque in the way that the modern audience might understand it. Apparently Kafka's compiler Max Brod hated the term as it did not really apply to his understanding of Kafka. Perhaps it is more accurately reflected in Kafka's novels than in the shorter forms shown here but there are few if any examples of characters who befall misfortune or face danger as a result of an incomprehensibly complex or cruelly inevitable situation. The complexity that most of the characters of Kafka presented by Hofmann face is the normal world of social formalities, of people who misunderstand and cannot read one another properly. Kafka understands himself, he understands the world around him, he can see what is going on and represent it as well as any author of the times. Like most in the category of genius though, he has a flaw and his personal demon is the one that keeps him an outsider because he knows the negative results of his actions too well.
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on 8 October 2015
Before I tell you about the Metamorphosis I need to put things into context. It's not that i'm trying to wind you up - I just need to explain a few things first. If things had worked out differently... , well let's just say they didn't. If I had passed that exam like I had intended, with flying colours, things would have been different. I don't know what went wrong - I had been taking it all in, the tutor had finished the Kafka talk explaining that he wasn't writing about paranoia - that he actually was the paranoia and my essay was finished and ready for his comments. This is where things started to unravel. I obviously hadn't read the question properly. Instead of the required response, what I had submitted was an extensive review, page by page, over the years of all the women in my life. This was a catastrophe. I could see clearly there was no time to repair the damage. This was the end of the line for me. I would have to resign, and I was supposed to be briefing the PM imminently. I remember following my team to his door and realising with horror that I simply didn't belong there after the essay fiasco. I just had to resign. And the Metamorphosis?, well it doesn't really matter, it's just not that important. I need to sleep now-perhaps some other time.
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on 20 February 2011
I bought this book primarily to read the Metamorphosis, which it has to be said is one of the greatest stories ever written - it was my first experience of Kafka and it certainly lived up to my expectations. This book has a huge collection of short stories, segments of novels, and very short texts, all of which give you a real insight into Kafka's thoughts. His observations, imagination, and writing ability all come together perfectly to create what is outstanding literature. Highly recommended.
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A guess this is another classic book to add to my resume? I think that Kafka has really a interesting way of writing and I’ve toyed with reading more from this author. As you may know the book follows Gregor who wakes up to find that he has become an insect. The book follows Gregor as he struggles to live with his new body and identity and follows the themes of abandonment, alienation and human behaviour.

As you can imagine the book takes on a surreal and imagined world where it is quite normal to turn into said insect. Despite the shock of such a transformation Gregor is surprisingly accepting of his new appearance but it is instead his parents and the other people that he encounters that find it so difficult to come to terms with. As Gregor’s family become more frustrated, blaming Gregor for their financial problems and their inability to move to a smaller house, their attitude towards him turns cruel and helpless.

This book is studied a lot in terms of its meaning and it’s because there are many different interpretations. For me I think the book represents a long term illness, either mental or physical, and how as it continues feeling of trying to help said individual can turn to rage or helplessness. This is masked through Kafka’s literal writing of such an absurd situation. For me there’s some satirical about it, but it hides a darker, very important message. There are questions that arise through reading; why do Gregor’s parents seem far better off after the transformation? Were they reliant utterly on Gregor? If so why did it take the alienation of their son to take some weight from his shoulders. What does it all mean damn it!

You could go round and round in circles with this book and that’s why it’s so wonderful. There are so many different meanings and alternative thought processes as to what is really going on. In terms of the writing it’s a little basic but it’s about making the reading think for themselves. The ending truly is bittersweet and if you are yet to read this I will attempt not to spoil it but it truly is a very sad and ironic metamorphosis.

If you’re thinking of reading this book but are yet to get online and find a copy, it’s a very short read and it will make you think. I adore books that don’t give the reader exactly what they need to know but instead leave it open for the reader to pull apart. It’s a saddening tale but one that definitely speaks true in our current community; the feeling of alienation whether it’s homelessness, poverty or mental and physical health problems and the hollow feeling it creates. I hope this book is a warning and a lesson as to what can happen if we’re not so understanding of each other’s situations. A book with a real message and one you should definitely take some time to explore.
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on 27 May 2009
If you are considering reading this book, it is made up of a composition of small, and some fairly larger, stories. In order to write a helpful review I will not review every story; this is simply because there are 43 of them!

The main stories are, if anything, a reason to get this book. 'The Stoker' is a story about the prospects of America to a foreigner, only to get sidetracked; 'In the Penal Colony' concerns a traveller judging the means of justice in the eyes of one officer on a penal colony; and 'The Judgement' is about a son's confidence to take advantage of his father's old age, only to be surprised.
The most famous work amongst these is 'Metamorphosis', a story about Gregor Samsa waking one morning to find himself transformed into a cockroach. His initial ambivalence is turned into despair when he finds the very people who he is closest to-his family-isolate him, in their insecurity about what to do with him.

The whole book-including the short stories-are written incredibly creatively and imaginatively; I've never come across a writer with the depth of thought as Kafka exhibits in his stories (the translation flows very well). It's hard to describe the tone of Kafka's writing, it's sombre but vaguely amusing in a way, and very creative, penetrating and reflective.

I gave the book 4 stars because the short stories didn't quite impress me as other parts of the novel. Although I liked the insights into the diverse topics (each short story follows an idea) I generally do not like short stories because of their brevity and having to read each one in a completely different frame of mind. I enjoyed the longer stories because the message is deeper and more interesting.

This is only my opinion though, and if you like short stories, you will enjoy them more than I did. This book is worth getting though, for the longer stories if not anything else.
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on 18 April 2014
Start reading this book and you will find a lot of about yourself - your thoughts and fears about life will slowly emerge. Sometimes it is scary, but you will never remain the same person after reading Kafka. I dont want to go over his stories but Franz Kafka is still my favourite writer. He saw this life in the same strange way as i see it. The only writer writing today who has had a similar effect on my is Morton Bain.
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Yes, literally. First read it around 40 years ago, and have since ever carried the image of poor Gregor, basically minding his own business, pitiful though it might have been, in what was once the Austro-Hungarian empire, and is now the Czech Republic, awaking one morning as a cockroach. It is a work of an incredible, macabre imagination. It is truly a unique scenario, and therefore a "page-turner," as you wonder how Kafka will play this story out. First, there is the reaction of Gregor himself, whose thoughts concerned the early morning train he missed; then he realized he had more serious problems. Then there are the reactions of the family members, the maids, his boss, and three boarders. How do people cope with radical changes - and few could be more radical that this - in their circumstances?

I had an immense sense of relief as I re-read this book. No, it didn't concern my luck at escaping Gregor's fate; it was my good fortune that I did not have to read this as an assignment for some AP high school English course, knowing that I'd be required to write a paper about the symbolism, with lots of Freudian psycho-babble about how this was a reflections of Kafka's alienation from his family, and that his sister's love of music really meant... No wonder the book received so many 1-star reviews; it was not entomophobia; it was a fear that one selected the wrong "scholarly" theory about what all this meant.

In reality, Kafka died young, and it is unlikely that anyone will really know his true motives and intentions. It remains an arresting story of the imagination; one that is enjoyable to speculate about, provided a grade is not at stake. It is a great tale for kids, better than many a "fairy tale," when you are making points about empathy for the less fortunate, including that for the non-human kind. Strange that some scholarly theory didn't try to connect all this to Buddhism; perhaps I did not delve deeply enough though. Although I continue to prefer his much more developed The Trial (Penguin Modern Classics) the sine que non of books about bureaucracy and justice, alas, with Gitmo et al, as appropriate today as then, this novella rates a full 5-stars also.

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on August 17, 2009)
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on 26 April 2011
Start reading and you will probably find a lot of about yourself, your thoughts and fears hided deeply inside. Sometimes it is scary, but anyway you will never remain the same person after reading Kafka. I dont want to go over his stories but Franz Kafka is still my favourite writer. He saw this life same strange way as i am seeing.
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on 28 April 2014
The Kafkaesque way is all about preparing to unlearn anything you've learnt before. A delightful, and enjoyable read for anyone who still has the child inside them.
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on 25 February 2015
I struggled to concentrate in places, but ultimately I think some of these stories will stay in my mind for years to come - so worth reading in the end.
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