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on 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.