Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Bad Novels: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning as a cockroach. How did this happen? We are never told. He lies in bed worrying about this for a while, then his family finds out. Months pass, and the huge cockroach that was once Gregor Samsa pines away and dies. His family is vaguely relieved. The end.

There! I just saved you from having to read the whole book!

OK, so maybe the story is a depressing, yet deep, meditation upon the futility of the middle-class working man's life. That may be so. But there's one thing I can't get away from: one thing that sits like a monolith in front of my appreciating this book in any form whatsoever.

Franz Kafka is the culprit. Franz Kafka invented a perfectly nice, likeable young man for the sole purpose and pleasure of turning him into a cockroach and tormenting him to death. For what? To show us what a miserable life he had? To vaguely depress us with the futility of it all? But Gregor Samsa's life wouldn't have been anywhere near as bad if he'd been allowed to remain human. Kafka turned him into a cockroach, and he can jolly well turn him back!

Not even depressing German authors are free from the rules of good storytelling. And one of the rules of good storytelling is that you try to make the author's hand as invisible as possible. You avoid co-incidences in the plot. You refrain from making characters behave in uncharacteristic ways. And you certainly don't hang your whole plot and theme on the ridiculous conceit that an ordinary man might transform into a cockroach overnight. This may be short-sighted of me, and I may be missing the point. But the first rule of fantasy is that you use it to teach something about the real world. To quote Chesterton ("The Ethics of Elfland" chapter of Orthodoxy):
There is the chivalrous lesson of "Jack the Giant Killer"; that giants should be killed because they are gigantic. It is a manly mutiny against pride as such. For the rebel is older than all the kingdoms, and the Jacobin has more tradition than the Jacobite. There is the lesson of "Cinderella," which is the same as that of the Magnificat—exaltavit humiles. There is the great lesson of "Beauty and the Beast"; that a thing must be loved before it is loveable. There is the terrible allegory of the "Sleeping Beauty," which tells how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how death also may perhaps be softened to a sleep.
What's the point of the Metamorphosis, except to tell us the damnable lie that there is no point?

All this trouble could have been averted. One day I may write The Anti-Metamorphosis, about a nice young man who wakes up one morning, worries about going to work, then gets up and goes anyway. The last paragraph would read something like this, "Gregor Samsa never knew the dreadful fate he had escaped. On that very morning the author who originally thought of him had decided to turn him, for no discernible reason, into a giant insect, for the simple pleasure of watching him slowly die. Fortunately, Franz Kafka's coffee was particularly nice that morning, and his paper arrived on time, and the maid hadn't woken him by being noisy as she swept the hall outside, so 'The Metamorphosis' was never written and Gregor Samsa was able to get on with a life that, although not ideal, was surely a lot better than that of a bug."

Wikisource etext
Librivox recording


Morgenländer said...

Great post! I had to read this story at school, and I hated it. It seemed so pointless. My teacher, normally quite a reasonable kind of person, replied: "Look, that's just the point."

To be fair, there are better stories by Kafka, for instance the very early ones which are collected in "Betrachtungen" (Meditations).

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