The game to play as theorists have been playing it since 1915 is to decide the meaning of George Samsa’s insectile character (as J. Robert Lennon would describe him). I’m partial to that interpretation: it’s an insectile character, which makes the physical look and whether George is “in fact” a n insect or not irrelevant. Kafka didn’t want Samsa illustrated for a reason. He’s imprisoned in a state of mind. Don’t imprison him in a physical depiction. The first line has been translated in many different ways: “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.” “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” An insect, a vermin, nothing more specific. vermin and insects feed on the dead. This is a story of decomposition before our eyes–the decomposition of an ill and mentally and physically disfigured Samsa, the decomposition of a family, the decomposition of what had once been a loving relationship between Samsa and Grete, who becomes Samsa’s killer: “she had bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure,” the opposite of her brother’s decomposition. Gregor’s father, as in every Kafka story so far, doesn’t elicit sympathy either. But there’s nothing sentimental about the story. Kafka isn;t pulling at strings to get the reader all in knots over Gregor’s condition. It becomes more uncomfortably familiar than imaginary as the story wears on–as Gregor decomposes. A sick, leprous person has the characteristics of an insect. Doesn;t have to look like one to feel like one. It is a story of illness, decline, of being discarded.
The father slays the son. Georg Bendemann writes a letter to a friend who left for (unsettled, revolutionary) Russia to start a business there three years earlier. The business does not go well. Georg is engaged. He lives with his father. His father makes him believe he doubts the existence of that friend in Russia, complains a lot abut his son, claims his wife’s death was much harder on him than on Georg, then says he knew of his friend in Russia all along. The father is unappreciative of his son’s care, seeing in it–particularly in his son’s attempt to cover him–an attempt to entomb him. He condemns him to die by drowning. Georg leaves, goes to the river, jumps in, an apparent suicide, as we say in the profession. The last line has been a subject of debate, as the translation doesn’t convey its nuances. There’s plenty of autobiography, but that’s irrelevant. Kafka’s writing method maybe a bit less so: he wrote in his diary that “this story, ‘The Judgment’, I wrote in one sitting of the 22nd-23rd, from ten o’clock to six o’clock in the morning. I was hardly able to pull my legs out from under the desk, they had got so stiff from sitting. The fearful strain and joy, how the story developed before me as if I were advancing over water…” That was his preferred writing method. So it’s a free-writing meditation that doesn’t lend itself to a single judgment. Kafka is working out tensions inherent to fathers and sons, and more particular to his father, who did not like Franz wasting his time writing. He’s reflecting his own neuroses. He’s projecting himself on the friend in Russia. The father in the story is not an appealing man. The explicit judgment is of the son by the father, the more powerful judgment is of the father by the son, with the mother as holy spirit.
A collection of fragments of interest to Kafka purists. We’re still in “Description of a Struggle” territory (won’t we always be?), with tantalizing hints of things to come. Eduard Raban’s anticipatory echo of The Metamorphosis: “As I lie in bed I assume the shape of a big beetle, a stag beetle or a cockchafer, I think.”
“Raban was traveling to his fiancée, to Betty, an oldish pretty girl.” He’s on his way to get married. It’s as laborious a journey as there is, his thoughts not once on the girl he’s about to spend the rest of his life with, the preparations alluded to in the title not once made material in the narrative. Raban is himself in preparation, poor soul. Poor Betty. He’s all nerves, raw nerves exposed to elements he senses too intensely. Every detail is a jangle. The journey is the thing, fragmented, physically uncomfortable, punctuated by encounters that evoke Raban’s anxieties. He doesn’t quite know what to make of these encounters anymore than he does of the journey. “I can be weak and quiet and let everything happen to me, and yet everything must turn out well, through the sheer fact of the passing of the days.” The missing pages, as if become part of the narrative of Raban’s disjointed temperament, can seem like a device all their own, a symptom of his anxiety. Puddles. Rain. Mud. More rain. It’s a grim journey, a fish out of water, amid so much water and those enigmatic lines: “I’ve never found eyes beautiful.” To us from the perspective of years and geographic distance we see the grime of that European muck when skies never get past gray and rain spits cold and clammy even in summer. But it wasn’t uncommon then anymore than it is now.
In the train, conversations, motion, seizing an unpalatable reality: “But if one has held a spool of thread in one’s hand so often and handed it to one’s customer so often, then one knows the price and can talk about it, while villages come toward us and flash past, while at the same time they turn away into the depths of the country, where for us they must disappear. And yet these villages are inhabited, and there perhaps travelers go from shop to shop.”
“Raban’s lips were very pale, not much less so than the very faded red of his tie, which had a once striking Moorish pattern.”
These are not the impressions of a man about to get married so much as one navigating between gas chambers.