Ruminations on Kafka


Reading a great story is similar to eating a delicious sandwich. One great sentence, like a delicious slice of salami, can be all it takes to satisfy. When we taste the relationship fresh, crisp cuts of lettuce have with the other ingredients, we taste the demands the sandwich maker made on their product before delivering it to us. Those of us, who never worked in the industry, don’t know the symbiotic relationship these ingredients should have with one another, but we know it when we taste it. Those of us who worked in the industry, and have some familiarity with the art of making a great sandwich, know that even the perfect symbiosis of the freshest, most delicious ingredients don’t matter if the sandwich artist doesn’t have great bread. The quality of the bread is the great divide between an average sandwich and a delicious one.

The consensus on author Franz Kafka is that he didn’t write great sentences. His prose was characterized by a Stanley Corngold as “luminous plainness”. I understand the ambiguity of that description, but while I concede that there are very few, there are some great lines. Anytime we read a great story, like Metamorphosis, our inclination is to add some “could’ve been, should’ve been” lines. Every time we think we found one, it just doesn’t quite fit. In the course of those efforts, Kafka’s style is unveiled, his economy of words, and the meticulous choreography of his story.

I would love to see some early drafts of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, just to see what he added and deleted in the course of editing. Did he have great sentences in the first draft only to realize they damaged the otherwise “luminous plainness” feel of the story? Did Gregor Samsa’s family have greater, more comedic reactions to Gregor transformation into an Ungeziefer ‘a beast unfit for sacrifice’? Did he vie for some greater entertainment in the story, or did he have a religious passion for the mundane feel for the story? My guess is that in the early drafts of this story, Kafka had to battle with an egotistical need to add something more to Metamorphosis to make it more. Did he initially have one of the characters make an incredibly insightful comment about humanity that illuminated for us how insightful Kafka was? Most authors cannot avoid the conceit of informing their readers how smart the writer is/was, and they do so by making indoctrinating their characters smarter, more intelligent, and brilliant. Were the characters funnier, more charming, more compassionate, more wonderful, or more something that every author wants their authors to think of them in those initial drafts? My guess is that Kafka probably had hundreds of versions before it reached final form, and that the final form we know today is an exhibition of the ego-less restraint he employed.

Great writers work through their strengths and weaknesses in pieces no one will ever see. Some of them learn that their path to a great story hinges on great sentences. Others find that devotion to ideas and style pays greater dividends. Some might suggest this is an author finding their voice. They do so in the course of reading others, trying to duplicate them, and eventually realizing what they’re greater strengths and weaknesses are.

I might be wrong, but I don’t think any reader will finish Metamorphosis with a “Holy Crud!” reaction. The reader might start the story in that vein, but Kafka diminishes the shock of a human transforming into an Ungeziefer with a level of choreographed reality the reader might find mundane. Thus, when we finish the story, it sits on a shelf in our mind like a preserved meat, until we process and digest it, in the manner we will a great sandwich. It might take a while, it might take an incident, but at some point concept of the story will hit us, and we’ll realize what a unique, and uniquely crafted story it was.

Whenever we read a great story, like Metamorphosis, we seek a reference point, a doorway into the mind of the author. Most great stories are about us, in some tangential manner. Some stories are so foreign to our experience that we cannot find a reference point, because we can’t possibly find ourselves in such a ludicrous story. The brilliance of Kafka is that his writing relies on an axis of narcissism and objectivity. Is it narcissist to believe that every story is about us, or is it narcissist to believe that none of them are? How do we define a great story? How does a great story define us? Do we know someone for whom the author speaks, and do we wish they would read Kafka to understand themselves a little better? How would they do that, what do we hope they might understand, and are our answers to those questions autobiographical?

To paraphrase author David Foster Wallace, readers should imagine a door when they approach a Kafka work. We seek a doorway into Kafka’s mind so that we can understand his works a little better. We seek a reference point, a point of entry. When we think we’ve found the doorway, we start “pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it, we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and pushing and kicking, etc. That, finally, the door opens … and it opens outward: we’ve been inside what we wanted all along.” 

One of the primary duties of every writer is to elicit emotion in the reader. How well they do this defines them. For one writer, it might be about the sentences, and for another it might be the idea that story is sacred. Some stories elicit instantaneous reactions, and some require some slow roasting. Some people don’t want to think too much. They want instant stories that provide a clear path from clear A to Z that culminate in an exciting conclusion. Millions of these books move from writer to reader, and the readers love them. Some of us prefer stories, like the ones Franz Kafka wrote, that reach in and fiddle with some different switches embedded deep in our psyche.

Kafka was an impersonal writer who chose to ground his greatest fantastical tale in reality. Prior to Kafka, and since him, most writers felt a need to form the basis for the fantastical with the fantastical. It just doesn’t seem realistic that something so uncommon should happen in a common home of common people. Kafka doesn’t fight against commonality in the manner some will by suggesting that the common can become uncommon. He chose to wrap his ingredients of “luminous plainness” in a bread of ideas and style.  

The Perfect Imperfections of Kafka’s Metamorphosis


It’s not funny that a man, a Gregor Sama, awakes one day to discover that a he has transformed into “a monstrous vermin.” (Some readers have declared that Sama changed into a giant insect or a cockroach.) This concept could be funny, some would suggest, in the hands of more humorous writer. The plot could be less cerebral, more slapstick, and loaded with innuendo in other hands. The premise is just ripe for one-liners, hilarious getups, and situational comedy gold. In Franz Kafka’s hands, however, Metamorphosis is not only unfunny. It’s not even humorous. If the story didn’t have such a preposterous premise, we might call it tragic. As David Foster Wallace, suggests, however, that’s what makes the story so funny.

If a stubborn reader takes umbrage with the fact that some consider Kafka’s masterpiece Metamorphosis funny, they would have to admit that using such a disturbing transformation as a vehicle to explain human psychology is one of the finest literary definitions of the word clever.

For young, aspiring writers, Metamorphosis may also be one of the finest examples of Chekov’s razor we have in the literary canon. For what modern writer would attempt to write a story of a man turning into a bug without some sort of explanation of that transformation? Amazon.com reviewers would surely roast a modern writer at the stake for not setting this story up with a proper scientific explanation for how a man could turn into vermin. The modern reader might not pay attention to such a story without sufficient explanation. They might even suggest that the omission is distracting. Moviegoers might require a detailed, computer-generated-imagery (CGI) visual description of this transformation, brought to you by the fine people from Lucas Films, LTD. A writer shouldn’t start a story after the transformation, modern audiences might complain. The transformation is the story, or at least the cool part of the story.

We can only guess that throughout the gestation of Metamorphosis Franz Kafka attempted some explanations, and that he couldn’t come up with one he considered satisfactory. Those of us who know literary techniques could also guess that at some point in the creative process, Kafka learned of Chekov’s razor, and Kafka began to believe that those explanations were of no value to anyone but himself, thus leading him to place the explanation on the editing room floor. The only explanation we get is, “Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams. He found himself in his bed into a monstrous vermin transformed.” Kafka might have deemed all preceding detail irrelevant and best left to the imagination of the reader.

Gregor’s dreams weren’t even horrific! Evil! or Maddening! Kafka does not lead the reader to believe the transformation was the result of the dreams. The dreams were “uneasy”. Subtle, in other words, and inconsequential to the story.

Kafka’s apparent adherence to Chekov’s razor informs the reader that the transformation, or metamorphosis, is not the story. Kafka apparently deemed the transformation so low on the scale of importance, in the story, that when his publisher informed him that a bug would be on the cover of the story, Kafka replied, “Not that, please not that!” Kafka may have hoped to attract readers with the premise of the transformation, he did title the story Metamorphosis after all, but he hoped that readers would approach the story with more nuance. If Kafka were alive today, and awash in modern lexicon, he might say that readers should read Metamorphosis from an “It is what it is” perspective and nothing more.

Although, Kafka spends some time revealing how the other characters react to Gregor’s transformation by screaming, fainting, and falling, he does not portray these reactions in a humorous manner that we could call overt. The mother falls over a table, and Gregor’s employer runs from the apartment. A reader, reading from the “more is always more” perspective would not be pleased with Franz Kafka, and Kafka might even find himself the subject of constructive criticism for Metamorphosis if he published this story today.

“You could do so much more with these scenes,” one imagines a group of beta readers informing Franz Kafka, in a modern day writing circle. “Why don’t you have the sister, this Grete, vomit? You could then describe the vomit in intricate detail.” “What about having the father pee his pants in alarm? Bodily functions are always funny,” and Kafka might hear something along the lines of, “You’ve just left us hanging here, begging for more.”

In Kafka’s “it is what it is” hands, however, these reactions are portrayed in a serious, if not sad vein, as the victim of the metamorphosis becomes more ostracized from his own family due to his affliction. The humor, if there is any in this scene, is for the reader to define.

The lesson Metamorphosis provides to the aspiring writer that seeks to learn a lesson in style, is in the power of subtlety. The outlandish storyteller, seeking to provide modern lessons in disturbing and evocative imagery, learns in one reading of this story that the “it is what it is” principle of storytelling should be employed to lay a foundation of pedantic reality from which the reader can leap.

“It’s not that students don’t “get” Kafka’s humor,” David Foster Wallace wrote, postulating on the frustration of teaching Franz Kafka, “but that we’ve taught them to see humor as something you get –the same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke– that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home. It’s hard to put into words up at the blackboard, believe me. You can tell them that maybe it’s good they don’t “get” Kafka. You can ask them to imagine his art as a kind of door. To envision us readers coming up and pounding on this door, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it, we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and pushing and kicking, etc. That, finally, the door opens … and it opens outward: we’ve been inside what we wanted all along. Das ist komisch (Translation: That’s really funny).”

Even to those of us who appreciate subtlety, find it difficult to read this quintessential Kafka story, Metamorphosis, without feeling a little letdown by the anti-climactic ending. The monstrous vermin, that is Gregor Samsa, dies without ceremony. The advent of his death is subtle and inconsequential. By the time Gregor succumbs to death, his family is glad to be rid of him. To them, he has become a burden and an embarrassment. The reader infers that the Samsa family members are already at peace with the loss of Gregor, but there is little evidence of this fact in the passages that follow the transformation. The mother does state that she wants to visit her son, at one point, but the family easily dissuades her from doing so. Her plea, we can only guess, is nothing more than a mother attempting to display motherly concern, and the idea that the other two family members are able to easily dissuade her suggests that her concern is largely self-serving symbolism. After the transformed Gregor finally dies, the Samsa family calls upon the maid to dispose of the carcass, in the manner they might any other burdensome vermin.

Kafka scholars state that he agreed that Metamorphosis had an unsatisfactory ending stating: “Unreadable ending. Imperfect almost to its very marrow.” After the initial reading of the story, this reader found himself letdown too. I fell prey to imagining the possibilities. I thought of other avenues for the story, great one-liners, hilarious getups, and the manner in which the situation could be weaved to comedic gold for others “to get”. The more I thought about Metamorphosis’ ending, the more I thought the imperfect ending might have been the perfect one. For, if as David Foster Wallace suggested, “The horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.”

If there is humor in Metamorphosis, it cannot be located from the subjective distance most might view a fantastical tale of a man who transforms into an insect of some sort. To my mind, it requires a long form, almost objective interpretation (if the term objective can be used to describe attempting to view the subject matter from the perspective of a senior citizen). If the reader is able to view this story from the perspective of one of the lucky few to live a long life, and the terms lucky and long are always relative and subjective for those who view us as living beyond our expiration date. For, if we are one of those lucky few, we will begin to gain distance from what we meant throughout our life, and that struggle to establish, and re-establish ourselves will begin to wane, as it did for our loved ones when they began to age and metamorphosed into senile, old people who were incapable of taking care of themselves. Our loved ones were lucky enough to live long lives, but they eventually became a burden to us, as we all will if we are lucky enough to live so long that we become reduced to the perspective our loved ones will have of us. We will reach a point where they no longer cherish what we once were –when we took care of them and guided them through life– and it’s almost a relief to them that we’re gone, and we arrive at our anti-climactic ending that requires our loved ones pay others for our disposal.