absurdity

THE METAMORPHOSIS BY FRANZ KAFKA

It was the cowering spider that did it. I spied it crawling across the bedroom wall one afternoon. It was fairly small, but still had a grotesque bulb-arse, the kind that, when I had offed the others, had exploded under the weight of the shoe set aside for the purpose of killing. I immediately ran for this shoe, which, grossly, had the dried remains of numerous arachnids caked to the sole. But I paid that no mind; I couldn’t afford to. Who worries about the carcasses of dead spiders when there is a real live one crawling, blithely, across your wall? So, I clutched the shoe and pulled a chair over, for the thing was pretty high up and I didn’t want to overstretch and miss it and have it fall on my face, or even the floor, because falling spiders are my biggest fear, are what you might call the ultimate nightmare. I positioned the chair close to the wall, a little to the left of the spider, in case it should fall, and climbed up, my hand resting on the wall for support.

It was at this point, I would swear it hand-on-bible, that the spider cowered. Perhaps it had seen me, sensed me, or felt a vibration. I don’t know. But it pulled in its legs. It tried to make itself as small as possible. And that was it; the jig was up. No way could I kill it. In fact, I started to feel a kind of tenderness towards it. I named it; I watched out for it every day. I spared the spider because I saw in its behaviour some form of recognition of me, of my power, and this made me benevolent. Yet, more importantly, in that brief moment of silent communication between us, I also recognised the spider, and, consequently, it stopped being revolting to me. It was no longer some alien, unfeeling, creature; something entirely ‘other’, and therefore beyond my understanding; and so a relationship had been created between it and I.

“We can’t carry on like this. Maybe you can’t see it, but I can. I don’t want to call this monster my brother, all I can say is: we have to try and get rid of it.”

Whenever I raise the subject of the work of Franz Kafka with friends or acquaintances – which is something that I do often, for it is frequently on my mind – I am mostly met with blank or bemused faces. Yet, if I specifically mention his story about a man who finds himself turned into a bug, there is invariably an immediate gesture of happy recognition. There seems to be something about the premise of The Metamorphosis that is so appealing that it has seeped into the consciousness of the general public, even though, in my experience, many haven’t read it, nor can they name it or its author. Part of the reason for this is, I believe, because of the absurdity of the situation. Gregor Samsa – whose appalling fate this is – isn’t cursed by a witch, wizard, devil, or demon; he isn’t magically transformed on the whim of some powerful being. He hasn’t been dabbling in strange experiments either. There is no backstory, or explanation; and the man himself is entirely without responsibility or blame. He simply wakes from ‘troubled dreams’, and he is a bug. This is both unnerving and amusing.

The absurd plays an important role in the story as a whole, as it does in much of Kafka’s writing. When Samsa realises what has happened to him, he doesn’t freak out, as one would expect. In fact, there is almost no emotional reaction whatsoever, except that he blames his strenuous, exhausting job as a travelling salesman, which, he states, ‘is bound to take its effect.’ Indeed, his principle concern is being late for work, and how this will be viewed by his employers, rather than his transformation. He contemplates calling in sick, which in the circumstances seems more than reasonable, and yet ‘that would be rather embarrassing and a little suspicious too.’ It is in relation to this that one sees another of Kafka’s principle themes, which is oppression. In The Trial, Josef K wakes to find himself arrested for a crime he knows nothing about, one from which, subsequently, he cannot clear his name; while in The Castle K is oppressed, in the main, by his own bloodymindedness. Here, Samsa is oppressed, amongst other things, by his job and his new body.

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It is worth focussing for a while on this last point. When Samsa awakes he is in bed, of course, on his back. For a human being this position isn’t such a problem, yet for a bug it is incapacitating. Samsa struggles, for ‘he would have needed arms and hands with which to get up; instead of which all he had were those numerous little legs, forever in varied movement, and evidently not under his control.’ Throughout The Metamorphosis, there is a sense of a man/thing coming to terms with, and understanding, himself/itself. Gregor learns how to ‘inflate’, thereby pushing off the bed cover; he learns to crawl and climb; he, through a kind of trial and error, but also by instinct, discovers his preference for foods that previously he wouldn’t have touched. Indeed, he feels a sense of ‘physical well-being’ only when he accepts himself, when, in other words, he stops trying to be human, to fight against his new self, such as when he drops onto his multiple legs, instead of trying to walk on two.

Yet while Samsa, for the most part, accepts what he has become, the same cannot be said of the people who come into contact with him. The cook, for example, is so disgusted that she asks to be let go. His mother is distraught, and frightened, albeit initially sympathetic. His father is outright hostile. Only his sister, in the early stages, seeks to understand him and make things easier for him, although even she cannot tolerate seeing him. In this way, one sees more evidence of oppression, but this time it is Samsa unintentionally oppressing others with his physical appearance. However, what is most interesting about this is not the revulsion, which is expected, natural even, but how the transformation affects how Samsa is treated. He is, despite posing no danger, locked in his room, and at no point, once his bug-form is revealed, does anyone attempt to intelligently interact with him. He does not look human, and so is deemed to be a primitive creature, with primitive desires, with no consciousness, which is, of course, not the case.

“Was he an animal if music could captivate him so? It seemed to him that he was being shown the way to the unknown nourishment he had been yearning for.”

In my opinion, the overriding theme in Kafka’s major works is the inability to communicate, to connect with other people. I am not going to labour over that here, as I have dealt with it extensively elsewhere, but one might argue that ultimately it is Samsa’s inability to communicate with his family, either with human sounds or human gestures, that leads to his downfall. Yes, he may look horrific, but if he could talk, if he could give evidence of his consciousness, his thoughts and feelings, then it would be much more difficult to dismiss him. [Tellingly, towards the end of the story Grete, his sister, stops referring to him as Gregor, and starts calling him ‘it.’] This of course raises questions about personal identity. One way of seeing The Metamorphosis, although it isn’t my preferred interpretation, would be as a comment upon not only how we treat other creatures, but how we treat the ill or disabled. If someone cannot express themselves in ways that we can understand we tend to assume that they do not have a complex inner life. There are also passages that deal with the idea of the ill or disabled, or in this case the transformed, as a burden, and how this too can lead to callousness.

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[my most recent tattoo]

When I read The Metamorphosis previously I considered it to be a brilliant, but less sophisticated work than The Trial and, even more so, The Castle, which is my favourite. The reason for this is because I felt the main character’s oppression to be too literal, and therefore less subtle. In contrast, consider K, and how in The Castle it is his own stubborn refusal to leave that is the real problem. Unlike Samsa, he could free himself from what oppresses him, but he does not, and I believe this to be a more complex, depressing take on humanity. Furthermore, as repeatedly stated, Gregor is a bug, and so cannot speak, and this, I would again argue, is a less compelling way of addressing the issue of [mis]communication than when the principle character is human also. However, having now reread The Metamorphosis, what I believe it does have in its favour, what elevates it to the level of Kafka’s other two masterpieces, is extreme pathos. It is difficult, in view of what I have said about him, to be moved by K’s plight, for example; but one genuinely feels for Gregor, especially when he does such things as hide under the sofa to spare his sister his appearance. In fact, it is a long time since I could say of any book that it broke my heart, but this one did, and so perhaps it is time to retire my killing shoe for good.

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THE TRIAL BY FRANZ KAFKA

[P] was woken one morning by the sound of sniggering coming from the corner of his room. As he opened his eyes he saw two figures emerge out of the shadows and approach the bed. ‘We are here to investigate,’ one said. ‘We are the police,’ said the other. [P] was disconcerted, he had never woken to find two policemen in his room before. ‘I haven’t reported a crime,’ said [P]. ‘There must be some mistake.’ ‘There is no mistake,’ said one of the policemen. His colleague had taken up a position beside [P]’s bookshelves. ‘See here, your copy of The Trial is missing!’ [P] laughed meekly. This must be some kind of practical joke, he thought to himself, but if it was a joke it wasn’t funny, and, besides, who let the men into the room? ‘I can see,’ he said seriously, ‘that my copy of The Trial has indeed been moved. Perhaps it is somewhere else in the room.’ The two policemen solemnly shook their heads. ‘In any case, even if it has been stolen, a criminal investigation is unnecessary. I will simply buy a new copy, maybe even a nicer copy.’ ‘No, that won’t do,’ said the first policeman. ‘Whenever there is a crime, it must be investigated…’ 

Before I started rereading The Trial it was my intention to compose one of my pastiche reviews for it. My thought was that the above situation, i.e. being harangued by policemen who want to investigate a crime that you yourself don’t want them to investigate, a crime that you doubt has even been committed, was suitably absurd and Kafkaesque [I hate that word!]. To some extent I mourn the loss of that review; it would have been fun to write. The reason that I didn’t continue any further than the opening paragraph is that I found, to my surprise, so much to say about the book. I tend to compose those pastiche reviews when I am dealing with something that either didn’t inspire me to think too much or that has been poured over and analysed to the point that it becomes impossible to say anything new or even interesting about it. Now, I don’t claim that my take on The Trial is completely original, but I certainly found that it wasn’t the book I remembered it being, that the most commonly discussed aspects are underpinned by, I would argue, more compelling themes that commentators often ignore or do not give sufficient weight to.

To fully engage with, or even enjoy, The Trial one has to primarily concern oneself with ideas, because Kafka was not, I think it is fair to say, a master of plot or characterisation. Both of Kafka’s novels, although obviously unfinished, meander shamelessly, they proceed with apparent aimlessness; one might even call them repetitive and largely uneventful. Furthermore, Josef K. is not complex, or certainly not in the way that, say, Tolstoy’s creations are; nor is he is believable [whatever that means]. He has moods, of course, but they are all of one type; his emotional range is limited; and what he does feel tends to be negative. For example, he could be said to exhibit exasperation, despair, frustration, anger, confusion and so on. For me, Josef K. as a man, as a character, is really only interesting in relation to another of Kafka’s creations, K. from The Castle, who, on the surface, he appears to closely resemble.

In The Trial Josef K. is caught up in a situation beyond his control; he has, specifically, been arrested, and so it is logical, understandable, that he would want to find out why and to attempt to clear his name. He is, in this way, a relatable figure, because he does what most of us would do. Moreover, he is, despite some less than admirable qualities, sympathetic because, unless one is of the opinion that he has committed a crime, which would put you in a minority, the situation he finds himself in is not his fault. In fact, one might even call him heroic, in that he seeks, and fights for, an explanation or, if you prefer, justice; he also vows to improve or even destroy the system that he believes is persecuting him. This is not at all like what happens in The Castle. In that book, K. is under the impression that he has been summoned to a town in order to work as a land surveyor; yet when he gets there he finds that the locals do not want a land surveyor, and that they would rather he leave as soon as possible. However, K. refuses, even though his experience of the town and its inhabitants galls him. There is nothing sympathetic about K. because he does, unlike Josef K., have the option to free himself from the situation that oppresses him. That he doesn’t, that he stays out of stubbornness, out of sheer pig-headedness, that he will not do what is actually in his own best interests, is what, for me, means that The Castle is a much more depressing take on humanity.

“One must lie low, no matter how much it went against the grain, and try to understand that this great organization remained, so to speak, in a state of delicate balance, and that if someone took it upon himself to alter the dispositions of things around him, he ran the risk of losing his footing and falling to destruction, while the organization would simply right itself by some compensating reaction in another part of its machinery – since everything interlocked – and remain unchanged, unless, indeed, which was very probable, it became still more rigid, more vigilant, severer, and more ruthless.”

The Trial Is often, or most popularly, described as a novel about the insane nature of bureaucracy; and there is certainly evidence in the text to back that up. At the most basic level, Josef K. finds himself entangled in an absurd, confusing system, involving interviews and appointments, petitions and pleas. No matter how much he attempts to progress, or further his case, he is unable to do so. Of course, almost everyone can relate to this. For example, I once had a job, and part of this job was what we called ‘customer-facing’ i.e. you saw people who dropped in with queries. However, the customer-facing staff could not actually resolve queries; oh no, we could listen to them, we could make note of them, but we had to refer, via email, all queries to the appropriate section of the business, which was not, of course, even located in the same city. The customers themselves, we were often forced to confess, could not directly speak to the people trained, and expected, to resolve their queries. They – the customers – simply had to take it on trust that their query would be investigated and dealt with appropriately. This more-or-less universal experience does, I think, go some way to accounting for Kafka’s appeal. However, I would argue that it is important, in terms of understanding The Trial, to consider what is at the heart of people’s frustrations regarding bureaucracy. For me, it is about being unable to make a human connection. Of course, it is sometimes the case that people are literally interacting with a machine [some kind of automated service], but, even when one is able to speak with a human being, that human being, with few exceptions, hides behind impersonal regulations and procedures. In this way, bureaucracy is always cold and inhuman. No matter how much you plead, or argue your position, the bureaucrat will stare you down and repeat their mantra: ‘you must go through the proper channels.’

So while I accept that The Trial is, to some extent, about bureaucracy, I think that it is only one facet of the novel’s broader concerns about the difficulty of human interaction and our [often futile] attempts to make a connection with other people. There are abundant clues to this throughout the text, for example, when K. offers his hand to the supervisor, at the very beginning of the book, it is ignored. In his position of power, K has ceased to be a contemporary or an equal. A desire for human contact is also responsible for K. waiting for Fraülein Bürstner and for him impulsively kissing her. His relationship, if you can call it that, with Bürstner is particularly humiliating. When K. wants to see her again, after the impulsive kiss, he sends her notes or letters, which she ignores; she, on the other hand, dispatches the lame Fraülein Montag to speak to K. in her stead, which makes him exceedingly uneasy. It’s the kind of horribly uncomfortable moment most of us have experienced at one time or another, when someone you like or are attracted to, someone who you have reached out to, rejects you, feels compelled to let you know, through an intermediary no less, that they are not interested. Moreover, the awkwardness is on both sides: from Bürstner, who doesn’t want to speak to K., and from K., who is being given the brush-off.

“Whether she was to blame now was not clear. K. could only see that a man had drawn her into a corner by the door and was pressing her against his body. But it was not she who was shrieking but the man.”

As with bureaucracy, a lot is made of the role of women in The Trial, and rightly so, because there is something disconcerting about the way that they are presented. They are, almost without exception, sexualised to the point at which one might consider them loose women or even prostitutes. For instance, when K. visits the courts he meets a married woman who aggressively makes a play for him and asks that he take her away. Crucially, K., although initially resistant, begins to feel tempted, and it is then that she is picked up [literally] by another man and whisked away. When K. tries to intervene and plead his case, the woman rejects him. Yet, while this might say something about the way that Kafka himself saw women, it does, once again, feed into, is simply another example of, what I believe were the writer’s more general preoccupations. People focus specifically on the women because of what we know about Kafka’s personal life, and because it is often the way that scholars will want to bring a kind of gender analysis to novels, but one should not overlook that it is the case that all of the human interaction in the novel is awkward, strained, and painful. Consider the scene at the court’s offices, when K. approaches a man and asks him what he is there for. The man finds himself speechless, due to either shame or shyness, and when K. touches him he actually starts to scream. This is, in one sense, very amusing, but it is, for me, also immensely sad.

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[Fenced in. One of Franz Kafka’s own illustrations]

I mentioned humour just now, and it has become popular [even perhaps a cliché] to describe Kafka’s work as incredibly funny, which, it strikes me, is an opinion that has, in classic contrarian fashion, emerged only to contradict the previously commonly held opinion that it is entirely bleak and foreboding. The truth, as is often the case, is actually somewhere between the two extremes. There are undeniably comedic passages, situations, and lines, such as when K. visits the courthouse, which turns out to be some kind of high-rise block of flats, and, afraid of giving himself away, goes knocking on doors asking for the joiner Lanz. This is amusing in numerous ways; first of all, because one would expect the courthouse to be located in an impressive, official building, not what is seemingly a cramped and dirty place full of tenants [the kids running around the corridors is a nice touch]; secondly, because when K. asks about Lanz some of the inhabitants of the building take the request very seriously and start directing him and trying to help him find the non-existent joiner. It is the jolting absurdity that provides the comedy and the sense that K. is surrounded by fools and foolishness. However, in spite of all that, I must say that I think that the humour is overstated these days, and that the book, more than anything, is unsettling and nightmarish. The word ‘nightmarish’ gets thrown around a lot when discussing literature and art and film, and it often denotes nothing more than something that is grotesque. In my opinion, The Trial more closely resembles real nightmares, or mine anyway, which often involve odd and abrupt temporal shifts [minutes for K. are sometimes hours for others], the inversion of space [things that you expect to be large are small, and vice versa], and people behaving in incomprehensible ways or entering scenes in an inexplicable or eerie manner [more than one person literally emerges out of the shadows]. Many, many things are called Kafkaesque, but if anything genuinely deserves that tag it would be the films of David Lynch, and you don’t find those in the comedy section on Netflix.

To conclude, I have tried, in this review, to give some idea of what I found impressive and enjoyable and engaging about The Trial, a book that is, for me, one of world literature’s most imposing masterpieces. I have also tried to explore what I think are the significant themes. However, the great genius of the work is that one could see almost anything in it. Indeed, Jorge Luis Borges once wrote something about how great literature actually becomes greater with age, that, as time passes, it gains meaning, becomes more, not less, relevant. This is certainly the case with all of Kafka’s work, and The Trial in particular. Think about the basic premise again: a man arrested for a crime he knows nothing about, who, when he seeks an explanation, is met with illogical resistance and endless bureaucracy. The similarities between this situation and accounts of what happened to large numbers of citizens in Stalin’s Russia, and other Communist countries, is uncanny. Or what about the Jewish experience in Nazi Germany, where people found themselves suddenly relieved of their basic rights, where official bodies could, and did, turn lives upside down [and take them away, of course] without any wrong-doing on their part? It is no surprise, in this regard, that there are acclaimed Russian authors who lived and worked under Stalin, and Jewish writers affected by the Holocaust, that have been heavily influenced by Prague’s finest. Yet for all his influence, for all the talented writers that have stepped in the marks left by his shoes as he blazed his trail, Franz Kafka – the originator – remains unsurpassed.