On today’s date, in 1904, Franz Kafka penned a letter to Oskar Pollak. “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us,” the twenty-year-old Kafka confided to his friend. “If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading it for? . . . A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”
I read Susan Bernofsky’s new translation of “The Metamorphosis” several days ago; the book did its usual axe-work on me. In her afterword (a version of which you can read here), Bernofsky aligns Kafka’s “bug piece” with Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, but goes on to write, “Kafka’s tragicomic tale—unlike Miller’s—is very often hilariously funny.” This is a given, I think; everyone who writes about Kafka mentions him laughing with Max Brod and friends while reading aloud from what Brod called “his glorious short story about a noxious insect.” Bernofsky’s translation emphasizes, in ways large and small, the rough comedy of Gregor’s predicament. The “oh my God I’m an insect but I’m also late to work” opening is funny in any translation. So is Gregor’s view of his father in Bernofsky’s version: “he raised up each foot unusually high, and Gregor marveled at the gigantic dimensions of his bootsoles.”
Still, tragedy occupies half of that “tragicomic” formulation. Self-interest and limited vision win the day; Gregor is forgotten. The tale delivers, by the end, a blow to the head and heart. As David Cronenberg writes in his introduction to the new edition, “It must be noted . . . that in [the family members’] bourgeois banality, they somehow accept that this creature is, in some unnamable way, their Gregor. It never occurs to them that, for example, a giant beetle has eaten Gregor; they don’t have the imagination, and he very quickly becomes not much more than a housekeeping problem.” Gregor at last agrees with his sister: “he must by all means disappear.” It’s left to the charwoman to discover his carcass: “Come have a look, it’s gone and croaked—just lying there, dead as a doornail!”
(Quick note: When “The Metamorphosis” was scuttling its way toward publication in 1915, Kafka worried that the book’s cover illustrator “might want to draw the insect itself.” He wrote to his publisher: “Not that, please not that! . . . The insect itself cannot be depicted. It cannot even be shown from a distance.” Chris Welch, who designed the new Norton edition, honors Kafka’s request brilliantly.*)
“The Metamorphosis” has been on my mind for the last month or so. My three-year-old daughter has been requesting, as part of her bedtime reading, My First Kafka (“The Metamorphosis” and a few shorter pieces, retold by Matthue Roth). While this version doesn’t exactly wound or stab, it also doesn’t condescend to its readers or wildly bowdlerize its source material. Gregor dies; Grete steps “off the train car and into the warm sunshine.” As Vladimir Nabokov wrote about the original ending: “The soul has died with Gregor; the healthy young animal takes over. The parasites have fattened themselves on Gregor.” It’s Nabokov’s sense of horror and loss that I always take away from the story. When I asked my daughter what she took away, she said, “Gregor’s father doesn’t like bugs.”
Well, there’s that.
* I have no idea if this story is true, but a friend once told me that James Tate’s input concerning the cover design of his book Shroud of the Gnome consisted of two requests: “No shrouds. No gnomes.”