Happy birthday, Mr Samsa

It’s a century since Die Verwandlung , Kafka’s most famous novella detailing human angst and the pain that comes from impotence, narrated by a man turned into vermin, was published. I hear about Kafka constantly even having only read one of his works in this academic year – for he is in Oxford, in the research institute containing the first page of this work,  that famous “Als Gregor Samsa sich eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte…” that we are not allowed to visit unless specialised in the life of this peculiar, fascinating man,  as well as in parallel literary comparisons and conversations about Modernism with English students, and in a Times Literary Supplement cover that recently had me starstruck, for the author of the article was the incredible Carolin Duttlinger, who I am lucky enough to have been lectured by both this year and in my first year- here is a link to that article: Franz Kafka’s badly healed wounds – Carolin Duttlinger, Times Literary Supplement.

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His Verwandlung in particular stands out – it seems to have not aged, to have retained its  power! It’s a work that has continued to disturb and delight its audience even 100 years after its birth.

So what is it about this that leaves it still being appealing?

33. It’s not a great stretch to propose that in his concern for how Ungeziefer Gregor was perceived, Kafka was revealing an identification with his protagonist – quite a thing, when you think about it.

Why is Freudian repression, burst into the form of a man trapped into a supposed cockroach (watch out – the word cockroach itself is never used throughout the book; in turn, variants of ‘insect’, and ‘vermin’, are), still something that needs to be read about?

7. A century on, why does Metamorphosis still attract readers? One reason is that it’s a horror story of sorts. Its premise – a man awakens in the body of an insect – exerts a ghastly fascination beyond anything in even the consummate short works of Chekhov or Joyce or Munro (to which I add, the adult works of Roald Dahl, such as Kiss Kiss and Tales of the Unexpected)

The human psyche remains, after all, a topic that has no date nor expiry label attached to it – a couple of days ago, Richard Kelly, the author of 2008 Crusaders, wrote an extremely interesting article for the Guardian (“Kafka’s Metamorphosis – 100 Thoughts for 100 Years” –  click here to read it! ) detailing the 100 most relevant pieces of trivia and information that one could attach to this anniversary and use as a motivation for its still being a relevant piece of literature. Amongst these, Elias Canetti’s praise of the work being the highest literary bar set yet, and the use of the work-home environment contrast which helps shape the story all the better, as well as the fact that the writing itself is the ultimate example of the typical Kafkian work – shaped by misunderstandings, irrationality and frustration.

13. To dig a little deeper, the term [kafkaesque] evokes an individual’s sense of finding himself victimised by large impersonal forces, feeling after a while that he can’t but take it personally – and feeling haunted, too, by the sense that maybe, after all, he deserves it.

Ultimately, if we can still read what many have defined Kafka’s magnum opus, I believe that this is not merely down to the way that the author explores the human condition of inadequacy and the way that selfishness (in the form of the Samsa family and Gregor’s work colleagues) remains still very much a relatable pairing of feelings for any reader.

Instead it is down a few reasons that Kelly seems to leave aside.

76. “Gregor”, Nabokov told his students with maximum moral punch, “is a human being in an insect’s disguise; his family are insects disguised as people”.

One of my first essays at university asked me to prove the statement “Kafka’s Verwandlung is as much as it is about the transformation of Gregor as it is about his family” true. A barely subtle change needs to be seen in Grete and in the overbearing parents who are the real vermin of this novella – attached to their son so to gain an economic advantage ( a theme I found precisely a year later in Jelinek’s Die Klavierspielerin, in which a daughter’s career is the main focus as is the saving of money to move into a larger flat, and the economic advantage is replaced by societal prestige).

Gregor appears to be a very common, quiet man, who desires nothing more than a routine and the knowledge of the repetition of events, something which seems to give him security as we see him sit in his room in the evenings doing nothing if not planning his train trips. The Ungeziefer which frantically initially attempts to both explain his situation to the chief clerk and to console his mother appears to already be very different from the Gregor that is seen in the first part of the first chapter, who has no bond with his family, if not with his mother, who however only calls him to remark on how late the time has got and to remind him to catch his daily train. Gregor however almost immediately seems to give up on disturbing his family and calling out for help preferring rather to respect what he thinks are their reasonable wishes and stay either in his room or hidden under furniture when in another room.

This almost seems to highlight the disturbance and nuisance he thought he was to the family before even turning into an animal, as although he has always been a good reliable commercial traveller and worker, he has very rarely been appreciated for the hard work he has put into it by his family members with the exception of his sister. He in fact seems to no longer wish to care about his family nor to have a fantasy about taking over the affairs of the family, having earned enough money to pay off their debt, and this seems to accentuate the doubt in whether he has in fact become an animal or not, (“Soll ich jetz weniger Feingefühl haben?” dachte er) due to such concrete thoughts about what his life normally entails- it can only be a human reaction, due to the frustration of having been almost exploited for such a long time-  this questioning reaches a peak when he listens to his sister play the violin in front of the lodgers .

Gregor remains a nuisance as an Ungeziefer in the same way he felt he was one previously, but his metamorphosis affects his family members strongly, as his father’s initial reaction to his refusal to come out of his bedroom proves (“Der Vater ballet mit feindseligem Ausdruck die Faust, als wolle Gregor in sein Zimmer zurück-stoßen, sah sich dann unsicher im Wohnzimmer um, beschattete dann mit den Händen die Augen und weinte, dass sich seine mächtige Brust schüttelte).

Although they may initially attempt to keep a relationship with him, the disgust they feel towards him is immediately perceivable due to the condition he lives in as well as his appearance. It isn’t a family bond that manages to keep the relationship alive, nor the memory of what was in fact a happy past, as Gregor himself notes, due to the amount of money that he was earning and also gladly handing over to his parents. Physical contact with Gregor becomes something they fear, as they either keep their distance by being in another room completely or approach him from outside his bedroom door without entering the room itself, for example, for mealtimes.

 As readers, we gain a retrospected picture as to the man that Gregor’s father, Herr Samsa, was before the event of Gregor’s transformation occurred- his main occupation was reading extracts from the newspaper, he is still, almost disrespectfully, sitting home in the evening wearing a dressing gown when Gregor returns, drained, from a day’s work. Once Gregor’s transformation occurs, Herr Samsa’s initial reaction is anger, calling him in what is a soft manner but already making use of his fist against the door, something which then throughout the Erzählung will become an expression of his attempt to regain authority and make himself appear frightening- his bouts of anger seem to please him, as is the case when he has fired apples at Gregor, something which has no particular aim in harming his son in a specific area, but rather becomes a morbid attempt to create as much pain as possible.

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However, Gregor notes that his father hasn’t always been the angered, frustrated man he is*** such as in the apple-pelting episode, and questions himself-“Trotzdem, trotzdem, war das noch das Vater? Der gleiche Mann, der müde im Bett vergraben lag, wenn früher Gregor zu einer Geschäftsreise ausgeruckt war, der ihn an Abenden der Heimker im Schlafrock im Lehnstuhl empfangen hatte, gar nicht recht imstande war, aufzustehen?. What follows this perplexed reflection on Gregor’s part is the description of the uniform his father has taken to wearing due to the necessity of a job to maintain the family after Gregor’s transformation and incapability to go to work. It is meant to underline his authority, and seems to fail in doing so- there is no particular person to impose authority on after all, as the women of the family already seem to be rather submissive towards him.

The course of the Erzählung seems to gradually weaken Gregor’s father, as we see him become rather meek by chapter 3, in particular when attempting to speak to the lodger just before Gregor’s appearance in front of them, which will then result in Herr Samsa trying once again to prove his authority, this time over the lodgers. It isn’t just Herr Samsa’s personality which changes due to the metamorphosis, but his ways, as well- we see him take up a job and gradually worry more and more about the financial situation of the family, something which hadn’t been a worry when it was Gregor who had taken up the role of the breadwinner. Both Grete and Frau Samsa also appear to have taken up jobs to make amends for the poverty which has struck them, in sewing and in Grete’s case, learning French to bost her employment prospects.

A rather different transformation however is one that occurs with the women of the family- whereas Herr Samsa attempts to be authoritative and continuously menaces Gregor, both Frau Samsa and Grete reveal what are weak personalities. Frau Samsa, on the one hand, remains frail, rather slow on the uptake, and easily frightened. In chapter two, she faints at the sight of Gregor,  but once she appears in chapter three, she has become a mere spectator to events and doesn’t partake in any decision or action- in fact, when Grete suggests that the only way the Samsa family will be able to live a peaceful life will be when Gregor is no longer alive, Frau Samsa doesn’t utter a word, but rather goes into a nervous coughing fit, which is promptly ignored by the other two members of the family as they make their decision- once again, her inability to choose for herself or at least propose an alternative solution proves how her force of character is non-existent and how she feels she should accept her husband’s wishes. She doesn’t appear to change as much as the father does throughout the event, but rather, it seems to reinforce how helpless as both a mother and a character she is, the former due to the lack of care she shows to have towards Gregor, as her role is fulfilled by her daughter who in turn seems to detach herself gradually from Gregor as the main effect of her own transformation.

Kafka interviews Samsa and friend, 1915

Although Grete isn’t particularly pleasant towards Gregor, racing out of his bedroom having left food, and being throughout most of the book incapable of dealing with his appearance, to Gregor his sister remains in fact the one person in his family that he still seems to have some sort of attachment to (perhaps even sexual, due to the willingness he explicitly shows in wanting to kiss her on a few occasions throughout the book, the most memorable being immediately after her violin performance in front of the lodgers, and perhaps a very subtle calling to his sister Ottla) ,and the fact that she fulfils her duty of caring for him (the word Schwester could imply that her role has become something which goes closer to what is the duty of a nurse rather than a sibling, as it carries a double meaning) is something that initially fills him with guilt (“Hätte Gregor nur mit der Schwester sprechen und ihn fur alles danken können, was sie fur ihn danken musste, er hatte ihre Dienste leichter ertragen, so aber litt er darunter”).

His transformation throughout the book appears to be continuous, as we see him gradually become comfortable, and begin to enjoy the normal behaviours that come with having a body such as the one he had awoken to- for example, he enjoys crawling (Die Beinchen hatten festen Boden unter sich; sie gehorchten vollkommen, wie er zu seiner Freude merkte; strebten sogar darnach, ihn forzutragen, wohin er wollte, und schon glaubte er, die endgültige Besserung alles Leidens stehe unmittelbar bevor”) and gradually his taste in food also changes,as he enjoys rotten food bought to him  by his sister.

However, although the entire Samsa family is clearly disgusted and in the women’s case terrified of what he may do were he to leave his room, his judgements regarding them seem to always verge on self convinction of how whatever actions- many times, throughout the Erzählung, we see Kafka giving us insight into Gregor’s thoughts regarding his family which never seem to be of resentment for the way he is being treated, but rather of shame, mainly, for his condition and for what it must mean for his family members and in the same way, this allows them to behave according to Gregor in a certain way. His sister approaching his room to then run away from him, disgusted by his appearance, is something which is to be fully expected- in fact, he sees her as someone who is trying to ease his own pain and who is behaving the way one would expect her to, as he says at the end of chapter two, after reflecting on how solitary his nights are, “Die Schwester suchte freilich die Peinlichkeit des Ganzen besser gelang es ihr natürlich auch” and never fully considers how her reactions to him are in fact really rather negative and begin to display the detachment she wishes to obtain from him

What really is happening is that the Samsa couple, unable to make a profit out of Gregor any longer, something they have taken for granted for most of his working life, are putting all of their efforts into their daughter, mainly hoping to find her a good marriage  but also good employement prospects, as her French lessons prove. This seems to anticipate the ending of the Erzählung, in particular when we read that  “In den ersten vierten Tagen konnten es die Eltern nicht über sich bringen, zu ihm hereinzukommen, und er hörte oft, wie sie die jetzige Arbeit der Schwester völlig anerkannten, wahrend sie sich bisher häufig über die Schwester geärgert hatten weil sie ihnen als ein etwas nutzloses Mädchen erschienen war“.

The transformation of the Samsa couple seems to also derive from a satisfaction which they seem to have not achieved yet from their offspring- as Gregor stops being useful in any way, their attention is turned to their daughter, and the event of Gregor’s death seems to allow them to be the family they perhaps always wanted to be as they move to a house that Gregor himself has paid and found for them, and as they drive off already planning, although this is implicitly said  by Kafka, her wedding.

The transformation that occurs is one that brings out each family member for what they truly are- Herr Samsa as apparently authoritative but really, unable to obtain what he wants, Frau Samsa as helpless and Grete as ultimately the one ‘project’ that the parents seem to be able to truly complete- and Gregor, all along, in this perspective, has mainly been the tool to helping them achieve and complete it, throughout his earnings, and has not become an Ungeziefe, therefore a nuisance, but rather, has been one his whole adult life-and his transformation seems to occur at the right moment, allowing his family to dispose of him, indifferently.

*** much here is autobiographical, very relevant to personal experience (Kafka’s relationship to the legendary and much hated Hermann Kafka)

Happy birthday Mr Samsa, you complicated, ageless piece of vermin. You are all of us, all of our guilt, all of our efforts.

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