I decided on Kafka as the next on my list of annual classics. Thus, The Metamorphosis and Other Stories. Everyone knows or at least knows about the man-becomes-cockroach tale. I hadn’t read it for so long I hardly recalled, certainly didn’t get so much out of it. Judging from these several stories, Kafka is concerned with individuals trapped in dead end situations—jobs, families—dilemmas that kill the spirit, turn them into something less than human, eventually destroy them. On the other hand, the families, the employers, the ones who make the demands that create the spirit-killing situations, seem just as happy to get rid of the individuals once they’re used up.
They become embarrassing liabilities once they can no longer conform and comply. At least that’s one way of looking at this guy-cum-insect story, and it matches up with the ethos of other stories in the volume.
The most interesting is one I’d never heard of—“Josephine the Singer.”It is clearly about the position of artists in society. Isolated, misunderstood, seen as freeloaders who would rather sing (or write or paint) than do real work that supports the common enterprise. Sirenlike, they often lure perfectly good citizens into idle activities that leave important tasks undone, even leave them vulnerable to enemies when they let their guards down.
As a German-speaking Jew from Prague, I guess Kafka knew a thing or two about isolation. As a writer condemned to drudge his way in clerkdom so support himself, I guess he knew a thing or two about being trapped in life’s cul de sacs. He turned his experiences into some of the most incisive and grimmest literature of the twentieth century. Only to die of tuberculosis when, at the age of 41, he was on the verge of marrying.
I’m glad I chose to revisit Franz and expand on my knowledge of him, but can’t say I really enjoyed these lugubrious narratives. Still, the volume is brief, and I believe I’ll have to do another classic of some sort before the year is out in order to fulfill my goal. What will it be? Stay tuned.