Metamorphosis and Other Stories


Who among us, upon awaking from troubled dreams and dreading another soul-sucking day at the office, hasn’t felt a bit like a cockroach? So it goes with Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka’s nightmare allegory “Metamorphosis.” In the 1915 tale of the dutiful son and exhausted traveling salesman who is unaccountably transformed into a giant insect, Kafka tapped into our fear that we’re little more than vermin under the hard-soled shoes of society. We dread a life where we’ll end up like Gregor, whose “whole left side was one long, unpleasantly stretched scab, and he was positively limping on his two rows of legs.” Only a handful of Kafka’s stories were published before his death in 1924; he left his friend Max Brod with instructions to destroy all remaining manuscripts. Fortunately, Brod disobeyed, and today not only has “Kafkaesque” entered the lexicon, but thousands of grad students have labored to dissect the symbolism in Kafka’s unfinished novels: The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926), and Amerika (1927). “Kafka’s writing is a remarkable instance of something coming out of nowhere and, in the space of a human generation, attaining in its reception the condition of inexhaustible intractability he was so often drawn to describing within it,” Michael Hofmann writes in the introduction to his translation of Metamorphosis and Other Stories. To Hofmann, a typical Kafka story is “a perfect work of literary art, as approachable as it is strange, and as strange as it is approachable.” Take, for instance, “In the Penal Colony,” where he describes how prisoners are strapped beneath a machine whose needles inscribe their crimes on their skin, over and over until nothing but bloody meat remains. Nearly every story in this collection is a classic example of what happens when realism and allegory press against each other and make us writhe in the nightmares of a writer at the peak of his art. -