“Were all the employees without exception scoundrels, were there really no loyal and dependable individuals among them, who, if once a couple of morning hours were not exploited for work, were driven so demented by pangs of conscience that they were unable to get out of bed?”
Bugs, blizzards, talking Coyotes and starving artists are just some of the topics covered in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Other Stories (Penguin, 2007). A century since his death, I feel like I’ve arrived late to the praise party after all the good points have been made. And from the all the pop culture references, expected his work to be as dense and confusing as a mutant mix of a Slavic born Faulkner wrapped into T.S. Eliot. But, as Michael Hofmann promises in the translator’s introduction to the edition, his work is accessible. Within a few stories, I felt at home.
I was pleasantly surprised and even underwhelmed for a moment by “Contemplations”, the first collection of stories in the book. As the title suggests, the collection simply describes some moments he’d surely seen and felt out on the cobbled streets of Prague – a woman touching her hair at the tram station, tricky con men on the street, a sudden enthusiasm to get up and go for a walk. He focuses on the tiny moments in day to day life still apparent now for only a page or two at a time. The prose is cute and the stories gentle. I expected a sudden burst of energy, but it never came. It didn’t need to, the longer short stories, The Judgement: A story for F, The Stoker: A Fragment, Metamorphosis and In the Penal Colony arrived.
Again, just as Hofmann warned, Kafka kicks into gear and takes one large step into surrealism. I won’t spoil them for you, but some moments – a father clinging onto the ceiling accusing a son of treachery, a stranger standing up for a stranger, Gregor Samsa being metamorphosed into a bug and an elaborate torture machine. It was lovely to note that his style doesn’t change from the previous collection. He still narrows in on odd, small moments many of us know well, but can never put into words, and all with a sweet tinge of humour running through them. Only, in this group of stories, the idea and the extent to which he takes them blows up into his world of oddities. “Contemplations” acts as the perfect precursor.
“A Country Doctor: Short Prose for my Father” switches back to his succinct stories, but the scale of his ideas continues on the same trajectory as the former collection into strange concepts, most pertaining to country living and fatherhood. I found these stories to be the most enjoyable after the heaviness of the longer short stories and stood out as improved versions compared to “Contemplations” thanks to the addition of a simple story to hold them up.
The final collection, “Hunger-Artist: Four Stories”, was written whilst Kafka was dying with tuberculosis. I don’t mean to kick a dead man when he’s down, but it was my least favourite of the bunch. As the title suggests, this collection centres on niche, almost mythical artists – a trapeze artist, an unhappy little woman, an artist who starves himself and a mouse singer. These stories dip into surrealism for too long without the humour to drag them back to reality, perhaps because he was dying and didn’t feel like cracking jokes.
The most impressive aspect of the work is simply at a syntactical level. The power he holds over each sentence is clear to see. His work confuses, saddens and forces laughter from you in a single twisting sentence – most of which is thanks to his use of the hyphen to elongate sentences. The surrealism and sardonic treatment of bureaucracy, at first baffling, quickly accepts you into the obscure world and then you glide along, enjoying sentence after sentence. If, like the man who waits at the government door his whole life without getting past the first of many, is the only thing that happens in a story, it’s not any less enjoyable. You’re just along for the ride.
If you get a chance, accidentally knock the piggy bank off the mantle or check down the back of the sofa for some shrapnel, and go and purchase this collection. Every person needs to read and enjoy the strange, little worlds. Thanks to his editor and long-time friend, Max Brod, for not destroying his work after his death like he had promised. Perhaps one of the greatest broken promises of all time.
The edition of the book I read ends with an appendix of three stories that were published in journals and not collected in Kafka’s own lifetime. They seem like off-cuts that didn’t quite make the grade, but are simple and fun to read nonetheless.