The Metamorphosis
Franz Kafka
Stanley Corngold
Translator and Editor

(Modern Library)
This particular edition of Kafka's Metamorphosis has been around for more than forty years, and includes some of the better literary critics giving their thoughts on what one of them refers to the "Writing of Abjection." There are critical pieces by W. H. Auden, Philip Roth, Walter Benjamin --- along with an original translation and introduction from Stanley Corngold. Too, there's a chronology of Kafka's life, some of his letters, thoughts on Jewish Folklore by Iris Bruce, and "Samsa Was a Traveling Salesman" by John Zilcosky.

This whole project might be what Esquire Magazine used to call Wretched Excess, for Metamorphosis is but a short story, running sixty pages in this volume of over 300 pages. The accompanying texts seem to be demanding we look deeply into what is, after all, a simple story of a simple drummer from post-World War One Austro-Hungary who finds himself overnight changed into a dung beetle.

Ovid, who wrote the original stories of transmogrification, was content with turning folk into laurel trees, mushrooms, constellations of stars, stones and birds --- and deer, dogs and bulls. As far-out as Ovid was, his main source of transformation was --- isn't it for all of us --- love (or lust). But not even he dreamed up a character in the next room over being transformed into a twenty-four legged creepie-crawlie, now having to deal with a rather disaffected mother, father, and sister.

I am suggesting that one can read this story with enjoyment without being burdened with the excessive commentary offered here, although there are some surprising facts. Kafka worked in an insurance company, and suffered from a boatload of inner angst (judging from his letters and his writings). We had always thus pictured him as a meek, subservient somewhat creepie-crawly character himself, plagued with an over-garish imagination.

But Corngold tells us that he did not appear at all hag-ridden. He was over six feet tall, rather handsome, always impeccably dressed --- much beloved of the ladies. Little did they know what was going on in his perfervid brain.

He was not only a self-assured attorney, he was the CEO at a large and well-respected company, the Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute in Prague. It is suggested that the importance of his job may have spared him the task of giving his life for his country during a war that maimed or killed almost a quarter of the adult male population of Austria-Hungary.

    Kafka's prose poetry arises not after a day spent finger-tapping at an anonymous office desk but typically, after writing or dictating intricate briefs of genuine social importance.

Unfortunately, Corngold spends too much of his (and our) time sifting through Kafka's legal briefs trying to unearth some documents that might be reflected in his stories or novels. He suggests that "flat-rate insurance ... to establish the particular pertaining to the extent of fields and pastures as well of the net income of the individual farms" might turn up in The Castle or Amerika.

Beyond these dubious insights, I suspect the most valuable aspect of this Modern Library edition is the translation: much labored over, probably as good as it is going to get. For German is a difficult language to metamorphose into English.

§   §   §

The best arguments for not reading too much into this fanciful fairy-tale are the words of Kafka himself. When a friend --- Gustav Janouch --- speculated that the bug-man was named Samsa and that it "sounds like a cryptogram for Kafka. Five letters in each word. The S in the word Samsa has the same position as the K in the word Kafka."

    Kafka interrupted me.

    "It is not a cryptogram. Samsa is not merely Kafka, and nothing else. The Metamorphosis is not a confession, although it is --- in a certain sense --- an indiscretion.

An "indiscretion." Excellent word. And direct from the horse's mouth.

Therefore when one gaga critic supposes that "Gregor's early failure to catch the five o'clock train [is] an allegory of spiritual failure, for Kafka has coded into the five o'clock train (recall the Five Books of Moses), the train of redemption, the train of the sacramental time that brings the Jewish Messiah..." This sound like an English major stretching hard for a passing grade.

I can think of no other writer who can come up with the conceit of converting a German Willy Loman into a ungeheures Ungeziefer --- and make it stick. Kafka starts at the beginning, simply:

    When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

And we go from there, a somewhat unbelievable happening dispensed with in the first sentence, letting us follow Gregor's remaining time on earth: his (and his family's) shame; the anger (how come our boy is acting up like this?); the attempt to hide the truth (Gregor covers himself with a bedsheet when he begins to venture out of his room); his coming --- briefly --- to enjoy himself (when he hangs from the ceiling); his murder (dad plugs him in the carapace with an apple); finding that there is only one person who sees the truth --- the chambermaid, who contemplates him with equanimity, saying "you're nothing but a dung-beetle;" and the metamorphosis of all the other characters in the story, including his once-loving sister:

    You have to get rid of the idea that it's Gregor ... But if it were Gregor, he would have realized long ago that it isn't possible for human beings to live with such a creature, and he would have gone away of his own free will.

There is finally the moment when Gregor just gives up, "without his consent, his head sank down to the floor, and from his nostrils streamed his last weak breath." His sister was right: It's hard being a ridiculous-looking dung-beetle when your whole family wants you to stop showing off, go back to work, bring home the bacon.

§   §   §

But this time around, I also had the chance to read Metamorphosis as a piece of high comedy. When Gregor figures out that he really has been transformed into a rather repulsive-looking bug, he locks himself in his room. His family --- and his office manager from his job --- are immediately at the doors, demanding that he open up: his mother at one; his father with the office manager behind him at another; and his sister at a third. It's a Marx Brothers comedy, but instead of the three of them and the crew and various visitors trying to get in the crush in the stateroom, there's a traveling salesman who has gone through a weird change of scenery, trying desperately to keep everyone in the dark to the fact that their old reliable breadwinner may not be on time today.

The effect of Kafka's direct, powerful style can extend beyond the printed page, may touch the reader in other ways. This morning, scarcely into my second reading of the story, I was navigating through the living room, filled as it was with last-night's ashes, take-out pizza boxes, beer cans, and other detritus of our merry-making.

A fair-sized roach was nuzzling at the crusts lying on the carpet. I found myself muttering to him (hoping my hungover guests wouldn't hear), "You. Gregor. For Christ's sakes. Get out." I shooed him out of sight, back into the bedroom --- hoping he wouldn't screw everything up. Like his famous brother did.

--- Richard Saturday
The four singular (and terrific)
illustrations above come from
the pen of Landis Blair.
He can be found at

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