Metamorphosis and Other Stories, The
by Franz Kafka
Anxiety. Injustice. Terror. Muddle. Impotence. Kafka conveys the feelings better than any writer ever. He enjoys/suffers the simultaneous blessing/curse of unfettered access — really a direct portal as if through a mirror – to that dreamscape world of slow-burning nightmares.
Living in such close, constant proximity to this nightmare world apparently made Kafka’s life rather burdensome, but every one of his readers is better and more enlightened for his suffering. These are ideas and motifs that make his stories downright uncomfortable to read. It’s difficult to love Kafka because the experience of reading him can be so purposely dreadful. But it’s not difficult at all to stand in awe and gratitude of an intellect that produced works of such originality, illumination and alienation.
I enjoyed this collection for containing some of his lesser-known stories. I’ve read all of the major works but was interested in the more minute tickings of his brain. Sure it was interesting to re-read The Metamorphosis, although I enjoyed it probably least out of all the stories in the book due to its tedium. And despite its understandable literary significance, I suspect that the designers of high school curricula perpetrate a disservice upon both Kafka and teenager by submitting the youth to this work as an introduction. The Trial would be more accessible even if not as emblematic.
“The Judgment” was simply bizarre and baffling. Flew right over my head.
But I enjoyed “The Stoker” and “A Country Doctor,” the most authentically dreamlike of the bunch. “The Stoker” has that quality that everyone has experienced in her or his dreams, where you have a goal, something you have to do, and you’re on the way to do it but get sidetracked, then gradually forget what you had to do, yet still suffer that anxiety of knowing you had to do something. It’s a perfect depiction. And I’ve rarely read or experienced a nightmare more disturbing and horrifying than “A Country Doctor,” which shares the same relentless, formless compulsion of “Stoker,” but in much more sinister tones.
“In the Penal Colony” is probably the most straightforward of the collection, up there with The Trial (which contains that haunting exemplar of existentialism from this collection, “Before the Law”) and The Castle as my favorite of Kafka’s.
I found the anecdote “A Message from the Emperor” to be the most powerful story of them all. I can’t quite put my finger on what hit me so hard about this one, perhaps the religious overtones, with the Emperor being God, and us humans forever impeded from receiving God’s message. It conveys this sense of unbearable tragedy in amazingly few words.
“Josephine the Singer” and “A Hunger Artist” are the two stories that seemed the most important somehow, although I did not quite enjoy either of them (though the latter more than the former, especially with the concluding image of the Panther). They will reward a revisiting.
Overall, this is a wonderful collection for Kafka-lovers and beginners alike. It contains his most important short works, a few of them (“The Stoker,” “Before the Law,” “A Message from the Emperor”) helpfully presented apart from the longer works in which they were eventually included. As I said, it’s not necessarily enjoyable, but these works are important as hell, and the experience of reading them uniquely disturbing.