When I left university, I was so relieved never to have to read Kafka again. Not if his were the only book in the world, I thought! It would appear that I am mellowing, though that has been a long, slow process which started only about 3 years ago, when I discovered that Kafka loved Munich. At last we had something in common. Then Oxford University Press reissued their Kafkas in the wonderful new editions of their classics series and offered them to me for review. In a flush of enthusiasm for a fellow Munich lover, I accepted them, put them on the shelf and have spent the last couple of years, baffled by my impetuousity, circling and eyeing them warily, much like the Samsas did their beetle/cockroach/Ungeziefer! Then a couple of months ago Tony from Tony’s Reading List wrote what will undoubtedly be my blog post of the year, a spoof on Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Couple that with the recently published mashup novel, Meowmorphosis, and the time was right to revisit the original.
Knock me sideways with the feather duster I used to remove the dust from that copy of Metamorphosis and Other Stories. I didn’t just enjoy it, I was enthralled. As far as premises go, waking up one morning to find yourself transformed into a cockroach, is still pretty weird if taken at face value but as a symbol of alienation within your own family, it is masterful. Poor Gregor Samsa. Still human inside his grotesque body but unable to communicate with his parents and sister. Their humanity and family affection slowly dissipating as the sight of Gregor dehumanises him and renders them incapable of interpreting his actions sympathetically. The pain at the loss of their son surplanted by relief when the story ends with a bitter irony. Gregor’s catastrophic fate proves to be a catalyst of beneficial change for his family. Kafka, the estranged son, arguing a point that they really were better off without him?
That enjoyment took me so much by surprise that I bravely tackled another story – the acclaimed The Judgement – a story the author considered one of his most successful and perfect literary creations. Hmmm. It’s only 10 pages long but that proved sufficient for that gaping void between Kafka and me to open up again. Whereas the Metamorphosis starts surreally and maintains its own logic, the Judgement begins logically and suddenly goes completely haywire. We all know family arguments can spring from nowhere, and parents frequently accuse their sons of selfishness. But a father to do that and then condemn his son to death by drowning and then for the son to leave the house and jump to his death from a bridge into a river! What the blazes, I thought and that old familiar feeling of wanting to scream when reading Kafka returned.
Apparently the logic in the story is to be found in the opposing philosophies of Nietzchean amoral naturaism and Kantian moral rigorism. The OUP edition has a fine introduction that explains these things to philistines like myself. Even so, that was enough Kafka for one sitting, time to move on before I felt like throwing myself off a bridge.
Published by Quirk Classics, publishers of a mashup megabusters such as Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies, the Meowmorphosis asks the question what would have happened if Gregor Samsa had turned into a cute, fluffy, if gigantic kitten.
The first question I asked was how does a 46-page story transform into a 190 page novel? Answer: by cleverly blending the Metamorphosis with The Trial, inserting illustrations, additional plot elements and philosophical musings which go a long way to explaining Kafka’s original texts. For example: whilst Kafka’s Gregor never left his parent’s flat, Coleridge Cook allows the kitten to escape, as cats do, for a night on the tiles. There he meets the tabby cat, Josef K, whose role is reversed from the Kafka original. He becomes accuser, prosecutor and judge of the hapless Gregor, who stands condemned of not being true to his new feline (independent, free) self. Whereas at home, he is condemned for not being human enough. The poor kitty is completely trapped in a truly Kafkaesque predicament: damned if he does adopt his new identity, damned if he does not. And how about this to explain the ambiguities and unfinished nature of Kafka’s output? Gregor the kitten dreams of a poor individual who is changed into an insect.
O God, what a relentless job I’ve chosen! Day in, day out, the pen in my hand alone. The stresses of writing are much greater than I ever imagined, and in addition to that, I have to cope with the problems of meaning, the worries about metaphor and symbols, irregular bad food, fleeting human relationships that never come from the heart, friends who look at me and see only an investor or a poor sack of a man with the soul of a crawling thing. To hell with it all! None of it has a meaning – well today I meant to give it one; I meant to take up each of my stories and give them new endings, in which all would be explained and made well, in which no one could be left wondering how they had managed to get themselves into any unhappy state, in which the world would be well ordered and calm. I meant to do all of this, but now I find myself this morning utterly changed into a beast ….
Writing credits are shared between Kafka and Coleridge Cook. Rightly so because much of the text is true to Kafka’s original, the essence of which Cook understands so well that he can play with it in this way. Key to the success is the kitten. Does it work as a symbolic substitute? Not entirely – the alienation factor of the reader and Samsa’s family is diminished. While cats are unclean (in the biblical sense) and thus qualify as Ungeziefer, kittens remain cute and cuddly. As an in joke, however, the kitten is operating on another level. Find out how in Cook’s satirical appendix – The Curious Life of Franz Kafka. A treat all of its own and source of the biggest LOL from me. Did Kafka really say the following?
In the end human happiness was not really my concern, nor the aims of my writing, for books ought to bludgeons to gouge out all our better parts rather than light entertainment …
Bludgeons – could not have said it better myself. It seems my mellowing process has a way to go ….