“One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.”
And with these words, Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” begins. The first time I encountered them I was visiting a café in Vienna. My impression of that coffee house remains one of dark interiors and small, adjacent rooms. Stacks of books were placed conveniently next to the tables and couches. Picking up one of the books, I read the opening line and leafed through the first few pages.
Well over ten years would pass before I got around to reading the whole story. Even getting a copy of the same, slim book did not push me beyond the first few lines. My curiosity was piqued but apparently not enough to warrant prolonged attention. That is, until last Sunday, I was browsing my bookshelves for something to read…
And what a powerful reading it was. Written in 1912, first published in 1915, over a hundred years have passed since Kafka set it on paper. Unfortunately, the idea of becoming an undesirable is as topical as ever. We talk of racial profiling. Of hate crime. Of threats to our democratic institutions. Of the necessity to flee from war. Of separating migrants from refugees. Of the right to marry someone you love, regardless of your or their gender. Of having unisex restrooms as the standard for public and commercial spaces.
In short, the novella delivered some strong sentences and sentiments. It also sparked some immediate, visual impressions. What else was left to do but to draw them out?
NOTE: The following contains an abridged reading of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”, as well as Karl Brand’s “The Retransformation of Gregor Samsa”, accompanied with illustrations of my own making. There will be some plot spoilers but not all will be revealed.
A reading of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”
Throughout the novella, we get to know Gregor Samsa a little: Dedicated to his family, his sister and mother in particular. Stuck in a job he doesn’t like but feels honorbound to. Dreaming of a time with a little bit more freedom and less financial worries.
This main character’s transformation “into a horrible vermin” is unfathomable to himself: he can tell something is different, he seems different…. but above all, Gregor simply wishes to get on with his life and tasks.
“Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem Ungeziefer verwandelt. […] Und ein Weilchen lang lah er ruhig mit schwachem Atmen, als erwarte er vielleicht von der völligen Stille die Wiederkehr der Wirklichen und selbstverständlichen Dinge.”
“Die Tür wurde noch mit dem Stock zugeschlagen, dann war es endlich still.”
Most of the story plays out in Gregor’s family home. His world starts to shrink: Gregor stays in his room to avoid confrontation. Scared and alone, he worries and mourns the loss of both his prospects and the little things he used to enjoy.
While he appears a quiet, even shy a fellow, Gregor is not without his pride. Is he not an concientious employee and a dedicated son and brother, looking after the needs of his family? If only they would not abondon him! If only his sister would know him well enough even now, to share both the food and affection he so desires…
“Täte sie es nicht von selbst, wollte er lieber verhungern, als sie darauf aufmerksam machen, trotzem es ihn eigentlich ungeheuet drängte, unterm Kanapee vorzuschließen, sich der Schwester zu Füssen zu werfen und sie um irgendetwas Gutes zum Essen zu bitten.”
“…unter gleichzeitigem, schnellen, gänzlichen Vergessen seiner menschlicher Vergangenheit? War er doch jetzt schon nahe daran, zu vergessen…”
Time passes and life goes on. The family has their own burdens to carry. The fall of grace is hard felt: Having to earn a living, having to hide the existense of Gregor, having to keep up appearances.
Gregor observes most of it from within his room. It has become easier for him to hide than face the aversion and fear others encounter him with. He’s not being treated as an equal. He’s not seen as someone who has something valuable to contribute. Instead of the usual greetings, aggression and curses are expected… But expecting them does not make it any easier to bear.
“Wer hatte in dieser abgearbeiteten und übermüdedeten Familie Zeit, sich um Gregor mehr zu kümmern, als unbedingt nötig war?”
A culmination point is reached through an accumulation of unfortunate events. Gregor’s family turns on him: “We’ve only harmed ourselves by believing it for so long. How can that be Gregor? If it were Gregor he would have seen long ago that it’s not possible for human beings to live with an animal like that and he would have gone of his own free will”.
The family has put themselves first. Gregor agrees: his wish is to be gone, even more so.
”Wenn es Gregor wäre, er hätte längst eingesehen, daß ein Zusammenleben von Menschen mit einem solchen Tier nicht möglic ist, und er wäre freiwillig fortgangen”
“Seine Meinung darüber, daß er verschwinden müsse, war womöglich noch entschiedener als die seiner Schwester.”
A follow-up by Karl Brand : “The Retransformation of Gregor Samsa”
All of Kafka’s characters seem to be at fault at times. Their most redeeming qualities might be affection and respectability. Unfortunately, under the conditions set forth these two qualities are set on a crash course that seems inevitable. Despite his hardships, Gregor’s good will and duty for his family do not seem to waver. Or put another way, he finds it useless to consider any alternative other than his new reality.
In 1916, Karl Brandt, an impoverished writer who also suffered from tuberculosis, wrote “The Retransformation of Gregor Samsa”. It’s both a response and continuation to Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Only a few pages long, it provides an alternative ending to the original story.
Contrary to Kafka, Brand makes Gregor speak up, even if only to himself: How can he not consider revenge? How can he not be revisited by the ghosts of wounds and wrongs inflicted upon him? After all, his yearnings went unanswered. His life has been filled with misery.
Even as his strenght seems to have failed him, something in and around him seems to call to this Gregor: Get up! A new life is beginning!
As readers we’re left with the question: Is it a false hope, or a real one? What should happen, when we meet again with those we have set aside, or with those who have wronged us?
“Und ich weiß nicht mehr, als daß mein ganzes sein ein einziges großes Elend ist – eine einzige umgeheuer geahnte, ewig gefüllte Sehnsucht. Ich weiß nicht mehr, als daß ich jetzt schwach bin und friere”