After doing a Spanish American short story course at university, I was lucky enough to discover the Hispanic masters like Rulfo, Cortázar, García Márquez and, by extension, Borges. Following some extensive reading of the works of Borges, I came across his prose writings in The Total Library in which he cited Kafka as one of the main influences on his ideas and literary techniques, and, thinking this was a great endorsement by a renowned author, bought this book. In October 2001. And I didn’t finish it until yesterday (March 2002). It was that boring. I actually reread the article in ‘The Total Library’ again, just to make sure I’d read it properly, and, there it was, Borges endorsing these hideous stories…and then it all fell neatly into place. Borges hadn’t actually tried to work along the same lines as Kafka, but wisely took another root [sic], which I personally believe was a good career move.
Of the stories featured in this collection (‘Metamorphosis’, ‘The Great Wall of China’, ‘The Burrow’, ‘The Penal Settlement’, and ‘The Giant Mole’), not one really stands out as being any good. Maybe ‘Metamorphosis’ is somewhat original, albeit with a predictable twist at the end, and perhaps the same is true of ‘The Penal Settlement’, but ‘The Burrow’ is just awful, and ‘The Great Wall of China’ I can’t even remember (thankfully). ‘The Giant Mole’ wasn’t mind-blowing either.
Anyway, if you have enough money to buy this, make sure you have the sense not too. If you want some short stories, good ones, get Collected Stories by García Márquez, Labyrinths or The Book of Sand by Borges, or Blowup and Other Stories by Cortázar, but spare yourself this collection!
I’m not sure what the copyright issues are with quoting from an Amazon reader’s review of ‘Metamorphosis and Other Stories’ (in the Edwin Muir translation), but there’s something so very refreshing about the line ‘Maybe “Metamorphosis” is somewhat original.’ With this humble dyad ‘somewhat original’ the nameless reviewer brushes aside the entire ossified charnel house of Kafka hagiography; the presumption that the Master cannot be assailed on this front – as on so many others – has become an article of faith for generation after generation of those who minister to the canonical.
It all begins with ‘Metamorphosis’ for me: with ‘One morning Gregor Samsa awoke to discover he had been transformed into an enormous cockroach.’ (Or ‘vermin’ depending on which formulation you prefer.) I first read it at age 16 while babysitting for a four-year-old, who cropped up again years later in disturbing circumstances, and I mark this down as a key moment in my development as a writer. The point being: creating suspension of disbelief in a reader is pretty much a question of saying, take it or leave it, either you buy the man-bug transmogrification or you don’t. There’s not a lot I, the writer, can do to gussy it up. The willingness to rock out of bed with Gregor, to scuttle around on the floor with Gregor, to be vilified and persecuted and reviled alongside Gregor, this is all within your remit as a reader.
It seems to me it is this – the experiential basis of belief – that Kafka draws us back to again and again. That’s why movement is so crucial to him: without movement there can be no existence, without existence – for sure – there can be no belief. Kafka’s tales lash and curl, they undulate and flick. In ‘A Country Doctor’ the motion is instantaneous, hallucinogenic – we are here, then we are there. Perhaps the unnamed Amazon reader of ‘Metamorphosis’ should have tried approaching the text a pied; possibly he or she found it so ‘boring’, because he or she remained static throughout the experience, expecting ‘originality’ to be poured in as fluid is to a vessel.
This, then, from one of Kafka’s final letters to his twice-failed-fiancée Felice Bauer, dated Prague, 9 September 1917: ‘Here is the reason for my silence: two days after my last letter, precisely four weeks ago, at about 5.00 a.m., I had a haemorrhage of the lung. Fairly severe, for ten minutes or more it gushed out of my throat; I thought it would never stop.’ It was this haemorrhage that led directly to Kafka’s diagnosis of tuberculosis – as he puts it later in the same missive: ‘ultimately my maltreated blood had to burst forth.’ Ten days later, having been packed off to the country for a protracted rest, he writes in his diary: ‘It is the age of the infection rather than its depth and festering which makes it painful. To have it repeatedly ripped open in the same spot, though it has been operated on countless times, to have to see it taken under treatment again – that is what is bad.’
Six days later he writes: ‘I can still have passing satisfaction from works like ‘A Country Doctor’, provided I can still write such things at all (very improbable).’ And then goes, faintly nauseatingly on: ‘But happiness only if I can raise the world into the pure, the true and the immutable.’ It could be that Kafka is referring to the entire collection of which ‘A Country Doctor’ is the title story, but it seems more likely that the haemorrhage and the wound in the story are in some sense corresponding: speaking through the rent tegument of Kafka’s throat.
It’s not exactly ‘mind-blowing’, this transliteration of the fleshly, but then nor is it ‘somewhat original’.