The Rear-View Mirror: Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (1912)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect… ‘What has happened to me?” he thought. It was not a dream.”

When I read Kafka’s classic novella The Metamorphosis (written in 1912, first published in 1915) as a teenager, that first, audacious sentence grabbed me – but it’s the one that comes a little later that punched me in the gut. Kafka’s story about a man who finds himself turned into a beetle should be dreamlike, but the telling is deadpan, if at times a little droll, and it never once allows the reader to go for that easiest of interpretations: it’s a dream, it’s all metaphors, it’s one big symbol. Certainly there is symbolism there, but as we’re reading Kafka’s story, he doesn’t grant us that facile emergency exit of consigning it all to the realm of unreality. Kafka’s prose makes it seem, and feel, all too real.

Funnily, though, when I think of Kafka’s story, what comes to my mind first isn’t the book itself – most likely one of those yellow Reclam editions that anyone who went to school in the German-speaking world will be familiar with – but instead the MTV short starring Aidan Quinn I remember seeing in the early ’90s. Is there anything comparable on modern MTV or is it all hip-hop videos and reality shows? There was a weird arthouse edge to MTV (at least the bits I remember) when I was a teenager, stop-motion videos by the Brothers Quay and pieces like the aforementioned clip about The Metamorphosis. In my head, thus, Franz Kafka is inextricably intertwined with MTV – and in the end, isn’t that the true meaning of Kafkaesque?

No. No, it isn’t.

The Metamorphosis has stayed with me though, more so than The Trial, the other book by Kafka that we read at school. Sadly, I’ve never gone either to revisit those books or read any of Kafka’s other stories, though I really should. But for now my image of Kafka and his works is fixed, stuck on its back, its small legs wiggling impotently. While a young Aidan Quinn looks at it through a keyhole.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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