Thursday, June 21, 2007

Other People on Kafka

I haven't had much blogging time lately, but I'm ducking in here with a couple short posts noting what some other people have been saying.

I was tempted to write something myself about Lee Rourke's post from two weeks ago about the new Michael Hofman translations of Kafka, but I didn't get to it and others addressed it brilliantly. Rourke praised the translations generally and specifically agreed with Hofman's use of the word "cockroach" in "The Metamorphosis". His post led to an interesting discussion in the comments section about what makes a good translation, as well as fantastic posts from Steve Mitchelmore and Ellis Sharp on why the choice of "cockroach" is wrong. Steve and Ellis may agree that the word is wrong, but Ellis otherwise disagrees with Steve's interpretation.

From Steve's post:

As he must have known, Nabokov's zoological points are irrelevant [in the comments to Lee's post, someone quoted a passage which had immediately occurred to me from Nabokov's Lectures on Literature on this point]. One has to read the word as it is before our eyes: vague and open to interpretation. Openness is everything. There's no need to make these detours into etymology. Yes, Walter Sokol makes a good case for "cockroach" by highlighting how it is nauseating and parasitical yet also defenceless and pathetic - which is certainly how Gregor appears to everyone - but "insect", as the Muirs had it, does all that too and retains the vagueness of Kafka's word.

More to the point is Lee's assertion that "Kafka wanted to denote the marginalised, detested individual". The insect is both real and symbolic, unreal and unsymbolic. However, even if we knew Kafka had intended that, it wouldn't tell the whole story. Gregor is marginalised and detested not only because he has become an insect but also because he is no longer the reliable salesman keeping his family afloat. He has been transformed into a threat to the family's petit-bourgeois world. How terrible is the banging on his bedroom door when he fails to leave for work, how sickening when his boss visits the flat to investigate a single lost day? It is, as we know still today, a world of fierce taboos resisting the forces of change, of decay, illness and death. Gregor has, in effect, died but not left the building. His death stains the parents' starched clothing, stinks out the flat. This is how he might be read from a Marxist perspective: Gregor is the harbinger of the social problems inherent to early modern capitalism. But change also afflicts Marxists. The hope of political redemption is soon also faced by despair.

Steve goes on to invoke Blanchot and our inability to "choose between hope and despair". Ellis objects to this reading:

In ‘Metamorphosis’ concealment is of the essence. Compartmentalisation is involved – thematically and structurally. ‘Metamorphosis’ is not a single fast-flowing river of prose but, like the body of an insect, divided into segments – three chapters. Gregor dies on the stroke of three. There are three doors to Gregor’s room: three ways in, three ways out. Not one way. There is no single way in and out of this story. You cannot exclusively capture it for a metaphysical reading. It slips free. In its multiplicity – in its totality – it resists the net of exegesis. The jacket cover on my edition calls it a ‘haunting parable on human reaction to suffering and disease’ which is both true and horribly limiting.

The reaction of everyone in the story to Gregor’s transformation is, surely, the exact opposite to despair. There is no despair. On the contrary, the story gives us characters learning to cope with an extreme situation, as humans do. One or two of the characters shun Gregor and depart; most stay. Their responses range from disgust, fear and irritation to compassion, curiosity and breezy acceptance. Nobody finally gives up on Gregor; nobody sinks into paralysis. Everyone grudgingly accepts his presence. No one despairs, not even Gregor. Everyone bravely, absurdly, comically, maintains the rigmarole of everyday life.

This is great stuff. For me, this is what blogging about literature is all about and is the kind of thing I was hoping to find when I started looking on the web for literary discussion.

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