Franz Kafka’s “Die Verwandlung”/”Metamorphosis” – book review

I picked up Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung in the original German for £1.99 in my local bookshop in Cambridge. I think that although the book is short, this is still an incredibly good price for an import — and it’s a price that will no doubt increase after Brexit.

So here’s my warning: we must go and buy those European foreign language books before the prices rise!

But I digress. I was worried my German wouldn’t be good enough to deal with a surrealistic novel, but when I started the first page I understood enough to giggle. And so I bought it. After having read it in German, I listened to Benedict Cumberbatch reading it in English on Audible- just to commit it to memory, and also to check that my understanding of the German was correct (to my relief, it seemed to be).

The story of Die Verwandlung (Metamorphosis) is known to many of those who haven’t read the book yet. The clerk, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning to find he has turned into an insect (Ungeheuer). What sort of insect he turns into exactly is not revealed. We know he has a hard shell, and many legs — but nothing beyond that. We also know that Kafka strenuously opposed the idea that a cover picture showing the transformed Samsa should be made. So go on, let your imagination run wild: Kafka definitely wanted it to.

What follows is an account of Samsa’s encounter with his once familiar surroundings, made strange by his sudden transformation. If this was a Disney film, he would learn some truths about himself and his family and turn back into a human and live happily ever after. But this is a Franz Kafka story, so don’t give yourself too much hope…

It’s the first time that I’ve read this story, but I completely understand its well-deserved reputation. It is surreal, dreamlike, almost inviting a Freudian psychoanalysis at times. There’s also something to be said for the manner in which it is written. My German level is certainly not that of a literary critic (the only other books I’ve read in Germans are romance novels and most of the Game of Thrones) but even I was struck, by a certain manner in Kafka’s writing. I felt, perhaps entirely wrongly, that his adjectives are sparse and incredibly effective when he uses them, creating vivid images that somehow still allow the reader to fill in the niceties, but leaving the core of the meaning completely intact.

Anyhow it was a very engaging read, if perhaps emotionally harrowing at times (to those who have read it – that apple…). I might even attempt to reread The Trial in German at some point…

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