Our education system has a lot to answer for. As children, we are forced to read and study works of ‘classical literature’ that have no relevance (we think) to our lives and well-being. And when we shake the dust of school off our feet, it is usually with the thought: ‘Thank heavens I will never have to read stodgy meaningless books ever again’.
This is a tragedy. Literary classics are regarded as classics for a reason. And when one has grown up and developed (hopefully) a critical faculty, these classics should be re-read and treasured for the insights they possess.
So in this series I will be unpacking those books that you most likely endured through school, sitting in an uncomfortable desk and being lectured about truths that were – to you – completely irrelevant. And hopefully this will encourage you to seek out these books and read them again.
Kafka – Metamorphosis.
Even the thought of reading Kafka makes most people irresistably sleepy. But the work of Franz Kafka (a German-speaking Czech) is surprising digestible. Mostly his books are short (yay), simply written (double yay) and, on the surface, simply just odd. The stories are almost always about an ordinary person trapped in an absurd situation and simply trying to get by despite arbitrary but horrific obstacles.
The word Kafka-esque was specifically coined to describe these situations, which would be familiar to anyone trying to get through to a call centre to query an account. Or taking up an billing issue with their local municipality.
In the book Metamorphosis, a travelling salesman called Gregor wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a gigantic insect. We are never told how or why this happened, but the first part of the book details how Gregor tries to get up, get dressed, and go to work despite his transformation, and how he attempts for a while to live normally despite his grotesque shape.
Then the story moves to how his family react to his transformation, how outsiders try to take advantage of the family’s ‘troubles’, and the tale drifts towards a sad and inevitable conclusion. It is infused with a sense of alienation and despair – no-one really attempts to help Gregor, and he does not really attempt himself to understand his own situation or overcome it.
On the surface, it is a simple, dreary little story and you can perhaps wonder what all the fuss is about. And then you start to think about it. And you think of all the other books and films and plays that deal with similar themes – District 9, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, all the Super Hero movies (yes, them too), the Invisible Man, and even those works that deal with invisible transformations, where people turn out to be not what they seem.
And then you realise that this story has hooked you completely and you wonder what it really means. And so you begin to research what other people have had to say. It is a critique of capitalism? A satire on normal life? A treatise on dysfunctional relationships? Every single critic has a different interpretation – and that is what makes it so powerful. It means different things to different people.
For me, personally, I felt that it dealt with depression – clinical depression. A person suffering from depression (which is an internal change, not an external one) behaves just like Gregor: trying to function normally under an abnormal condition. With a family or a society that cannot see or understand this condition and does not know how to deal with it.
Instead of the grotesquerie being on the outside, the depressed person is outwardly normal with the insides in a twist.
This dissonance leads to strange outcomes: a person with depression cannot be understood easily: they behave in strange, self-defeating ways; they reject the support that they actually crave; they are at their most unloveable when they really need to be loved.
When I thought about Metamorphosis in the context of someone who was descending into the wasteland of depression, it made perfect sense. And was even sadder, as a result.