"The internet has made me into an insect."
So wrote a young writer named Alec in Harper's February issue, in which he compared himself to Gregor Samsa, staring out the window. It's Monday of a new month, and this early morning I read "The Metamorphosis" in our infra-red sauna. Fitting, I thought, to read Kafka's story inside a cedar container. I was holding my tiny red Modern Library edition, which I bought for Comparative European Literature at USC, the spring of 1964. I was an English major because all I liked to do, academically speaking, was read novels and stories. And never have I forgotten the day I first read about Gregor Samsa. There I was, in the Delta Gamma sorority house, alone that Saturday morning, wanting to shout my excitement about "The Metamorphosis."
The word, by the way, is used only twice in the story. Why was I so excited about what I had read? Because Kafka made me believe completely in his sensible vision of an impossible reality, which he represented with clarity and lucidity, that Gregor Samsa awakened as a large insect; that this traveling salesman had become what he already was in his soul. How had Kafka created such simple "real" narration, so that I, the reader, never doubted his "fantastic" reality. This reading experience was (to use a current word in our pandemic lexicon) a new "mutation" in the art of prose fiction. Kafka through his stories led me through dense jungles as if they were well-tended English gardens. Later, as a teacher in high school and college, I would repeat his famous phrase: " A book should serve as the axe for the frozen sea within."
Who can forget the apple stuck in Gregor's back, the scene when his sister Grete plays her violin for the three lodgers, and Gregor asks, "Was he an animal that music had such an effect on him?" This Monday morning, I relived every word of this story until Gregor ends up "flat and dry," deposed of by the charwoman. Yet the family has a "happy" ending, which befuddled me in 1964. In university, an English major had to manufacture short essays in exams. What did I write in my blue book for the mid-term that spring in a large class held in a lecture hall, the exams read by Ph.D. candidates who got paid for their labor? I knew only one thing: I was not going to write b.s. about the most profound and stunning literary experience of my twenty-year life.
"Kafka gives us the question mark without an answer."
I guess I said enough on the other essay questions to warrant a B-. And I have not forgotten the nameless reader's words: "One would have liked a closer coming to grips with Kafka's story."
Kafka, who died from TB at age 41, said of his disease: "My head conspired with my lung behind my back." The larger literary world can be grateful that Kafka's wishes were not followed, that his writing and correspondence were not destroyed as he requested. And I can be grateful that recently I dreamed of flying on the back of a human-size dragon fly. The most exhilarating dream of my life, unlike awakening as Gregor did with numerous tiny wiggling legs. All I can suggest to youthful Alec is to take a long walk!
Next week: I move into the world of Herman Melville for the course I'll teach in May.