The Half Life of Gregor Samsa

 
 

Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa is a sequel to Franz Kafka‘s short-story The Metamorphosis, written in 2002 by Marc Estrin.

Rather than being thrown away like trash, Gregor Samsa was secretly sold to a Viennese sideshow by the Samsas’ chambermaid. He then met various figures like Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein, Oswald Spengler and Albert Einstein and witnessed American Prohibition, the Scopes trial, was involved in Alice Paul‘s feminist movement, encountered the Ku Klux Klan, and conferred with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Robert Oppenheimer. The novel made allusions to post-World War I Vienna through the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Reciting Rainer Maria Rilke and discoursing on Spengler’s Decline of the West, Gregor attracts the attention of writer Robert Musil, who tells him that although western humanity is finished, that “Society…is in a larval state. What it needs is a larval model to lead it onward, upward, and out of the corral,” and Gregor is that larval model, his ironic task being to teach us what it means to be human.

Estrin was born in Brooklyn, New York. He attended Queens College, studying chemistry and biology, then studied theater directing at UCLA. Estrin came to novel-writing late. In the fall of 1998, he and his wife Donna were on holiday in Prague and decided to visit the grave of Franz Kafka, whose work had always been important to him. His father had challenged him to read Thomas Mann‘s The Magic Mountain during the summer before he attended college. He left a note on the grave, inviting Kafka to drop by if he ever found himself in Burlington. Estrin said that the concept, an outline and the opening episodes of Insect Dreams arrived in Vermont one morning at 3 AM, three weeks after he visited Kafka’s grave. Insect Dreams appeared from BlueHen/Putnam in 2002. Since then it has been re-released (by Unbridled Books). Through the 1960s he worked in various repertory theaters in the United States, including the Pittsburgh Playhouse and the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop. But the Vietnam War and Bertold Brecht inspired him to become politically active.

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Kafka for President

kafka for presidentDemonstration against Hubert Humphrey, New York City, October 9th, 1968. Photo by David Fenton

 
 

Vice President of the United States Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota decided to seek the Democratic Party nomination for President of the USA following the announcement by President Lyndon B. Johnson that he would not seek the party’s nomination. Johnson had been stalled by the anti-Vietnam War candidacy of Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, who along with Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York, became the main opponents for Humphrey. The contest between the men featured a battle for control of the Democratic Party, and cast Humphrey’s “old politics”, against the “new politics” of McCarthy and Kennedy. The main cause of the division was the Vietnam War, which intensified during Humphrey’s tenure as Vice President and grew increasingly unpopular.

Humphrey first entered presidential politics in 1952 running as a favorite son candidate in Minnesota. In 1960, he mounted a full-scale run, winning primaries in South Dakota and Washington D.C., but ultimately lost the Democratic nomination to future President John F. Kennedy.

Slogan: “Some People Talk Change, Others Cause It”

The Beetle and the Fly

Text by David Cronenberg

 
 

 
 

I woke up one morning recently to discover that I was a seventy-year-old man. Is this different from what happens to Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis? He wakes up to find that he’s become a near-human-sized beetle (probably of the scarab family, if his household’s charwoman is to be believed), and not a particularly robust specimen at that. Our reactions, mine and Gregor’s, are very similar. We are confused and bemused, and think that it’s a momentary delusion that will soon dissipate, leaving our lives to continue as they were. What could the source of these twin transformations possibly be? Certainly, you can see a birthday coming from many miles away, and it should not be a shock or a surprise when it happens. And as any well-meaning friend will tell you, seventy is just a number. What impact can that number really have on an actual, unique physical human life?

In the case of Gregor, a young traveling salesman spending a night at home in his family’s apartment in Prague, awakening into a strange, human/insect hybrid existence is, to say the obvious, a surprise he did not see coming, and the reaction of his household—mother, father, sister, maid, cook—is to recoil in benumbed horror, as one would expect, and not one member of his family feels compelled to console the creature by, for example, pointing out that a beetle is also a living thing, and turning into one might, for a mediocre human living a humdrum life, be an exhilarating and elevating experience, and so what’s the problem? This imagined consolation could not, in any case, take place within the structure of the story, because Gregor can understand human speech, but cannot be understood when he tries to speak, and so his family never think to approach him as a creature with human intelligence. (It must be noted, though, that in their bourgeois banality, they somehow accept that this creature is, in some unnamable way, their Gregor. It never occurs to them that, for example, a giant beetle has eaten Gregor; they don’t have the imagination, and he very quickly becomes not much more than a housekeeping problem.) His transformation seals him within himself as surely as if he had suffered a total paralysis. These two scenarios, mine and Gregor’s, seem so different, one might ask why I even bother to compare them. The source of the transformations is the same, I argue: we have both awakened to a forced awareness of what we really are, and that awareness is profound and irreversible; in each case, the delusion soon proves to be a new, mandatory reality, and life does not continue as it did.

Is Gregor’s transformation a death sentence or, in some way, a fatal diagnosis? Why does the beetle Gregor not survive? Is it his human brain, depressed and sad and melancholy, that betrays the insect’s basic sturdiness? Is it the brain that defeats the bug’s urge to survive, even to eat? What’s wrong with that beetle? Beetles, the order of insect called Coleoptera, which means “sheathed wing” (though Gregor never seems to discover his own wings, which are presumably hiding under his hard wing casings), are notably hardy and well adapted for survival; there are more species of beetle than any other order on earth. Well, we learn that Gregor has bad lungs they are “none too reliable”—and so the Gregor beetle has bad lungs as well, or at least the insect equivalent, and perhaps that really is his fatal diagnosis; or perhaps it’s his growing inability to eat that kills him, as it did Franz Kafka, who ultimately coughed up blood and died of starvation caused by laryngeal tuberculosis at the age of forty. What about me? Is my seventieth birthday a death sentence? Of course, yes, it is, and in some ways it has sealed me within myself as surely as if I had suffered a total paralysis. And this revelation is the function of the bed, and of dreaming in the bed, the mortar in which the minutiae of everyday life are crushed, ground up, and mixed with memory and desire and dread. Gregor awakes from troubled dreams which are never directly described by Kafka. Did Gregor dream that he was an insect, then awake to find that he was one? “‘What in the world has happened to me?’ he thought.” “It was no dream,” says Kafka, referring to Gregor’s new physical form, but it’s not clear that his troubled dreams were anticipatory insect dreams. In the movie I co-wrote and directed of George Langelaan’s short story The Fly, I have our hero Seth Brundle, played by Jeff Goldblum, say, while deep in the throes of his transformation into a hideous fly/human hybrid, “I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over, and the insect is awake.” He is warning his former lover that he is now a danger to her, a creature with no compassion and no empathy. He has shed his humanity like the shell of a cicada nymph, and what has emerged is no longer human. He is also suggesting that to be a human, a self-aware consciousness, is a dream that cannot last, an illusion. Gregor too has trouble clinging to what is left of his humanity, and as his family begins to feel that this thing in Gregor’s room is no longer Gregor, he begins to feel the same way. But unlike Brundle’s fly self, Gregor’s beetle is no threat to anyone but himself, and starves and fades away like an afterthought as his family revels in their freedom from the shameful, embarrassing burden that he has become.

 
 

 
 

When The Fly was released in 1986, there was much conjecture that the disease that Brundle had brought on himself was a metaphor for AIDS. Certainly I understood this—AIDS was on everybody’s mind as the vast scope of the disease was gradually being revealed. But for me, Brundle’s disease was more fundamental: in an artificially accelerated manner, he was aging. He was a consciousness that was aware that it was a body that was mortal, and with acute awareness and humor participated in that inevitable transformation that all of us face, if only we live long enough. Unlike the passive and helpful but anonymous Gregor, Brundle was a star in the firmament of science, and it was a bold and reckless experiment in transmitting matter through space (his DNA mixes with that of an errant fly) that caused his predicament.

Langelaan’s story, first published in Playboy magazine in 1957, falls firmly within the genre of science fiction, with all the mechanics and reasonings of its scientist hero carefully, if fancifully, constructed (two used telephone booths are involved). Kafka’s story, of course, is not science fiction; it does not provoke discussion regarding technology and the hubris of scientific investigation, or the use of scientific research for military purposes. Without sci-fi trappings of any kind, The Metamorphosis forces us to think in terms of analogy, of reflexive interpretation, though it is revealing that none of the characters in the story, including Gregor, ever does think that way. There is no meditation on a family secret or sin that might have induced such a monstrous reprisal by God or the Fates, no search for meaning even on the most basic existential plane. The bizarre event is dealt with in a perfunctory, petty, materialistic way, and it arouses the narrowest range of emotional response imaginable, almost immediately assuming the tone of an unfortunate natural family occurrence with which one must reluctantly contend.

Stories of magical transformations have always been part of humanity’s narrative canon. They articulate that universal sense of empathy for all life forms that we feel; they express that desire for transcendence that every religion also expresses; they prompt us to wonder if transformation into another living creature would be a proof of the possibility of reincarnation and some sort of afterlife and is thus, however hideous or disastrous the narrative, a religious and hopeful concept. Certainly my Brundlefly goes through moments of manic strength and power, convinced that he has combined the best components of human and insect to become a super being, refusing to see his personal evolution as anything but a victory even as he begins to shed his human body parts, which he carefully stores in a medicine cabinet he calls the Brundle Museum of Natural History.

There is none of this in The Metamorphosis. The Samsabeetle is barely aware that he is a hybrid, though he takes small hybrid pleasures where he can find them, whether it’s hanging from the ceiling or scuttling through the mess and dirt of his room (beetle pleasure) or listening to the music that his sister plays on her violin (human pleasure). But the Samsa family is the Samsabeetle’s context and his cage, and his subservience to the needs of his family both before and after his transformation extends, ultimately, to his realization that it would be more convenient for them if he just disappeared, it would be an expression of his love for them, in fact, and so he does just that, by quietly dying. The Samsabeetle’s short life, fantastical though it is, is played out on the level of the resolutely mundane and the functional, and fails to provoke in the story’s characters any hint of philosophy, meditation, or profound reflection. How similar would the story be, then, if on that fateful morning, the Samsa family found in the room of their son not a young, vibrant traveling salesman who is supporting them by his unselfish and endless labor, but a shuffling, half-blind, barely ambulatory eighty-nine-year-old man using insectlike canes, a man who mumbles incoherently and has soiled his trousers and out of the shadowland of his dementia projects anger and induces guilt? If, when Gregor Samsa woke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed right there in his bed into a demented, disabled, demanding old man? His family is horrified but somehow recognize him as their own Gregor, albeit transformed. Eventually, though, as in the beetle variant of the story, they decide that he is no longer their Gregor, and that it would be a blessing for him to disappear.

When I went on my publicity tour for The Fly, I was often asked what insect I would want to be if I underwent an entomological transformation. My answers varied, depending on my mood, though I had a fondness for the dragonfly, not only for its spectacular flying but also for the novelty of its ferocious underwater nymphal stage with its deadly extendable underslung jaw; I also thought that mating in the air might be pleasant. Would that be your soul, then, this dragonfly, flying heavenward? came one response. Is that not really what you’re looking for? No, not really, I said. I’d just be a simple dragonfly, and then, if I managed to avoid being eaten by a bird or a frog, I would mate, and as summer ended, I would die.

 

This essay appears as the introduction to Susan Bernofsky’s translation of The Metamorphosis.

Fictional Lyrics

 
 

You sit at the edge of the world,

I am in a crater that is no more.

Words without letters

Standing in the shadow of the door.

 

The moon shines down on a sleeping lizard,

Little fish rain down from the sky.

Outside the window there are soldiers,

steeling themselves to die.

 

(Refrain)

 

Kafka sits in a chair by the shore,

Thinking of the pendulum that moves the world,

it seems.

When your heart is closed,

The shadow of the unmoving Sphinx,

Becomes a knife that pierces your dreams.

 

The drowning girl’s fingers

Search for the entrance stone, and more.

Lifting the hem of her azure dress,

She gazes—

at Kafka on the shore.

 

Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore
Chapter 23

References to Franz Kafka and Popular Culture

 
 

Haruki Murakami makes numerous literary, musical and film references throughout the novel Kakfa on the Shore, particularly to (who else?) Franz Kafka. Several of the characters in the book have a relationship with Kafka or “Kafkaesque” themes, the most obvious being the name the protagonist gives to himself, Kafka Tamura. While the reader never finds out his real name, he explains why he chooses the name Kafka to represent his identity. But why Kafka? It is possible that Murakami used Franz Kafka to emphasize themes of isolation and alienation, as well as to critique forms of Japanese bureaucracy and the police force investigating his father’s murder in particular.

 
 

“Nobody’s going to help me. At least no one has up till now. So I have to make it on my own. I have to get stronger–like a stray crow. That’s why I gave myself the name Kafka. That’s what Kafka means in Czech, you know–crow.”

 
 

Franz Kafka is also a figure that draws many of the characters together. Kafka Tamura is only allowed to stay in the library after revealing his name, which has an profound effect on the library staff. The tragedy of the death of Miss Saeki’s lover is shown in a song she writes for him, named Kafka on the Shore, which also becomes the title of the book. There is a consistently a switching of identities concerning the protagonist which all seem linked in some way or another to Franz Kafka. He switches from 15 year-old runaway, to “Crow”, his alter-ego, to Miss Saeki’s 15-year old boyfriend (who is also named Kafka by Miss Saeki) when he enters his old quarters. In this way, Murakami ties together some of the surreal events in the book by using Franz Kafka as a continuous reference.

With the majority of the novel being set in a library, it is abundant with literary and musical references. Much like the Franz Kafka reference, Murakami uses these references a moments in the plot that draw characters together. In their isolation, the main characters are absorbed in literature, music, and art, providing a starting point for much of their conversations and relationships. In addition to the obvious Oedipial reference throughout the novel, as Kafka searches desperately for his mother and sister, however at the same time, Murakami brings references from popular culture to life, adding a surreal and oddly comical overlay to the events in the novel. In a parallel storyline, Kafka Tamura’s father, brilliant sculptor and crazed cat murderer, takes on the pseudonym of Johnnie Walker. Colonel Sanders, the KFC icon, becomes a character in the novel, a pimp that guides Nakata and Hoshino to Takamatsu and the library, merging both storylines. Truck driver Hoshino, throws away his job and uproots himself after listening to Beethoven’s Archduke Trio, while Kafka Tamura calms himself in an isolated cabin, listening to Prince on his walkman. Murakami cultivates these references similarly to the way he develops architecture in the novel; both historical and contemporary, they blur the passing of time and are devices for the character’s self exploration and identity.

 
 

LITERARY REFERENCES:

The Book of Thousand Nights and a Night, Translated by Sir Richard Francis Burton

The Banquet, by Plato

The Castle, by Franz Kafka

The Trial, by Franz Kafka

The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka

In The Penal Colony, by Franz Kafka

• Complete Works of Natsume Sōseki

The Tale Of Genji, by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, translated by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

Trial of Adolf Eichmann, (Unknown)

Macbeth, by William Shakespeare

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare

Agamemnon, by Aeschylus

The Trojan Women, by Euripides

Rhetoric, by Aristotle

Poetics, by Aristotle

Electra, by Sophocles

Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles

The Hollow Men (poem), by T. S. Eliot

Tales of Moonlight and Rain, by Ueda Akinari

Matter and Memory, by Henri Bergson

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Aladdin, Added by Antoine Galland to French translation of The Book of Thousand Nights and a Night

The Frog Prince, The Brothers Grimm

Hansel and Gretel, by The Brothers Grimm

Uncle Vanya, by Anton Chekhov

A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, by Jean Jacques Rousseau

 
 

AUTHORIAL REFERENCES:

Leo Tolstoy

Federico García Lorca

Ernest Hemingway

Charles Dickens

 
 

MUSIC REFERENCES:

Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, by The Beatles

The White Album, by The Beatles

As Time Goes By, from the movie Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)

Blonde on Blonde, by Bob Dylan

Mi chiamano Mimi, from La Bohème, by Giacomo Puccini

Sonata in D Major (known as the Gasteiner), by Franz Schubert

Crossroads, by Cream

Little Red Corvette, by Prince

Greatest Hits, by Prince

Sittin’ On The Dock of the Bay, by Otis Redding

Archduke Trio, (by Rubinstein, Heifetz and Feuermann) by Ludwig van Beethoven

First cello concerto, (solo by Pierre Fournier) by Franz Joseph Haydn

Posthorn Serenade, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Kid A, by Radiohead

My Favourite Things, by John Coltrane

Getz/Gilberto, by Stan Getz

 
 

ARTIST/COMPOSER REFERENCES:

Duke Ellington

Led Zeppelin

Schumann

Alfred Brendel

Rolling Stones

Beach Boys

Simon & Garfunkel

Stevie Wonder

Johann Sebastian Bach

Hector Berlioz

Richard Wagner

Franz Liszt

An Insistently Metaphysical Mind-Bender

 
 

海辺のカフカ (Kafka on the Shore) (海辺のカフカ) is a 2002 novel by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. In “Subconscious Tunnels: Haruki Murakami’s dreamlike new novel” (The New Yorker, January 24, 2005) John Updike described it as a “real page-turner, as well as an insistently metaphysical mind-bender”. Since its 2005 English language release (translated, from the Japanese, by Philip Gabriel), the novel has received mostly positive reviews and critical acclaim, including a spot on The New York Times 10 Best Books of 2005 and the World Fantasy Award.

Comprising two distinct but interrelated plots, the narrative runs back and forth between both plots, taking up each plot line in alternating chapters.

The odd chapters tell the 15-year-old Kafka’s story as he runs away from his father’s house to escape an Oedipal curse and to embark upon a quest to find his mother and sister. After a series of adventures, he finds shelter in a quiet, private library in Takamatsu, run by the distant and aloof Miss Saeki and the intelligent and more welcoming Oshima. There he spends his days reading the unabridged Richard Francis Burton translation of One Thousand and One Nights and the collected works of Natsume Sōseki until the police begin inquiring after him in connection with a brutal murder.

The even chapters tell Nakata’s story. Due to his uncanny abilities, he has found part-time work in his old age as a finder of lost cats (notably, Murakami’s earlier work The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle also involves searching for a lost cat). The case of one particular lost cat puts him on a path that ultimately takes him far away from his home, ending up on the road for the first time in his life. He befriends a truck driver named Hoshino, who takes him on as a passenger in his truck and soon becomes very attached to the old man.

Kafka on the Shore demonstrates Murakami’s typical blend of popular culture, mundane detail, magical realism, suspense, humor, an involved plot, and potent sexuality. It also features an increased emphasis on Japanese religious traditions, particularly Shinto. The main characters are significant departures from the typical protagonist of a Murakami novel, such as Toru Watanabe of Norwegian Wood and Toru Okada of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, who are typically in their 20s or 30s and have rather humdrum personalities. However, many of the same themes re-occur in Kafka on the Shore as were first developed in these and other previous novels.

In an interview posted on his English language website, Murakami says that the secret to understanding the novel lies in reading it several times: “Kafka on the Shore contains several riddles, but there aren’t any solutions provided. Instead, several of these riddles combine, and through their interaction the possibility of a solution takes shape. And the form this solution takes will be different for each reader. To put it another way, the riddles function as part of the solution. It’s hard to explain, but that’s the kind of novel I set out to write”.

True Blood Brothers

Max Brod and Franz Kafka, c. 1912

 
 

At the end of his first year of studies, Franz Kafka met Max Brod, a fellow law student who became a close friend for life. Brod soon noticed that, although Kafka was shy and seldom spoke, what he said was usually profound. Kafka was an avid reader throughout his life; together he and Brod read Plato‘s Protagoras in the original Greek, on Brod’s initiative, and Gustave Flaubert‘s L’éducation sentimentale (Sentimental Education) and La Tentation de St. Antoine (The Temptation of Saint Anthony) in French, at his own suggestion. Kafka considered Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Franz Grillparzer,[30] and Heinrich von Kleist to be his “true blood brothers”. Besides these, he took an interest in Czech literature and was also very fond of the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Acquaintances and Literary Influences

“I never wish to be easily defined. I’d rather float over other people’s minds as something strictly fluid and non-perceivable; more like a transparent, paradoxically iridescent creature rather than an actual person.”

Franz Kafka

 
 

 
 

A Friend of Kafka, a collection of Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories, was published in 1970 with most of the stories appearing in the previous decade. He and his readers had plenty of time to dwell on the growing feeling of alienation that came from decades of broken promises. One of the most powerful themes in these stories is the exhausting banality of life and a total feeling of rootless isolation.

The plot of A Friend of Kafka is about a bohemian amateur philosophy and former actor, Jaques Kohn, who spent his life pursuing women, drinking and otherwise living the hedonist lifestyle that his life philosophy demanded. He was an intriguing figure for the narrator who saw in him glimpses of Western Europe. “The very way he carried his silver-handled cane seemed exotic to me. He even smoked his cigarettes differently from the way we did in Warsaw.”

Supposedly, Kohn was the first to recognize Franz Kafka’s talent, and he has corresponded with other important figures: Marc Chagall, Stefan Zweig, and Martin Buber. As the narrator’s cultural guide, Kohn shows him his letters and photographs, and he even arranges for him to meet Madam Tschissik, with whom Kohn performed and whom Kafka allegedly loved.

Kohn likes to tell a story about Kafka’s failure in a brothel. His sexual reservations are the same as the reservations he had about writing. Kohn is obsessed with the idea that he is playing a game of chess with fate. “My partner wants to play a slow game. He’ll go on taking my pieces one by one. First he removed my appeal as an actor and turned me into a so-called writer. He’d no sooner done that than he provided me with writer’s cramps. His next move was to deprive me of my potency.” In short, while he finds something invigorating about the struggle, he is slowly dying. His stories of his acting career and his knowledge of Kafka are all that keeps him from total fatalism. Many if the characters in this collection are involved in same sort of slow death. No longer capable of a projectural life, they limp along, trying to find meaning in banalities, religious, hedonism, of their own delusions.

Isaac Bashevis Singer had many literary influences; besides the religious texts he studied, he grew up with a rich array of Jewish folktales and worldly Yiddish detective-stories about “Max Spitzkopf” and his assistant Fuchs. He read Russian, including Fyodor Dostoyevsky‘s Crime and Punishment at the age of fourteen. He wrote in memoirs about the importance of the Yiddish translations donated in book-crates from America, which he studied as a teenager in Bilgoraj: “I read everything: Stories, novels, plays, essays… I read Avrom Reyzen,Johan August Strindberg, Don Kaplanowitsch, Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev, Lev Tolstoy, Guy de Maupassant and Anton Chekhov.” He studied many philosophers, among them Baruch Spinoza, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Otto Weininger. Among his Yiddish contemporaries, Singer considered his older brother to be his greatest artistic example; he was also life-long friend and admirer of the author and poet Aaron Zeitlin. Singer had translated Thomas Mann‘s Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) into Yiddish as a young writer.

Kafka and Capote Side-by-Side

“The prefect evening…lying down on the couch beside the bookcase and reading himself sleepy…Jim lying opposite him at the other end of the couch, also reading; the two of them absorbed in their books yet so completely aware of each other’s presence.”

Christopher Isherwood
A Single Man

 
 

Colin Firth and Matthew Goode in A Single Man (Tom Ford, 2009)

 
 

What would it be like, the main character in Christopher Isherwood’s novel A Single Man wonders, if the dead could come back and visit the living? “At best, surely, it would be like the brief visit of an observer from another country who is permitted to peep in for a moment from the vast outdoors of his freedom and see, at a distance, through glass, this figure who sits solitary at the small table in the narrow room, eating his poached eggs humbly and dully, a prisoner for life.”

In Tom Ford‘s lovely, tragic movie version of Isherwood’s book, Colin Firth plays that “prisoner for life” — a middle-age professor who lives in a glass house near the California coast, and is yet invisible. It is 1962 and he is gay; his lover Jim (played, in flashbacks, by Matthew Goode) has died, but he may not mourn. We see glimpses of the couple in happier times — laughing on the beach, lounging companionably side-by-side on a sofa (George reading Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Jim reading Truman Capote‘s Breakfast at Tiffany’s) — in comparison with George’s stark, lonely existence now. He goes quietly through the motions of his life; it’s as if he’s fading away.

 

To watch the movie scene, please check out The Genealogy of Style’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Genealogy-of-Style/597542157001228?ref=hl

The Greatest Book of Our Time

Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001)

 
 

BRIDGET:L-ladies and…
L–
Oi!
Oi!
Sorry. The, uh…
mic’s not… work–working. Ahem.
Ladies andgentlemen…
welcome to the launch of “Kafka’s Motorbike”…
“The Greatest Book of OurTime.”
[Mild applause]
Obviously exceptfor your books, Mr. Rushdie…
which are also very good.
And Lord Archer…
yours aren’tbad, either.
[Clears throat] Anyway…
uh, what I mean is, uh…
welcome, ladies and gentlemen.
Thank you for coming to the launch of…
one of the top thirty books of ourtime.
Anyway, at least.
And here to introduce it is the man we all call…Titspervert.
Titspervert….Fitzherbert, because that…is his name.

 
 

When Helen Fielding wrote the novel Bridget Jones’s Diary, she based the character of Mark Darcy on Colin Firth‘s depiction of Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (Simon Langton, 1995). In addition to the inside-joke casting of Colin Firth as Mark Darcy, there are several other allusions to Jane Austen‘s story: Mark disparages Bridget to his mother within earshot of Bridget. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy disparages Elizabeth to his friend Mr. Bingley within earshot of Elizabeth. Daniel Cleaver lies to Bridget about a dispute between him and Mark, claiming Mark stole his fiancée; in fact, it was the other way around. In Pride and Prejudice, it’s a dispute between Mr. Wickham and Mr. Darcy, and Wickham lies about who’s at fault. The Darcy in both stories fails to disabuse the heroine’s misinformed notion until it’s almost too late. Bridget works at Pemberley Press; Mr. Darcy lives at Pemberley estate. Crispin Bonham-Carter was in both productions (his scenes were cut out of the film, although he can still be seen in the job-quitting scene and can also be seen at the Kafka book launch where Bridget asks Salman Rushdie where the toilets are – he is seen as the man on the left in the conversation). When Bridget stops at a mall to see her mother, she begins the scene by saying (in a voice over) that, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that as soon as one part of your life starts looking up, another part falls to pieces.” This is an update of the famous opening lines of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Kharma Has Caught Up With Him


Watermelon Man (Melvin Van Peebles, 1970)

 
 

Written by Herman Raucher, it tells the story of an extremely bigoted 1960’s era White insurance salesman named Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge), who wakes up one morning to find that he has become Black. As Jeff tries to come to terms with this unexplained phenomenon that has befallen him, he soon becomes the victim himself when all of his friends and neighbors suddenly shun and harass him. This puts a strain on his marriage and loyal wife Althea (Estelle Parsons) , who begins to crack under the pressure. When all medical attempts to change his skin back to his former color fail, Jeff accepts that Kharma has caught up with him. Jeff tries to see the light of being a persecuted black man in this cruel and segregated world with the help of some of some new black friends, some of whom were people he, as a white man, taunted and harassed.

The premise for the film was inspired by Franz Kafka‘s The Metamorphosis, and by John Howard Griffin‘s autobiographical Black Like Me, which is based on the true story of a white reporter who, at the height of the civil-rights movement, temporarily darkened his skin so that he could experience the realities of a black man’s life in the segregated South.

Snacks of the Great Scribblers

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

 
 

“When I sit down to work, I keep a small bowl of garlic croutons on my desk. These are little rewards for good ideas and strong lines, Pavlovian pellets to keep my spirits up. Recently, I began to wonder what fuel writers have relied on, and the answers turned out to be all over the culinary map. Walt Whitman began the day with oysters and meat, while Gustave Flaubert started off with what passed for a light breakfast in his day: eggs, vegetables, cheese or fruit, and a cup of cold chocolate. The novelist Vendela Vida told me she swears by pistachios, and Mark Kurlansky, the author of “Salt” and “Cod,” likes to write under the influence of espresso, “as black as possible.” For some writers, less is more. Lord Byron, a pioneer in fad diets as well as poetry, sipped vinegar to keep his weight down. Julia Scheeres, the author of the memoir “Jesus Land,” aims for more temporary deprivation. “When in the thick of writing I minimize food intake as much as possible,” she told me. “I find I work better when I’m a little starved.”

Wendy MacNaughton

The New York Times. Sunday Book Review, July 29, 2011

Illustrated Masterpiece of Pastiche

 
 

Kafka’s Soup is a literary pastiche in the form of a cookbook. It contains 14 recipes each written in the style of a famous author from history. As of 2007 it had been translated into 18 languages and published in 27 countries. Excerpts from the book have appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and the New York Times. Theatrical performances of the recipes have taken place in France and Canada. Kafka’s Soup is Mark Crick‘s first book. He has subsequently written two other books with similar themes; Sartre’s Sink and Machiavelli’s Lawn which are literary pastiches in the form of a DIY handbook and a gardening book respectively. Anybody who prefers their recipes to be a simple list of foolproof instructions should stay away.

Recipes include: tiramisu as made by Marcel Proust, cheese on toast by Harold Pinter, clafoutis grandmere by Virginia Woolf, chocolate cake prepared by Irvine Welsh, lamb with dill sauce by Raymond Chandler, onion tart by Geoffrey Chaucer, fenkata (rabbit stew) by Homer, boned stuffed poussins by the Marquis de Sade, mushroom risotto by John Steinbeck, tarragon eggs by Jane Austen, Vietnamese chicken by Graham Greene and Franz Kafka‘s Miso soup. Also included are recipes in the style of Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez.

Among the recipes that did not make the original edition of the book was “plum pudding à la Charles Dickens” which was written but rejected by Mark Crick for being “too long-winded”. It was, however, included in a subsequent paperback edition of the book along with two recipes, Rösti à la Thomas Mann and moules marinieres à la Italo Calvino, originally created for the German and Italian translations respectively.

Kafka’s Soup has become a cult hit. Andy Miller of The Telegraph called the recipes “note-perfect parodies of literary greats”. Emily Stokes of The Observer called it an “illustrated masterpiece of pastiche” citing the lamb with dill sauce as “particularly good”. C J Schüler wrote that Virginia Woolf’s clafoutis grandmere is the “pièce de resistance” and called the collection “irresistibly moreish”. He later called the book “a little gem of literary impersonation”. Schüler believes that “part of the book’s appeal lies in the fact that the recipes…actually work.”

 
 

 
 

Kafka’s Soup is illustrated with paintings by the author in the style of a number of famous artists including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, William Hogarth, Giorgio De Chirico, Henry Moore, Egon Schiele and Andy Warhol.

The idea for Kafka’s Soup arose during a conversation between Crick and a publisher. Crick noted his dislike for cookbooks saying that he enjoyed looking at the pictures but found the accompanying text dull. When asked what would it take for him to read beyond the ingredients list he replied “if [the text] was written by the world’s greatest authors.” The publisher liked the idea and, in Crick’s words, “she said that if I wrote it she’d publish it.”

Most of the recipes in the book are Crick’s own, although some, such as the chocolate cake, came from his friends. Crick notes the implausibility of some of his authors cooking their stated dishes (for example he states that John Steinbeck “would never have eaten [mushroom risotto]” and “I certainly accept any challenge that Kafka would not have eaten miso soup”). He says that he selected the recipes based on the ability of each dish to allow him to use the language he wished to use. Chocolate cake was selected for Irvine Welsh because “people become terribly selfish when there’s chocolate cake around, just as they do with drugs. It’s the closest many get to taking heroin.”

Crick says that he found Virginia Woolf the most difficult of the authors to write while Raymond Chandler was the easiest.

A True Adaptation

 
 

Chris Swanton was a student of German at King’s College London, where he subsequently completed a PhD. After teaching for three years at London University he moved to what was then West Germany to take up a post at the University of Wuerzburg in Bavaria. During this time he spent a fascinating summer with the Berliner Ensemble at their “Theater am Schiffbauerdamm”, studying the production techniques of Bertolt Brecht, who had introduced the concept of “das epische Theater” (the epic theatre) with its technique of “Vefremdungseffekt” (objectivisation). The legendary playwright had died some two decades earlier, but Chris was fortunate enough to meet his daughter, the actress Barbara Berg, and his son-in-law, the actor Ekkehard Schall, both members of the Berliner Ensemble.

After returning to the UK, Chris taught at a local comprehensive school, but then had a complete change of direction when he joined the the Film Department of the BBC at the legendary Ealing Studios. He remained with the BBC for 16 years, winning a BAFTA for his contribution to the acclaimed series “Edge of Darkness” and being nominated in the following year for the Falklands drama, Tumbledown. He went on to add many more screen credits to his name.

Having long been a fan of Franz Kafka and The Metamorphosis, Chris Swanton has finally succeeded in fulfilling his ambition of making a film adaptation of the iconic novella, the first full-length English-language feature film based on Kafka’s existentialist classic.

Die VerwandlungThe Metamorphosis has captured imaginations and inspired the arts since it was written in 1912 and then published in 1915, yet the novella has evaded a true adaptation until now.