European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

18 August 2015

Kafka’s Menagerie

One of the exhibits in our current Animal Tales exhibition is a translation of Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (Metamorphosis) illustrated by Bill Bragg. In what is probably Kafka’s best-known work, travelling salesman Gregor Samsa wakes one morning to find himself transformed into – well, it’s never made quite clear. The German text initially refers to an ‘ungeheures Ungeziefer’, literally  ‘monstrous vermin’, and the description of Gregor’s transformed body definitely suggests some kind of insect. English translators sometimes refer to a ‘cockroach’ and illustrators tend to depict a beetle of some kind, although Kafka himself apparently vetoed any idea of showing an actual insect on the cover of an early edition.

Cover of 'Die Verwandlung' ('Metamorphosis') from 1916, showing a man recoiling in horror from an open doorThe (insect-free) cover illustration from the 1916 edition of Die Verwandlung (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

If Gregor Samsa is the most famous ‘animal’ in Kafka’s work, he is not the only one. Indeed, Kafka’s stories contain a veritable menagerie of creatures, and Gregor’s is not the only case where metamorphosis plays a role. Ein Bericht für eine Akademie (A Report to an Academy), for example, is narrated by an ape who, having been captured by a hunting expedition, began learning to imitate his captors, continuing this ‘education’ as part of a music-hall act. He now considers that he has left ape-hood behind and become to all intents and purposes human.  In the short piece ‘Eine Kreuzung ‘ (‘A Crossbreed’) the narrator possesses a creature which is part lamb, part kitten, the kitten-like characteristics having increased since he inherited the beast from his father.

An uncertainty about the species depicted in Kafka’s animal stories is also a recurrent theme. The fragment  ‘In unserer Synagoge’ (‘In our Synagogue’) features a strange marten-like creature with blue-green fur which lives in the synagogue of a dwindling Jewish community, while in Der Bau (The Burrow) an unspecified tunnelling animal becomes obsessed with securing its elaborate burrow against a supposed enemy or predator. 

  Photograph of Franz Kafka with a dog which has moved and become blurred during the shot
Franz Kafka with (appropriately blurred and undefined?) dog, 1905. Reproduced in Klaus Wagenbach, Franz Kafka in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten (Reinbek, 1965) British Libray X.908/8786

Like Ein Bericht für eine Akademie, Der Bau is narrated by its animal protagonist. The same device is used in Forschungen eines Hundes (Investigations of a Dog), where a dog tries to make sense of the world around it but is hampered by its inability to recognise the presence and influence of humans in its own life and those of other dogs. Another animal narrator is found in Josefine die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse (Josephine the Singer or the Mouse People), although here uncertainty creeps in again: only the story’s title makes a clear reference to mice, and without it we would not be able to clearly identify the community described as any particular species or type, animal or human.

Although we often associate animal stories with children, Kafka’s works are not generally seen as suitable childhood reading.  So I was surprised to come across a book called My First Kafka which retells three of his stories, including Metamorphosis and Josephine... in simplified versions and language, with striking and intriguingly detailed black-and-white illustrations. Kafka for the kiddies? Surely not! But the stories work surprisingly well in this format and the retellings do not talk down and do not shy away from Gregor’s death or Josephine’s disappearance.

Cover of 'My First Kafka' showing a large, patterned beetle wearing a pair of shoes
Cover of My First Kafka (Illustration © Rohan Daniel Eason, reproduced by kind permission of One Peace Books)

The book seems to recognise that, while adult readers may come to Kafka’s works primed to do anything but take them at face value, a child can read them simply as animal tales, as many have similarly done with Orwell’s Animal Farm, only understanding any deeper meaning in later years.  I saw a hint of this childish approach when walking round the exhibition: a little girl, held up in her father’s arms, was pointing and chuckling delightedly at the picture of Gregor-as-bug lying in his bed. Perhaps in 15 years’ time she’ll be a student of German, reading themes of alienation and family conflict into Die Verwandlung. But perhaps she’ll remember it simply as a strange nonsense tale of a man turned into an insect – and who knows which approach Kafka would have preferred?

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

References/further reading:

Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis and Other Stories, translated by Michael Hofmann ; introduced by Will Self ; illustrated by Bill Bragg. (London, 2010) Nov.2011/1170  [The edition displayed in ‘Animal Tales’]

My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents, & Giant Bugs, retold by Matthue Roth, illustrated by Daniel Eason (Long Island City, NY, 2013) YD.2015.b.127

Richard T. Gray [et al.], A Franz Kafka Encyclopedia (Westport, Conn., 2005) m07/.28338

Kafka’s Creatures: Animals, Hybrids, and other Fantastic Beings, edited by Marc Lucht and Donna Yarri  (Lanham, Md., 2010) m10/.21890

‘Kafka’s Metamorphosis: 100 thoughts for 100 years’, The Guardian, 18 July 2015


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