Very few writers lend themselves to being covered ... in the pop music sense of the word. The idea seems almost contradictory: How, after all, are we to rework a poem or a story, give it an interpretive spin?
And yet, there is always Franz Kafka, whose writing continues to provide not just inspiration but also source material for a wide array of work. This week, I've encountered two such projects: David Zain Mairowitz and Jaromir 99's graphic novel of "The Castle" (SelfMadeHero: 144 pp., $19.95 paper) and Haruki Murakami's New Yorker story "Samsa in Love."
Of the two, "The Castle" is the more straightforward, a faithful adaptation of the novel that, like "The Trial" and "Amerika," Kafka left unfinished when he died in 1924. The story of a land surveyor brought to a village ruled by the inhabitants of a mysterious castle, it is a book about bureaucracy, about control and capitulation, in which pretty much every character is waiting for instructions that never come.
It's tempting to read this as a metaphor for the nameless, faceless state of 20th (and 21st) century mass culture, and certainly, some of the images reflect that intention: rows of clerks scouring over documents, a full page depicting carriages in the village streets. "There are several roads leading to the Castle," Kafka tells us. "One day, one will be favoured, the next perhaps another. We don't know the rules governing these choices."
At the same time, it's too simple, too reductive, to read this in symbolic terms alone, for Kafka was tracing the architecture of his own interior world. A bureaucrat himself (he made his living at the Workman's Accident Insurance Institute in Prague), he knew such systems from the inside, and the alienation he describes in the novel is nothing if not real.
The same might be said of his masterpiece "The Metamorphosis," which I've always read as a work of naturalism, despite the opening conceit, in which a salesman named Gregor Samsa awakens from uneasy dreams to find that he has been transformed in his sleep into a monstrous bug.
It may seem a leap, but this is really the only extraordinary element in the story. Everything else — his family’s reaction to Gregor’s affliction, his own slow distancing from the human world — is wholly believable. Again, I’d suggest, Kafka is tracing the inner life, the landscape of Gregor’s emotions. There is nothing unnatural about his transformation into a vermin because he has always thought of himself as one.
Murakami's story offers an interesting twist on Gregor's situation. It begins, "He woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa." What he was before is never stated, although there are clues — the boarded up windows of his room, the absence of his family — that indicate this is the story of Gregor's turning back into a man.
Either way, he must wrestle with the rigors of the human body, just as Kafka's Gregor had to acclimate to his insect form. "As a first step," Murakami writes, "he tried to move his fingers. There were ten of them, long things affixed to his two hands. Each was equipped with a number of joints, which made synchronizing their movements very complicated. To make matters worse, his body felt numb, as though it were immersed in a sticky, heavy liquid, so that it was difficult to send strength to his extremities."
"The Metamorphosis" has been the source of many adaptations, or let's call them covers, beginning with Philip Roth's 1972 novella "The Breast." There's also Peter Kuper's brilliant comics version of the story, which came out a decade ago, as well as the retelling that appears in the graphic biography "Kafka," a collaboration by Mairowitz and R. Crumb.
In that sense, "Samsa in Love" is part of a lineage, going back to the original publication of "The Metamorphosis" in 1915 and extending up to (and beyond?) the present day.
Why does "The Metamorphosis" continue to compel us? Because the life it traces could belong to anyone. This is its great appeal, its universality, and the reason, I'd suggest, that it continued to be covered — "The world was waiting for him to learn," Murakami insists — to be reinterpreted and reworked.