As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a giant insect.
My sister's best friend lived on Franz-Kafka-Strasse. It's a little street, more like an alley, that runs between apartment buildings in an American army enclave in Frankfurt-am-Main. I'm sure that wasn't the name of that street before 1945, since those same buildings once housed offices of the Third Reich, and it seems beyond unlikely that such a street would have been named after a Jewish writer then.
It's a very strange thing, to live in former Nazi offices. Those guys really believed their own hype; they built to last, as if for a thousand-year empire. Eisenhower, it is said, looked over the aerial photographs of Frankfurt, decided which of the Nazi buildings he would want for his headquarters, and ordered that the rest should be razed. Some of Eisenhower's choices were pragmatic, others symbolic. Many of the streets that run through the territory he claimed are named in honor of people and traditions Hitler tried to erase. There's something sublime in that.
But then, there's something unavoidably ridiculous about living in an apartment building on Franz-Kafka-Strasse. People just can't stop making cockroach jokes.
My Awful Confession: I didn't get around to reading Kafka's The Metamorphosis until I was thirty-six. Here in New Jersey, it's usually a required text in the high schools, so my students were always shocked when I admitted that I hadn't got around to reading it. They're still of an age to mistake the list of approved books in their district for some sort of ageless, universal canon, which is fine. That means we get to talk about the concept of canon, and my students like being able to put a name to that nebulous force.
Why did it take me so long to get around to reading something I knew I was going to like? Something, moreover, that I was always secretly ashamed of not already having read?
Through all the many years I was a student, I was an obsessive reader rather than a broad one. For some reason, when I was in my teens, I felt a burning need to read the script for Dylan Thomas's radio play Under Milk Wood six times. I read all of Italo Calvino, though I was too young to have any idea what Calvino was trying to accomplish. In a fit of folly I spent years detoxifying from, I memorized half of Sylvia Plath's last volume of poems. And of course there were the fantasy and science fiction novels, which I swallowed whole and in great numbers. I had some kind of fixation on Harlan Ellison. In college, I would fall in love with various poetic forms. In love, like a stalker falls in love. One summer I read nothing but sonnets. To this day, I sometimes get stuck in accidental iambic pentameter. It's sort of like having the hiccups. And then, there was the long obsession with H.D.
Kafka didn't engage the obsession engine, and it wasn't until my escape from academia that I started reading like a generalist. When I say I'm a credentialed ignoramus, that's what I mean.
It was a perfect summer afternoon in the Adirondacks. My father's family had gathered for the annual reunion at the old homestead. Hummingbirds hovered over my grandmother's garden, and the river sang its usual bombastic song about rocks. Huddled around the smoker, my grandfather and uncles assessed my father's technique with the pork ribs. The air was full of cricketsong. Earwigs investigated the tents. Katydids hung from the undersides of branches. All was right with the world.
My mother's cell phone rang. It was her sister calling. Now, my mother and the younger of her sisters survived an upbringing that might best be described as Kafkaesque. When bad things happen, it can be hard for them to get back up, so we worry over unexpected calls.
"Are you all right?" said my mother.
"I'm just calling to remind you that it's Kafka's birthday," said my aunt. "You wouldn't want to be the only one in town without an insect costume."
In his fictional short story The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka uses a unreliable narrator to talk about how Gregor Samsa feels like a insignificant bug. (This is an intriguing idea. Now, tell me what you'd need to change about "fictional short story." Yes. And what do you remember from last week about indefinite articles? Okay, where do you need to fix your indefinite articles? Good.)
I assigned two of my favorite students, the ADD Brothers, a paper on The Metamorphosis. The older one argued that Kafka intended us to interpret Gregor Samsa's condition as a delusion brought on by overwork and disrespect from his family. Um, not quite, but there was a working relationship between evidence and argument, so I did the dance of joy anyway. I'd asked the boys to think about what it really meant, in Kafka's world, to be monstrous. They both caught on right away, with no prompting from me, that Gregor is the least monstrous character in the text. Not bad, for a couple of junior high kids.
The younger brother had a more conventional take on Kafka, right up until he started to imagine the kind of happy ending that one might expect to see on an old episode of The Phil Donahue Show.
If only Gregor's family could of accepted him as he was, he could of been a happy insect. (Believe it or not, you just imagined something Kafka could never have dreamed of. Cool. Now, what's the problem with that "could of" construction? Right. And what's the name for the job that "have" would be doing in "could have been"? Very good. Now write in the fix.)
I was about as old as the ADD Brothers when George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone" was all over the radio. It's one of those songs everyone loves to parody. What geek can forget the translation into Klingon, and how much (and how little) changed the song was, backtranslated from Klingon to English? But I think my favorite goofy misappropriation of Thorogood is one that, until now, has probably not debuted on the internet.
A boy I knew in summer camp--it was a very geeky summer camp--did a talent show routine, rewriting "Bad to the Bone" as a verse rendering of "The Metamorphosis." All I can remember is the beginning, because once Rich really got going, we were laughing too hard to keep up.
I woke up this morning
And I was a bug
And I was a bug
The crunching electric guitars and bordello saxophones are left as an exercise for the reader's imagination.