“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” This is the start of Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis, which is a hundred years old this year. First published in 1915, The Metamorphosis is often cited as one of the seminal works of twentieth century fiction. The cause of Gregor’s transformation is never revealed by Kafka. Instead the novella deals with Gregor’s (and his family’s) attempts to adjust to his lowly condition.
Despite having burned much of his work during his lifetime, Kafka’s legacy is massive. Most of his writings were published after his death, thanks in large part to his friend Max Brod. Writers as diverse as Jorge Luis Borges, Thomas Mann, Albert Camus, J. M. Coetzee, William Burroughs and Samuel Beckett, were all influenced by Kafka’s remarkable fiction. Kafka’s writing has inspired the term Kafkaesque, which is used to describe instances in which people are overwhelmed by a labyrinth-like bureaucracy, evoking feelings of senselessness and disorientation.
Kafka was born into a German-speaking, middle-class, minimally-observant Jewish family in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now the Czech Republic). His Jewish upbringing was limited mostly to his bar mitzvah and going to the synagogue four times a year. Although professing to be an atheist in his teenage years, his interest in Judaism grew as he got older. While fascinated by the piety of the Hasidic Jews in eastern Europe, he felt alienated from his own Jewish tradition, once declaring that he had nothing in common with his fellow Jews. One of the difficulties was Kafka’s relationship with his domineering father (parodied in The Metamorphosis). Kafka felt that his father – and his family more generally – clung to their Jewish heritage only in a superficial way. Kafka was dismissive of western Jews who tried to integrate into gentile society. Indeed, the sporadic outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence exposed the failure of assimilation and helps to explain why so many of Kafka’s friends were interested in Zionism.
We know from his diaries and letters that from the age of twenty-eight, Kafka became increasingly interested in Jewish history, folklore and culture. Evidence of Kafka’s passion for Judaism is his strong identification with Yiddish literature and theatre. He was so impressed by a travelling Yiddish theatre company from Poland, that he delved into the history of Yiddish literature and wrote extensively in his diary about Yiddish theatre productions. Kafka was ambivalent about the Zionist project, which was still in its infancy. Although Kafka considered moving to British Palestine (he even studied Hebrew while living in Berlin), there is no evidence that Kafka ever visited the land of Israel.
While it is true that Kafka did not make overt references to Judaism in his fiction, many critics detect strong Jewish themes, although there is disagreement about the extent to which Judaism influenced his novels and stories. But according to Lothar Kahn, “the presence of Jewishness in Kafka’s oeuvre is no longer subject to doubt.” And in the words of Harold Bloom, “despite all his denials and beautiful evasions, Kafka’s writing quite simply is Jewish writing.” Some scholars speculate that some of Kafka’s works are allegories for larger Jewish issues. Karl Erich Grözinger believes there is a connection between Kafka’s writing and the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. “Whenever Kafka speaks in them of judgment, sin, atonement and justification,” says Grözinger, “he is working from the direct context of a Jewish theology.”
Indeed, it has been argued by some critics that The Metamorphosis is a modern (and ironic) midrashon the binding of Isaac from Genesis 22. The binding of Isaac is the Torah portion that most people relate with Rosh Hashanah and reference to this story appears throughout the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. Whereas Isaac is substituted by a ram caught in the thicket, Gregor (the anti-hero of The Metamorphosis) is turned into a gigantic insect or “monstrous vermin” – an unclean animal not suited for sacrifice. (Monstrous vermin is the literal translation of Kafka’s original German, ungeheueren Ungeziefer.) If Isaac is disqualified for sacrifice because he is more precious in G-d’s eyes than the ram, Gregor is unfit for sacrifice because as an insect he is lower down the chain of being. Whereas Isaac is saved (much to his father’s relief), Gregor the insect is left to die, and upon discovering he is dead, the family feels a great sense of release.
Darwinism, which in its fascist guise was to have catastrophic consequences for Europe’s Jews, plays a part in the thematic thread running through The Metamorphosis. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, human differences were described in racial or biological terms. Jews in particular were depicted as inferior, as other. And what could be more inferior or other than an insect? Gregor’s transformation into “monstrous vermin” mirrors the anti-Semitic tendency to reduce Jews to some kind of specimen that could be killed off. Gregor is the embodiment of this perceived racial inferiority, and his death is a pointless and meaningless event, not at all sacrificial.
Sometimes referred to as the prophet of Prague because of his uncanny sense of impending totalitarianism, Kafka predicts the anti-Semitic discourses that would dominate politics in early twentieth century Europe – the Jew as vermin, the Jew as insect, the Jew as occupying a lower place in the chain of being. Likewise, in his dark novel The Trial (which was published ninety years ago), the protagonist Josef K is arrested and eventually murdered for a crime that is never specified. His guilt is apparently existential : the fact of his being is anathema to the authorities who, in real life, would impute the same existential guilt onto the Jews of Europe.
Kafka didn’t live long enough to see the murderous destruction wrought by the Nazis. Kafka died in 1924 (aged forty) of starvation brought on by laryngeal tuberculosis, which affected his ability to swallow. (His remains are buried alongside his parent’s under an obelisk in Prague’s New Jewish Cemetery.) But his fellow Jews in Prague were even more unlucky. They died in their thousands in the gas chambers and concentration camps of Europe, thereby bringing an end to ten centuries of Jewish life in Prague. The historical sources are confused, but it seems that Kafka’s three sisters were killed in the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto in 1944 or perished in the Nazi concentration camps, possibly Auschwitz.
Kafka’s works of fiction, while not explicitly Jewish, do seem to capture the existential questions facing Jews in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. Questions of identity, guilt, authoritarianism and ideology all play significant roles in works such as The Metamorphosis and The Trial. The fact that Kafka managed to capture the spirit of the times – despite dying before the inception of Nazism and Stalinism – is a remarkable testament to a man who was able to prophesy what it is like to be trapped inside a system that ultimately kills you.