a close up of a brown beetle, top down on a black background, with hairy arms outstretched upwards

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Insekt or large verminous thing

Around dusk one evening in March, I went out back to the small garage, and switched on my small square of artificial light at my desk, my window in which I now mostly speak to the outside world, in order to give a lecture on Franz Kafka’s story The Metamorphosis. I was not feeling well, in fact I had occasional spasms in my abdomen, perhaps a bladder infection, and I was exhausted and rundown, but still I had prepared as best as I could to give the lecture. I had spent the previous day, when I was not teaching, on the couch where I spend most of my time, taking pleasure in slowly rereading the story, hunched over my laptop, trying to figure out how to break it up into sections, while also nursing the small child, who has taken to, almost gleefully, stomping on my abdomen with her bare feet while we are lying down. The bladder infection, if that’s what it is, for the pain often travels mysteriously through my body, other times an ache in my breast, or a soreness in my hip, has been most likely caused by having to urinate while the baby sleeps on me, and I continue in this way, so as to squeeze any time available for more work, so as not to wake her. This also happens during the hours I am teaching class and in conference with students, almost all in my domestic space when I am also taking care of the child, sometimes plural, children, when my eldest is home from kindergarten, and throughout these labours rarely do I ever take a break to relieve my own body, and now what’s happened is I have the urge all the time, and very little comes out. Sometimes lately this body feels so deconstructed that I’m unsure how even to describe it, or assemble it again, in order to move about the world, like a piece of wobbly furniture where all of the instructions are in a foreign language. If it was at all appropriate to speak of my own body during the lecture, even more disembodied through the screen, this might have been a fitting entry point into thinking about Kafka’s story, the twinges, sensitivities and aches of the new monstrous form of the very recently former travelling salesman, due to an increasing number of injuries he sustained by attempting to rhythmically rock himself out of bed, move about the room, open his door, and by others, such as the father’s kicks, stomps, battery with a cane, and being pummelled with multiple apples, one of which becomes lodged in his shell. At the beginning of the lecture, still feeling hopeful that this was going to be a success, I asked the students to draw what they thought Gregor Samsa looked like, after, or during, his transformation, and then asked for volunteers, who were, as usual, difficult to elicit. One student eventually volunteered, at my grinning supplication, that she thought that Samsa’s shell might be hard, and I alighted on this detail, ah, I said, yes, at the very beginning, he is described as laying on his back as if it was armour, this is the moment of body horror, he was used to sleeping on his right side, but no matter how much he exerted himself he found himself on his back, the multiplicity of his legs waving in the air, a new vibration he was attempting to understand, so surely he had some sort of exoskeleton, but it was vulnerable, as we would see, to abuse. But regardless, this was a trick, asking them to draw Gregor Samsa, as this was meant to be a mystery through the text, Kafka himself insisted that the insect not be drawn on the cover when the novella was published – Insekt, he called it, in the German, in a letter to his editor in 1915 – although writer and entomologist Vladimir Nabokov, when preparing his own lecture on the story, which he gave in 1953 at Cornell University, where a young Thomas Pynchon was in attendance, drew it anyway, from the front and from the side, and concluded it was obviously a three foot long beetle, not a cockroach, as one translation insists, despite being brown, nor a bedbug, the bug here was obviously convex, for one, as shown by how the bedsheets slid off him. I joked to my students, who were completely silent, as they were on mute, that I wished that I had shown up to class wearing a large bug costume, and then not said anything about what I was wearing the entire time, a joke that received a few silent laughs, or at least looks of a congenial pity. The phrase that Kakfa uses, in that malleable opening line, in which Gregor Samsa awakens in his bed and realises he has transformed, includes two negations – ‘Ungeheuren Ungeziefer’ – that have no literal English translation, as one of his translators, Susan Bernofsky, notes. The loose translation is of an enormous and monstrous unclean verminous thing (‘monstrous insect’, she translates), as with Kafka’s other animal stories, it’s merely suggestive, Bernofsky notes that Kafka intended imprecision, and avoided specificity, in order to have a sense of disorientation for the reader, of blurred perception, just as Gregor Samsa himself experiences, as he comes to, in bed, and begins to understand the changed state in which he’s found himself. He’s still a person, or he thinks he is, still thinks he’s in a dream space, in bed, looking out the window, at the drab weather outside. But he’s not a person, he’s too overworked, he has worked himself to death, indentured to his hideous parents’ debts, and his body refuses to let him move, he transforms himself out of shame. It is a physical pain for him, to stay in bed, and a physicalised sense of dread, of sleeping late, of sleeping past his 4 a.m. alarm clock and his train, of missing work and being penalised, it’s already 6 a.m., and then 7 a.m., it’s impossible, that this has happened, but also impossible, the idea of getting out of bed, physically impossible, but also the quitting urge is so strong within him that it’s become grotesquely somatized. What I didn’t tell my students, as I attempted to set the scene for them, to conjure up the room-time of Gregor Samsa, versus the outside-time, is that day I too attempted to call in sick for this same early evening lecture, although obviously I was not allowed to call in sick, as there I was attempting to deliver it, despite not feeling my best, although it was most likely exhaustion, all I would need, I thought to myself again and again, is a good night’s sleep, one night’s sleep, to sleep in, maybe one day off, and then I would be fine, ready to face the world again. That day I had written to human resources to ask whether guest faculty were allowed to have sick days. ‘Guest faculty’, which has been my designation for nearly nine years, even though I am currently teaching a full-time schedule this year at the college, despite not having full-time benefits. I received a rather roundabout email, that she was very sorry to hear how I was feeling, technically guest faculty do accrue sick leave under the state’s sick leave policy, but it’s fairly limited, she wrote to me, and used primarily for medical appointments and procedures that are planned in advance. It was difficult for her to comment on the curricular side, whether you can cancel a class without having a substitute arranged, you will have to reach out to your dean for guidance, generally a faculty member will reschedule, but if they absolutely need to, for some unforeseen reason, you do have the option of sick leave, if the class cannot be rescheduled. Like so many bureaucratic communications, the logic was so circular it was difficult to parse actually what was being said. This was the same human resources individual who I had spoken with when at the college and pregnant with my first child, now more than five years ago, who seemed disturbed by my asking whether I was entitled to any leave, since the baby was going to be born towards the end of the semester, and then during a subsequent phone call told me that technically guest faculty did not receive maternity leave. Later my department head told me I could take one or two weeks off ‘under the table’ provided I didn’t say anything to human resources, which necessitated that I then began to avoid her calls asking me when I was due to deliver and whether I knew what I was planning to do. This time around, giving birth during the pandemic, I didn’t even tell them that I wanted leave, even though they knew I was pregnant, knowing that this would be met with suspicion, and in fact arranged to be induced one week early, because I was told it would be extremely inconvenient if I was to miss any of the early meetings with students. Because I was teaching over a screen, I was able to hide how sore and uncomfortable I was, bleeding while sitting on the couch, buffeted by pillows, and was able in fact to be seen only as a floating speaking head. I learned I was not supposed to have a body, and for them, I tried not to have one. This was more easily accomplished over the screen, because they could not see my body, or see if it was sore or in pain. With this new technology, I’ve realised lately, we will never be given an excuse to call in sick again. Even when we are sick, or recovering, we are expected to work, and by we I mean those of us who are considered guests and otherwise adjunct, not the tenured faculty who seem to take time off, and frequently cancel classes without making them up, and have maternity leave, and in fact have sabbaticals in which they take semesters or even years off in order to write or not write their books. What was remote were our bodies, our vulnerable health, often related to our precarious status at these institutions, and what the material conditions of our lives were like, all of which we were supposed to hide from view. Obviously I was not able to bring up to the students this communication with human resources or my later correspondence with the dean, that afternoon, but if I had, I daresay it could have contributed to a deeper understanding of Kafka’s story of overwork and alienation. I also couldn’t point out the weird resonances of the dean, a Nabokov scholar who focused on an ecocritical reading of his work, sprawling lawns of American suburbia etc., writing me a crisp yet seemingly upbeat letter to the effect that she also didn’t know what to tell me, in the academy, she wrote, we did not take ‘sick days’, she made sure to include the quotations, as if it was not an actual phenomenon, it’s just not how it works, in the academy, or for that matter, she wrote, for your purposes in the creative arts, we have so much flexibility in what we do, she wrote me, that people tend to shift things around. However, she wrote, if it was a case of a colleague having surgery, then no questions asked, we would find a substitute, something to that effect. She wrote me this without having any previous memory of my two pregnancies since she had served as dean, and our communications about it then, and how that courtesy was never extended to me, most likely because she did not consider me a colleague, nor, for that matter, a member of the academy, except for this purpose, that of not having sick leave. I was unsure exactly what she meant about how much flexibility we had, what she meant by both ‘we’ and ‘flexibility’, as every day, really every hour, was accounted for, with other teaching at other places and work, and the obligations of childcare, one for a small child who was home, and another just at kindergarten, and if I had to reschedule, that would just account for more stress, as my summer which I needed to do other forms of work, such as writing, which was supposed to be my primary profession, and childcare, with both children now home from school, then would get chiselled away. I knew that she was the middle management of higher education that Mark Fisher writes about in Capitalist Realism, a pretence of a community that was actually more disciplinary than caring or supportive, and knew that if I pressed on this at all I would just make myself seem somehow suspicious, or lazy, or not someone who was a team player, and so I wrote to her, a single email, ‘I will work through it!!!’, with triple exclamation points, cheery in the face of her officiousness that masqueraded as camaraderie or, perhaps, wisdom from a mentor. I realised that this meant that the fact of my not feeling well, or feeling rundown, was rendered actually impossible, and perhaps then my pain was just fictional, and I could ignore it, and it would then go away. There was something in the tone of her email, and my immediate response to it, that reminded me of the moment in Kafka’s story, when the chief clerk comes to the front door at the extremely truant time of 7 a.m., an antic hour of silent physical theatre having passed, and our stomachs turn, in recognition, at the way his voice goes from cheery to officious to explicitly threatening, while standing outside of Gregor Samsa’s bedroom door, in response to what everyone else in that home sees as Gregor Samsa’s non-response, because it’s functionally impossible for him to answer, either because his voice could no longer be detected as human, or because he’s afraid of being outed as no longer human, it’s difficult to say, he attempted to say something before, and the voice came out squeaking, distorted, and that is part of the drama of the opening first part of the story – how much do the three of the family, standing outside of the door, hear him, or understand him, how much is that even possible? Here, at the incoming presence of the chief clerk, who represents the institutions of capitalism, a father figure even more explicitly villainous than the actual father in the story, the family becomes, not animal, but servile, as shown through their voices, the mother and father’s overlapping each other, whispering at first, standing outside of their son’s door, the clerk approaching, wishing him at first a good morning, cheerily, all of these disembodied voices in syncopation, experienced by Gregor Samsa inside the room, the cheery and officious, the boomingly paternalistic, the high-pitched maternal, the sister’s whisper and sob, his own strange and muffled, the parents interjecting with speeches of panic and reassurances, meant for the chief clerk, not for their son. He’s not feeling well, the mother says, and the father cuts her off, with a monologue, addressed to father capitalism, all his son does is work, he says to the chief clerk, he lives for his work, he lives and breathes his work, he doesn’t go out, he sits at his table and reads his railway timetable or does a little woodwork, his only hobby, he made a picture frame over the last few days, this is the same table in his room that Gregor Samsa regards at the opening, covered with fabric samples, as well as the picture frame on his wall with the woman wearing a fur hat and muff, an advertisement clipped from a magazine, rereading it I am struck by the sensuous textures of this opening, symbolising his life before, also the melancholy way he now looks out the window, at the drab weather outside, as he does throughout the story, even pushing his armchair over to the window in order to look out, to the leafy street of Charlottenstrasse, the hospital across the way. You must imagine, I did say to my students, speaking through my window, the light changed to darkness outside, the writer, Franz Kafka, performing these voices with their different squeaks and tenors to a laughing group of his friends in his living room, how he would do the voice of the chief clerk, terrifying in his officiousness, in response to the mother pleading that her son just wasn’t feeling up to par. ‘I hope you’re right madam’, he says, in Michael Hoffman’s translation, ‘I only hope it’s nothing serious. Though again I have to say – unhappily or otherwise – we business people often find ourselves in the position of having to set aside some minor ailment, in the greater interest of our work.’ How the chief clerk pretends to care about Gregor Samsa – but no one cares about Gregor Samsa – and modulates quite quickly from cheery condescension, also terrifying, to a hostile yet paternalistic scold – ‘Mr. Samsa, what’s the matter? You’ve barricaded yourself into your room, you give us one-word answers, you cause your parents grave and needless anxiety, and – this is just by the by – you’re neglecting your official duties in a quite unconscionable way.’ ‘You seem set’, he says to his employee, quivering behind the door, ‘on indulging a bizarre array of moods.’ Perhaps he has missed the train because he has stolen money from the firm, perhaps, and he really hates to say this in front of his parents, but his performance, as late, has been extremely unsatisfactory, he realises Christmas is not a good time for sales, but there’s never, he says, a good time for no sales. When laying on the couch, preparing for this lecture, I began to wonder again what it would have been like to hear Kafka himself perform these parts, surely he would have gotten the most pleasure squeezing the obnoxiousness from the tonalities of the chief clerk – they exist entirely as disembodied voices, Gregor Samsa’s room is a highly attuned earpiece, much like, well yes, a cockroach, that can hear you coming from another room. At some point I began to switch from reading for the lecture to trying to find a recording of his voice, of which I had heard rumours, first in the first half of a JSTOR article I skimmed through on the squeaking voices of Kafka’s animals, and their relationship to Blanchot reading Kafka on silence. It appears, at least from the article, that recording devices were sophisticated enough at the time, especially the devices available for Kafka at his workplace, the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bavaria, for one of his readings to have been recorded, and more so, his girlfriend Felice Bauer worked in the Berlin offices of the Swedish inventor Carl Lindström, where she was supposed to market the parlograph, a dictation machine used in offices to dictate letters. Even though Kafka averred to Felice his phobia for such technology, apparently for a goof over the Christmas holidays she was able to smuggle one home for him and his friends, including the Brod brothers, Otto and Max, to play around with, sliding the wax roll into the parlograph in order to make a recording, which then converts the sound vibrations to scratches that could be played back, and he allegedly practiced some of the choral machinations that were in the story he was finishing that December, which gives the opening part of The Metamorphosis that desperate energy of a Christmas mood, even though, or even perhaps because, he didn’t celebrate the holiday. There is a compressed file that I found on a deep subreddit on everything about the Prague author, r/stainlessquiet, that professes to be a scratchy minute of reading which I clicked on and listened to – I cannot understand German, although, I believe, I know when that is the language being spoken. I’m not sure exactly what I was listening to, it didn’t appear to be German, but a series of squeaks followed by silences and then irrepressible laughter. I was unsure whether this apparently found recording was a hoax, or if this was how Kafka interpreted the noises that poor Gregor Samsa emitted when in a panic, realising he was in danger of disciplinary action, and violently hurrying out of bed, but not realising that his new body wasn’t the same instrument he had used to produce human voices, the perversity of his horrible sounds being that he loved and craved music, specifically his sister Grete’s violin, which stirs him to the point of exposure, he cannot even bear it, and finally, real banishment and death, one March evening, the same time of year that it was now, as I was preparing for and then giving this lecture. But it is left up to interpretation when Gregor Samsa answers ‘No’, to his father asking if they can open the door to the chief clerk, punctuated by his sister’s sobs behind the door on the other side, whether the humans listening to him can hear that ‘No’ or heard something like an awful silence. The chief clerk states in the escalating monologue that follows that his errant employee is only giving one-word answers, so apparently that ‘No’ was transmitted, but more like the scratching sound that appears on the recording, perhaps that was the author’s, or some copycat’s, painful yet hilarious interpretation, a ‘No’ that felt like a cockroach’s chirp or hiss, although it would then matter whether Kafka felt that Gregor Samsa was actually speaking words, and that his functions had deteriorated, the question of how close his animal voices are to his voice. I wished when I was transmitting to my Zoom lecture to bored or expectant faces, when their faces were shown to me, I could communicate to them how my own tone changed over email, at the implicit and passive assertions of my dean, how it took on a different vibration, at this non-recognition, became cheery in my desperation, meant to make clear how punctual I will always be, what a good worker I was, although I never would have communicated this to them, out of shame as to what I could turn into, out of my constant fear of precarity, assuring the dean that I will work through it!!! followed by three unctuous exclamation points, as if to underscore, that ha ha ha, no biggie, after all, I understood, that – unhappily or otherwise – we in the academy, for I was certainly as well a member, however untenured, sometimes have to work through such minor ailments for the overall good of The Work. When I hit reply, I received a vacation email that her break had just started, as it was spring break for the college beginning that Friday. The stress at even the prospect of losing this position vibrated throughout my body, the absurdity of my current condition, that I need to teach to pay for the studio that we rent for an outlandish price out back, that previously stored our landlord’s carpentry equipment, the idea was that I would use this space, more like a dark cave, in order to write, but I don’t have time to write, all I do is go inside, switch on the light and teach, to mostly darkened screens with their video cameras turned off, so that often I felt like I was speaking to myself alone within a shadowy room. Maybe it made sense that their middle-aged professor, who was often sweating, unprepared, and seemed glazed with exhaustion, would identify more with Gregor Samsa’s struggles than their own, maybe they were only a couple years away from feeling trapped within capitalism, and could pretend that this would not be their future, or maybe they were privileged to know that there wasn’t an imminent need to support a family based on their income, which could go away at any second. I began performing, as I tended to do over Zoom, in an attempt to elicit their attention, Kafka’s obsequious monologue, his panic attack protestations, we can imagine a chattering, even high-pitched tone correct and servile like out of a story by Robert Walser. You must understand, I said to them, the effect of the chief clerk’s presence on his nervous system, the fight and flight response catalysed by his increasingly unsubtle threats, an extreme excitement that causes him to ricochet himself out of bed, and begin to plead to this middle manager with a monologue of invocations and apologies. I tried to sound out for them the rhythms of this interlude, the awful, totalising silence that results after Gregor Samsa attempts to speak, that makes it clear that he cannot be understood, that he has become increasingly incomprehensible. ‘“That was the voice of an animal,” said the chief clerk, strikingly much more quiet than his mother’s screaming.’ The commotion that results, Gregor Samsa damaging his body with his exertions attempting to unlock the door with his newly powerful mandibles, almost losing consciousness attempting to turn the key, the brown liquid dribbling out of him, the stickiness of this language, the commotion, the convulsion at this monstrous sighting, something like slapstick or farce if it wasn’t so terrible. The sad sight of the son, always away travelling, finally seeing the bright light of the day, the father at leisure eating breakfast and perusing newspapers for hours, sputtering out a lengthy monologue of work-ese, speaking corporate language, already absurd, that Kafka renders more absurd with an unrecognisable squeak, I am unsure but I believe this is the section being performed in the recording, something about the frantic pace of the voice speaking, that sounds like a creature scratching or hissing, it’s impossible to decipher, except something of the frequency. But just as I’m acting out, in my way, the different voices in this family tragedy as well as farce, I realise, suddenly, that my students haven’t been able to hear anything I’ve said, possibly since the chief clerk’s entrance, possibly even earlier, and that the sound has gone in and out of the lecture. Can anyone hear me, I said, and when they didn’t respond, I began to slightly panic, and I began to stare at all of their faces, realising I was unable to tell, in general, whether they are frozen or whether they are just not responding at all, thinking perhaps I could see one student blink, but I couldn’t be certain. Finally, someone in the chat let me know they could now hear me, in and out, but they couldn’t see me, a predicament, I realised, which seemed to be reenacting what happens in part one of The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa not knowing whether he was being comprehended, and often, met with silence, or non-response, and then later, the absence of any direct human address at all. I began the lecture again, and it seemed, at least, that it was working, until they froze again, or I froze, and this became the unrelenting rhythm of a tortured monologue, which again, I later thought, mirrored Kafka’s story, perhaps the only way to give a lecture on it was to deliver it completely mute, or with my face distorted, unrecognisable. I was sitting there, in a room gone completely dark except for my square of bright artificial light, increasingly paranoid that no one could hear me at all, and receiving almost no reassurances from the students, as I began to try to lead them into the second part, what Nabokov calls the drama of duration, in which Gregor Samsa increasingly loses his memories of the outside world, his appetite as well as his vision, finding in the window that he still sits at a view that was becoming dark and blurry, my computer kept telling me that my connection was unstable. At some point, I kept on being kicked out of the room, and, stressed out, sweating, like the man running from the room that was the first cover illustration used for The Metamorphosis, as opposed to the averred insect. I ran with my laptop back into my apartment, and into my bedroom, and, on my unmade bed, shadowy in the screen, I attempted to move through the disintegration, his monotonous life, his desire to have his room emptied out of furniture like a cave, so close to forgetting his human life, he stops eating, a hunger artist, he desires to disappear, to spare his family from more suffering. Finally it is the end of March, as it was now, he is finally dead, he is not Gregor Samsa anymore, he is not their son or brother, he is a thing to be disposed of, by the charwoman, while the family takes the tram to a park, to enjoy the spring day. I perform the demise of Gregor Samsa, while the screen freezes and flickers, while my voice becomes a weird tinny thing, garbled and unrecognisable, did you get any of that?, I said mournfully at the end, all of the screens almost dark, but it sputtered out again, before any of them could say, or maybe they just didn’t say anything at all, or maybe I was unable to comprehend their voices. 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is the author most recently of Drifts (Riverhead) and To Write As If Already Dead, a study of Hervé Guibert (Columbia University Press). Forthcoming in Summer 2023 from Riverhead is The Light Room, a meditation on art and care, as well as Tone, a collaboration with Sofia Samatar, from Columbia University Press in early 2024. ‘Insekt’ is part of an in-progress work of fiction, Realisms. She is a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow.

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