Last year, I read The Stranger by Albert Camus (L’Étranger, published 1942, translated from French by Matthew Ward), and the book struck me as odd and a bit disturbing given the themes. Overwhelmingly, the story seemed to say that life is meaningless. I read it again this summer for my book club, and I think it’s a book improved upon rereading. I was also surprised by how much more I enjoyed it after discussing it with a group.
A similar change in my opinion of a book happened when I read The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung, published 1915, translated from German by Willa and Edwin Muir) for my September book group. Reading it myself, I felt like I just didn’t “get” it. It was rather disturbing: a man has changed in to a huge insect and the family locks him in his room, embarrassed. But once I started creating discussion questions and as I sat with my book group to discuss it, I felt the actual meaning of the story come in to focus. It’s a fascinating story given the right context.
Neither book is a favorite for me in retrospect. Each book is rather depressing. But I was reminded how important it is to discuss literature with others in order to better understand it. It reminds me that classics are worth reading, even if we don’t particularly enjoy the book. After a bit more work, a classic that at-first was confusing can be a rewarding read.
The Stranger by Albert Camus
I was surprised by how much knowing the plot of The Stranger gave the story focus. Unlike on my first read, I knew what was going to happen to Mersault. I knew his reaction to the events that would unfold, and so his character didn’t seem so odd from the beginning. The story was still utterly discouraging, as it did focus on the pointlessness of life. But I saw the point to it this time around.
Toward the beginning, a nurse commented to Mersault on the problem of walking in the sun.
‘If you go slowly, you risk getting sunstroke. But if you go too fast, you work up a sweat and then catch a chill inside the church.’ She was right. There was no way out.” (Part 1, Chapter 1, page 16-17)
This concept of “no way out” seemed to be Mersault’s philosophy on life: nothing mattered because there was no escaping whatever was going to happen. It was all the same. I felt that reading The Stranger again helped me better understand Mersault’s perspective. Some in my reading group insisted that he was without morals because he didn’t care about anyone but himself. I am not sure. For me, his view of the world as absurd seemed appropriate. I didn’t blame him for not crying at his mother’s funeral: what difference did it make if he cried? She had been happy at the home, while she had not been happy when living with Mersault. She had found peace and happiness in her life at the end.
For the first time in a long time I thought about Maman. I felt as if I understood why at the end of her life she had taken a ‘fiancé,’ why she had played at beginning again. …So close to death, Maman must have felt free then and ready to live it all again. Nobody, nobody had the right to cry over her. And I felt ready to live it all again too. (Part 2, Chapter 5, page 116-117)
In the end, he too was ready to “play” at being happy again. He finally got to that point when he felt it would make a difference. I felt sorry for Mersault’s stuck position in the ridiculous world. I could relate to him. Discussing the story, rereading it, and otherwise immersing myself in Mersault’s depressing world helped me get a new perspective. That’s why I love discussing classic literature in a group setting.
If you want to join in a discussion of the book, see my discussion questions at my reading group’s website. “Spoilers” abound there.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
I have always been afraid of Franz Kafka’s stories. The term “Kafka-esque” is used so frequently in describing literature, it seemed like I should be intimidated by the original. Although I readily admit that Kafka is very odd, I don’t think feeling intimidated was necessary. His writing is completely straight forward. He observes the world as it is and writes almost without emotion.
That said, I do think his stories are best taken a little at a time. I have a 500-page volume of his “collected stories” and I’ve read about 200 pages of it by now. His stories are miniature nightmares. Exotic and impossible things happen, the action jumps from one strange thing to another, and because everything is written as if it really happened, a two-page story is like a brief foray into a shudder-inducing dream.
I have taken a break from his stories. I will come back to them and discuss them again on this blog. But for now, here are some thoughts on the first story I read, the novella The Metamorphosis.
The first thing that stood out to me was that upon awakening as a giant insect (vermin in some translations), Gregor’s first thoughts are these:
What about sleeping a little longer and forgetting all this nonsesne, he thought, but it could not be done, for he was accustomed to sleep on his right side and in his present condition he could not turn himself over.
If I awoke as an insect, I’d be a bit worried about how I’d become an insect. Instead Gregor focuses on trying to turn over. Then he realizes he’s already late for work, and he worries about that. These thoughts are a perfect example of the ridiculousness of Kafka’s story. From that first page, Gregor’s strange transformation is an embarrassment and an inconvenience, not an impossibility. His family shuns him and hides him away. Gregor suffers and then the story ends.
One woman in my book group was very disappointed.
“I want my story,” she said. “It doesn’t have the resolution. I want to know how it ends. It just drops off and that’s it.”
I didn’t feel it was incomplete. I enjoyed how it seemed to come full circle. Gregor tried to reach out to his family and they completely shunned him in the end. But I didn’t “get” it. Why was Gregor so unsurprised by his transformation? What was the true “metamorphosis” of the title? After all, Gregor is already transformed as the story begins.
As I prepared discussion questions, I began to see the story in a different life. What if Gregor was not an insect, but simply mentally ill, such as depressed? He went every day to a boring job, and his family took advantage of his position as sole supporter. Suppose he awoke one morning and no longer got out of bed? I’ve gone through my share of depression and I can relate to the desire to hide away, and the feeling that it’s impossible to get up, no matter what I try. My situation is, of course, far different from Gregor’s since I have a supportive and loving family and depression is not shunned so much in modern society. But viewing the story in a metaphorical light, the parent’s reactions seem to make sense to me. They are still despicable (I really despised Gregor’s family), but the entire story enters a new context. There is so much to discuss!
What does “Kafka-esque” mean? I think it means straight-forward, told like it is and yet impossible. I think “Kafka-esque” means a different story is under the surface of the impossible story. I really did enjoy Kafka’s writing style. Yet, obviously Kafka’s subject matter is depressing. My group decided that if Kafka were alive today, he’d be in therapy and on some serious medication. But, then we may have missed his creative approach to dealing with discouragement and an unappreciative family. I’m glad I’ve given Kafka a try, and I will revisit his stories again when I feel up to it.
If you want to join in a discussion of Kafka, see my discussion questions at my reading group’s website. “Spoilers” abound there.
What do you think “Kafka-esque” means?