This series explores genres new or newish to me as part of my 2017 reading challenge
The Metamorphosis: A Graphic Novel
by Franz Kafka
adapted by Peter Kuper
The Metamorphosis in particular is probably the source for our modern descriptive term, Kafkaesque. Denoting the sinister characteristics of Kafka’s fictional world, it has also been used to reference unescapable, surreal control over individual realms. This is, in fact, what Gregor Samsa awakens to one day as he discovers he has somehow been transformed into a dung beetle.
Qualification: In a university literature class we used that descriptor, dung beetle, but the reality is scholars have been debating for decades over exactly what Kafka’s word choice of Ungeziefer really translates to. The author hadn’t wanted to give any visual interpretations, either, so we’re left to quibble amongst ourselves and, if we’re lucky, focus on the rest of the story.
And what a story it is! Samsa’s biggest concern, apart from being physically able to heave his unwieldy self over, is to make the train and get to work on time. His family is in debt, you see, and once he has that paid off he wants to send his sister, Grete, to the conservatory in pursuit of violin lessons. However, this is now in the past and the family must find other ways to support themselves. At one time Grete took care of this new Gregor, who couldn’t do it for himself, of course, but grew disgusted and after a number of volatile encounters involving family members, she suggests getting rid of him. He hears and understands, and not long after, retires to his room and dies.
There actually is much, much more to the story than this, detail-wise and pertaining to how it concludes. Perhaps a story of identity or one’s place in the world, it is filled with possible clues Kafka wrote in, and the literary world suffers no shortage of interpretations. For the purposes of this entry, we shall add that it indeed is a dark tale, the events of which enthusiastically exercise the mind as we shape our thought processes in an assortment of styles to accommodate a variety of possibilities. The Metamorphosis is that engaging.
It is no surprise, then, that Peter Kuper has adapted the story to graphic novel form for new and younger readers to encounter all these contemplations and goings-on. The very first detail to strike the viewer is its presentation all in black and white. Transitional pages are solid black, and the gloom of the rest reflects the narrative’s despondency and eventual despair. Like murky lighting in a movie, Kuper leads us from the “absurd darkness of slumberland” as Gregor attempts to shift onto his more comfortable right side. He attributes his present difficulty with moving to his demanding job as a traveling salesman:
Day after day it’s the same story …
All the pressures of worrying about train connections …
Eating miserable food on the run …
A parade of new faces, with no lasting relationships or greater intimacy …
TO HELL WITH IT ALL!
The graphics in each panel exhibit a rather absurd Gregor Samsa as he goes about his daily duties, comically haphazard panic on his face as he rushes from a stern and disapproving mother in the morning, bumbling to catch the fleeing train as papers spill from his briefcase and, in a nod to modern indigestibility, the visage of an anxious man hurriedly eating from a plastic container as he stands in front of the famous M logo of a national fast food restaurant.
In a medium that by definition contains visual depictions of its subject matter, Kuper naturally has to display the foul creature, contrary to instructions from Kafka himself to his own publisher. However, in what is perhaps the most important stroke of mastery in the novel, the beetle is drawn not only sparingly, but also with rounded features ambiguous enough to avoid a specific character identity being created, while clearly demonstrating something untouchable.
This sense of pariah is depicted with those features that both repel and invite greater examination. The eyes are blank circles, and though readers see their varying emotions—nervous affability, a panicked sprint, apologetic exigence—they lack that “mirror into the soul” that would enable us to see him as human, a sentient creature worthy of consideration. Only the jawline and nose are block like, monstrous, the entire countenance embodiment of the living dead, a disgusting, even frightening nothingness. This perfectly mirrors Samsa’s own pathetic sense of self, as something too unimportant to demand better conditions, more respect. Instead, he contemplates what it would take to make the 7:00 train.
Kuper manages the verbal just as well. Within the panels that proceed toward his departure deadline, his family begs him to open the door, and his voice, distorted by what he believes is an oncoming cold, is represented by the squiggly letters of his dialogue in the speech bubbles above. “Did you understand a word he said? He sounded like an animal!” they cry.
As Gregor’s sad story moves forward, situations become progressively worse as his human tastes and habits change, his family grows more repulsed by him and a wound to his shell, the result of an apple his father threw at him and which remained lodged in his back, festers. Panels depicting his family are majority white, while the dung beetle’s are overcome by darkness until he is seen living literally in the shadow of the life he once had.
Perhaps influenced at an early age by “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend,” a surreal comic strip that appeared shortly before The Metamorphosis and shared with it a “genius for rendering the anxious intersection of reality and dreamscape,” Kuper’s talent is a delightful mix of movie technique and artistic process. With enviable dexterity, he opens with a touch of the “fraction then action” film tantalizes audiences with, and uses his magical lines to create not mere people or characters, but living entities who move and act upon the pages, within the panels that so brilliantly render even what is typically unseen: a gust of wind, emotion, the sounds of a violin—and he does this so often without relying upon the enlarged word in the corner, or predictable music notes floating in the air. He renders visible the unseen.
My own first exposure to graphic novels was reading one in another literature class, a book of a grave matter and subject to great controversy for its medium. Even apart from the outrage many felt for the events in the novel to be depicted in “funnies” form, many viewed it as unserious, not literary. Those with such opinions also tended to reject the argument that graphic novels’ audiences consisted at least in part of those who might not otherwise be reading.
Since then I have been more exposed to them via my own child, who devours books with passage and picture alike. When he showed me that many “grown-up books” are often available in graphic form, I was intrigued. There is a reason images appeal to people, and we’ve been sharing our pictorial perceptions since we were cave dwellers. There is something about drawings that beckon people into the world they represent (also brilliantly acted out in a famous music video), and gifted artists show us a myriad of ways in which this might be done. Moreover, “reading” pictures increases comprehension, and elements such as color, shapes and lines can often tell us as much about mood and what is happening as does the text.
Truth be told, I was very optimistic with my newish venture into this particular genre, and delighted to find that there are indeed many beloved stories now transformed into graphic form. In fact, I had a small struggle as to which of the three I chose to pick from for review, in the end deciding upon this one, for starters, because I love The Metamorphosis. The black and white also caught my attention, not only being different but also because mere use of the two shades often is telling in itself, and I wanted to see where, with it, Kuper would take Samsa’s story. Much like the original tale, Kuper’s graphic novel presents a multi-leveled narrative with as many messages as the original, and one that bears not only repeat return, but also boundless continuity.
Franz Kafka was born 1883 in Bohemia, part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire (now Czech Republic), the eldest son in a Jewish family. He took a law degree and worked as an insurance adjuster, a situation he saw as “tortuous” because it forced him to write in his spare time. Shortly before his death he instructed a close friend to destroy much of his work, a direction fortunately ignored. Click here for further information on this great writer and his works.
Peter Kuper teaches comic courses at The School of Visual Arts and is a visiting professor at Harvard University. Author of a number of works, he has also transformed Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle into graphic novel form. Click cover image above for website, and here to see the animated trailer for his graphic novel, The Metamorphosis.
Previous entries in the Reading 2017 series:
Readers’ Chat with Stephanie Hopkins
New Genre Library (Science fiction): Title TBA
And a couple of other fun entries to round out the year!
New Genre Library is a three-part spinoff series of Reading 2017