The Verdict and Other Stories (Das Urteil und andere Erzahlungen) – Franz Kafka

German Lit Month big Franz Kafka has been on my TBR list for some time and finally I decided to take the opportunity and read some of his work as part of German Literature Month, an event hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

The book I have is an old but well-preserved Romanian translation printed in 1969 with a beautiful sepia color bordering each page so that the words seem encompassed in a sort of frame, a painting without the picture.
There are nine stories, and the first, The Verdict (Das Urteil), pulled me in right away with its beginning – a young man writing a letter to his friend who had gone to Russia years ago where he was supposedly working hard for some business or other. We also find out the young man, Georg Bendemann, lives with his elderly father and is engaged to a girl from a rich family. It’s not until the dialogue between father and son that something begins to feel amiss – it’s like suddenly getting a whiff of an unknown scent coming from a place we can’t pinpoint. It’s unsettling, slightly disturbing, and forced my mind, which until that point had a fairly linear thought process, to take a leap. I felt like I had to take sides – is it the father who has lost his mind or is it the son? Even the last sentence of the story adds more to the uncertainty and I loved that about it.

DSC01270 The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung) is my favorite story from the book. I could very well argue that this is a horror story because how can it not be? Can you imagine waking up as a human size bug one morning?
Gregor Samsa’s nightmare begins when he realizes his shocking change just as he wakes up to go to work. The cause of the metamorphosis is never explained but through plenty of detail the reader is introduced to Gregor’s life following this amazing misfortune. Or is it not a misfortune after all? If you have read the story you might think I’m slightly off (or more than slightly) but it is clear the whole family went through a metamorphosis. Perhaps Gregor, as the dutiful son and breadwinner got the short end of the stick; it is however just as captivating to see his family’s reaction and the changes they go through as they adjust to their new life.
Interestingly enough, both The Verdict and The Metamorphosis begin in the morning. I found this clearly defined frame of time to add a realistic tone to the story ahead.
“Bug” may not be the best term to describe Gregor’s transformation. The edition I have refers to it as an “insect-like” creature. We have a specific word for that in Romanian which perfectly fits Kafka’s description.

On a personal note – I’ve had a couple of unfortunate encounters with bugs, the most recent one when I found one in my jacket pocket while taking a stroll through a park, not long after I finished reading this story. Maybe it was a reminder.

In A Country Doctor (Ein Landarzt) the author present us with a moral dilemma told from the point of view of an elderly country doctor who is called away suddenly to the bedside of a patient. An unexpected help presents itself – a man with two horses, ready to replace the doctor’s own horse that had died the night before. The doctor’s housemaid, a young woman named Rosa, helps the man with the horses but it’s clear the man can hardly wait for the doctor to leave so he can abuse the girl. The doctor doesn’t want to leave Rosa behind but somehow the horses take the carriage away before he can get down and he can hear her screams as the man breaks down the door. From this moment on the story takes a fantastical turn – the horses become agents of evil, and the patient, a young boy, is dying of a terrible wound.
Has this been just a wasted call? Did the bell, which rang in the night and whose voice the doctor always obeyed, lead him not to save a life but to lose two? Is this an allegory for something that happens in life? I found myself totally captured by the story and utterly immersed in the doctor’s predicament.

Some of the stories are quite short but not less powerful. Up in the Gallery (Auf der Galerie), which is something that brought to mind an “if – but” story (a term I just came up with), is a two page story that describes a scene at the circus. The urgency of the image presented is not less potent than a story sprawled across a dozen pages. It is the precision of every word and their capability to surge forward that create an emotion which cannot be explained easily. Not by me, at least.

Before the Law (Vor dem Gesetz) is the story of a peasant trying to gain access to the law. The way is barred by a guardian who, every time the peasant tries to go in, comes up with clever excuses to delay him – from warnings to accepting bribes to other ways in which he shows his power. This goes on for years when, at last, the peasant asks the one question which prompts a revealing answer from the guardian. The end is abrupt, and while we don’t find out why the peasant wanted to see justice done, it is, somehow, satisfying.

Eleven Sons (Elf Söhne) is a father’s description of his sons. It’s a case of a man who is never satisfied – one son is clever but not good looking, another is very handsome but lacks courage, yet another is nearly perfect but for the fact that he travels through the world, self sufficient and content, ignoring his father’s wish of starting a family, and the list goes on. Reading this story felt like watching a man who, no matter how many gifts is given in life still finds fault with all of them.

In A Report to an Academy (Ein Bericht für eine Akademie), a man is called to recount his experience as a monkey in front of distinguished members of an unnamed academy. He launches into lengthy descriptions of what he calls “his past life as a monkey”, starting with allowing himself to be captured by people, then talking about how he finally learned to do whatever was necessary to please his captors. I find this story more than slightly ironic, as if Kafka was poking fun at the origins of the human species by claiming the man’s life as a monkey ended but five years prior to this confession. Also, the amount of detail makes it hard not to believe the man – the story seems entirely plausible.

At first glance, In The Penal Colony (In der Strafkolonie) is a story of an execution. A famous explorer is invited to witness the execution of a man whose offense is punished by death. But beneath this obvious story there’s another layer, deeper and even more troubling than seeing a man being crushed to death by a man-made machine. It’s the story of a belief, an absurd belief, and a man willing to go to great length to show his devotion to it. Aside from The Metamorphosis, this was the most disturbing story in this collection because there was no way I could have guessed the horrible turn it took. And I could also argue that this one as well is a great horror story.

A Hunger Artist (Ein Hungerkünstler) is the story of a man who fasts for days while being exhibited like some kind of freak in a cage, while people come to watch him. The fasting goes on for forty days, a period of time set by his manager as being the maximum time people will take an interest in this curious form of art. Of course this brings to mind the famous “15 minutes of fame” so prevalent these days. This could also be interpreted as a man choosing to display himself in front of others, risking their admiration, distrust and revulsion. It could also be a way of trying to get their attention by choosing to stand out from their midst, a person who’s doing something others don’t. I find the title very apt – aren’t many artists after all courageous people who are willing to brave people’s displeasure by displaying their art?

I loved my first encounter with Kafka. He scared, delighted, and surprised me. He’s fascinating, bold, and his attention to detail is worthy of the highest praise. I didn’t know what to expect from his writing and I confess to reading next to nothing about his books because I like to start on a new author with a blank slate and form my opinion of them with as little influence as possible. I will, however, read more of his work in the future, although I confess I’m a little uneasy (but also delighted and fascinated) by the prospect.

My rating: 5/5 stars
Read from September 29 to October 06, 2015

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23 Responses to The Verdict and Other Stories (Das Urteil und andere Erzahlungen) – Franz Kafka

  1. Lizzy Siddal says:

    Hi Delia
    Kafka is a disturbing but surprising writer. I hated him at Uni but revisited him a couple of years ago and loved what I rediscovered in the pages. Admittedly I haven’t been able to bring myself to tackle a full-length novel again – from memory they all landed in the bin when I was younger! But his short stories have been a revelation recently. Who knows what the future may bring?
    P.S Who was/is the Romanian translator?

    • Delia says:

      Hi Lizzy,
      You summed it up pretty well. I like both surprising and disturbing writers. I can understand why it might be difficult to read one of his novels (I feel the same about starting on The Trial). The short stories are superb.
      The Romanian translator was Mihai Isbasescu. Wikipedia tells me he died in 1998. This didn’t feel at all like reading a translation, the prose was seamless.

  2. This is a beautiful, beautiful review, Delia. I want to quote a lot of lines from your post. 🙂 So lovely.

  3. Kafka is always such a creepy but fascinating one! I had to read his Die Verwandlung in school and hated it and then read Der Prozess and loved it, but never tried his short stories.
    There’s such a funny scene in the Thursday Next novels (have you read them?), where she has to go to trial in the book world and the setting is from Kafka’s Prozess 🙂

    • Delia says:

      Hi Bina,
      I’m a little scared of trying one of his novels. I have a feeling short doses of his work would suit me better. But then I’ll have to give it a try to find out. I have Der Prozess, good to see you liked it. Maybe I’ll get to it this month.
      I haven’t heard of the Thursday Next novels but even if I did the reference would have gone over my head anyway. Now off to google these novels. 🙂

  4. Brian Joseph says:

    Great commentary on these stories.

    I have only read Metamorphosis and it has been awhile. I really need to take some time and really read Kafka carefully.

    The fact that he “scared, delighted, and surprised ” you is really impressive!

    • Delia says:

      Thank, Brian. I was afraid I may not like his work but to my pleasant surprise the stories were great. Many of them are available online for free in English which is convenient.

  5. Priya says:

    Ah, I love what you have said about The Verdict. That unsettling feeling, I completely felt it too. A Report to an Academy is my favourite Kafka. Dark, but so funny!
    Unfortunately (or not) The Metamorphosis left me somewhat confused. I feel that perhaps I was not as affected by the story as people are, somehow its horror failed to grab me. I found it all a little humorous. Tragic and cruel, yes, but ultimately a farce. It made me laugh, I’m not sure it was supposed to do that!
    I have not read any of the other stories, but I am interested in A Country Doctor. Thanks for the excellent analysis!

    • Delia says:

      I’m always amazed at how different people see different things in a story. I guess The Metamorphosis could be a little funny – especially when Gregor the bug tries to get out of bed, or when he samples different foods to see what he likes, but overall I think it’s one of the saddest stories I’ve read. But yes, I can see how some parts may seem funny.
      A Report to an Academy felt like the less heavy of all nine stories; was Kafka making fun of human evolution, I wonder…
      I felt weird reading The Verdict. I’d love to know what you make of it and who do you think was losing their mind in that story. It’s obvious something strange was going on but I can’t make up my mind as to what exactly.
      Thanks for coming by.

  6. Vishy says:

    Wonderful review, Delia! I have read the graphic novel version of ‘The Metamorphosis’ and loved it. I am hoping to read Kafka’s original sometime. Out of the stories you have reviewed, I think I have read ‘A Country Doctor’ – the title rings a bell strongly, though I can’t remember the story. All the stories you have described look wonderful. I should try Kafka’s short stories again sometime.

    • Delia says:

      Thanks, Vishy. I think the graphic version might be even more disturbing than the original. I’m curious if there are major differences. I hope you get to read him again. Maybe that bell will ring louder then. 🙂

  7. Violet says:

    I haven’t read any of Kafka’s fiction for a long time, but recently I bought some new editions in an online book clearance sale, so I see some of his stuff in my future. I remember not liking it when I was younger, but as other people have remarked in the comments, tastes do change over time!

    I’m a bit fascinated with Kafka as a person and have some of his letters and a couple of biographies that I’ve been nibbling at for a while.

    I’m glad you liked his work and have a ‘new’ author to read, now. It’s always good when a writer we’ve been circling for a while surprises and disturbs us. 🙂

    • Delia says:

      Hi Violet,
      Clearance sales are great, aren’t they? 🙂
      It would be nice to read the letters and biographies, just to get a glimpse into how he came to write about the things in his stories. I’m always fascinated by the connection between a writer’s background and what comes up in his stories. Sometimes I feel like the writers are just Hansels and Gretels, leaving crumbs of reality in a forest of make-believe.
      I look forward to your reviews of his work.

  8. Bună, Delia, și mulțumesc de like la ultima mea postare (îmi pare rău că nu îți pot întoarce like-ul, btw :-)).

    Am citit Metamorfoza cândva în vremea adolescenței. Mi s-a potrivit atât de bine încât am rămas fan pe viață (mi-a plăcut și Procesul, evident) – îmi aduc aminte bine cum, vreo câteva zile după ce am terminat de citit Metamorfoza, mă căutam dimineața, la trezire, să văd dacă nu cumva am înveliș chitinos, haha :-).

    • Delia says:

      Salut, K.J., si multumesc pentru comentariu. Am avut si buton de “like” printre altele dar am avut ceva probleme cu site-ul si am decis sa renunt la el. Oricum, un comentariu e la fel de bun, poate chiar si mai bun. 🙂

      Ma bucur ca ti-a placut si tie Kafka, eu inca ma mai gindesc daca sa citesc si “Procesul” dar poate reusesc totusi. Inseamna ca te-a impresionat mult “Metamorfoza” daca te cautai de “carapace”. 🙂

  9. Athira says:

    You have inspired me to read some Kafka. I will admit that I am a little intimidated by his works, if only because he is one of those oft-mentioned names with books that sound very scholarly. But your review makes his writing sound very accessible, so I would like to give it a try.

    • Delia says:

      I am very happy to read that. I thought the same about Kafka but I had a very pleasant surprise to see how accessible his stories are and how wonderfully disturbing. Not sure about the novels but I always say – when in doubt about an author, start small. Looking forward to your thoughts on his work.
      Next one on the list: Nietzsche. 🙂

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  11. Kafka is one of maybe a handful writers from which I read and re-read literally anything (including his Amtliche Schriften, a collection of work-related documents he wrote for his insurance company – fascinating stuff!) and he never ceases to amaze me. Although Metamorphosis is probably his most famous story for good reason, I particularly find In the Penal Colony his most disturbing and fascinating work. But as was already mentioned here: there is also a lot of humour in his works. Example: when Gregor wakes up and realizes he is a vermin now, what is his first thought? Exactly: how will I ever get to work in time now! Glad the stories were obviously translated by a master of his craft.

    • Delia says:

      Well, that sounds good, if he can write work-related documents and still make them sound fascinating. Thanks for letting me know, I definitely want to read more Kafka so I’ll keep this in mind.
      I remember being baffled by Gregor’s reaction. I mean, he can’t even get out of bed and he thinks about work! But I guess by that point he was very much human mentally. I didn’t really see the humor in this story, I was horrified and sad for poor Gregor and the way he was treated.
      The Penal Colony was shocking and I loved that about it. I love stories that sneak up on you and veer in a direction you never even thought about. That was a disturbing and excellent story.

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