‘Vor dem Gesetz’ (Before the Law) by Franz Kafka, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann

One of the luckiest things that ever happened to me was that, at the age of eleven, I had the opportunity to learn German. One of the many ways in which learning a second language changed my life was that it introduced me to short stories, and German ones at that. As any language-learner knows, short stories are perfect classroom fodder: they’re brief enough to be assigned for homework and it’s usually easy enough to find one to suit a particular proficiency level. The stories I struggled through in high school, and later university, were probably the first short stories I ever read with care: Heinrich Böll’s ‘Du fährst zu oft nach Heidelberg’, Ben Witter’s ‘Das nächste Mal andere Blumen’, eventually Kafka, Heinrich von Kleist and Emine Sevgi Özdamar.

This six-inch Kafka parable was first published in 1915, and it went on to make a cameo in his novel The Trial. It’s so short that to give a precis would be to retell it. I don’t even have anything particularly insightful to say about it. I’m including it here because, after two decades of thinking about it, I’m still thinking about it.

Collected in Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Penguin, 2008, and available widely online in translations of varying quality

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