‘In the Penal Colony’ by Franz Kafka, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir

A traveller visits an island prison camp where he witnesses the enthusiastic demonstration of some elaborate instrument of punishment and re-education. I was on the Foundation course at the then West Surrey College of Art and Design in Farnham, and I had a cleaning job at the college. I enjoyed getting up early and sweeping the sculpture studio floors for a couple of hours before college started. One morning someone happened to have left a copy of the Penguin Modern Classics paperback of Metamorphosis and Other Stories on a workbench. I picked the book up and started reading. I did the same again the next day. The day after that I got fired. I was riveted and dumbfounded by these stories, which were like nothing else I’d yet read. ‘In the Penal Colony’ (which in that particular edition may be called ‘In the Penal Settlement’) seemed to exemplify something about the stories and how they worked that I found really fascinating, but couldn’t quite yet put my finger on. But it was something I recognised a couple of years later when reading Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, in a line on the opening page: ‘No, this is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knitting into.’

First published as In der Strafkolonie, Kurt Wolff Verlag, 1919. Collected in Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Penguin, 1967

‘The Metamorphosis’ by Franz Kafka, trans. Malcolm Pasley

Malcolm Pasley, unlike the nevertheless brilliant Willa and Edwin Muir, based his translations on the manuscripts before they had appeared in Max Brod’s idiosyncratic German editions, so I’ve always taken Pasley as my baseline Kafka translator. Often described as a short novel, I include The Metamorphosis as it can and should be digested in a single gulp. In these times of severe attention deficit I place my favourite short fiction first on this list. If you have neither time nor inclination to read further, please accept my urging to read, if you haven’t yet got to it, this unspeakably sad story. Read as horror story or allegory – and entire books have been written exploring the symbolism of this story – it will, for the right reader, live up to its promise and leave you altered in a subtle yet radical manner.

‘Die Verwandlung’ was first published in Die Weißen Blätter, 1915. Included in The Transformation (Metamorphosis) and Other Stories, Penguin, 1995 and widely available.

‘Being Unhappy’ by Franz Kafka, translated by Michael Hofmann

I like stories that seem to have something missing, in which something of the meaning is located outside the story. ‘Being Unhappy’ is both restless and pointless, and slightly disturbing, as well as slightly distasteful. I don’t even know if I like this story any more. I just know it did something for me and for my work at some point. If I went with one of Kafka’s longer, better known stories, it wouldn’t be ‘Metamorphosis’, but ‘Josephine the Mouse Singer’; it wouldn’t be ‘The Hunger Artist’, but ‘Investigations of a Dog’.

First published in German in Bretrachtung, 1913. Widely translated, including in Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Penguin, 2007Read it online, in a different translation, here

‘In the Penal Colony’ by Franz Kafka

As ‘Symbols and Signs’ helped me understand the paradoxes of mental illness, ‘In the Penal Colony’ clarified for me the hypocritical nature of the law. I first read it in a college German Literature class, and because I had quite ropy German, I was sure that I’d misunderstood most of the vocabulary and plot. I bought an English translation and was completely shocked to have my reading of the story affirmed. This story actually made me change my academic track and I dropped German to focus on criminology and penology, eventually going on to work in prisons and forensic hospitals. I learnt from this story that identity seems to be forged more strongly through differentiation rather than association. That discipline is spoken and written before it is acted upon. That we are complicit in our spectator role in society, especially how we desire that lawbreakers be physically removed from our daily life. We value the opinion of an acceptable person over an unacceptable one, and this perpetuates our obsession with categorising human beings and their behaviour.

First published in 1919. First translation, by Eugene Jolas, published Partisan Review, 1941. Collected in The Complete Short Stories and elsewhere in various translations. Can be read online here

‘The Metamorphosis’ by Franz Kafka, translated by Susan Bernofsky

This is perhaps stretching the bounds of what counts as a short story, but I have such a clear memory of reading ‘The Metamorphosis’ as a teen. How, I asked myself, did this hundred-year-old salesman know so much about how it felt to be a fourteen-year-old girl? I reread it at least once a year, and have a quiet obsession with Gregor’s sister Grete, who is at the heart of a new book I’ve just started to write. My favourite translation is one of the newest, by Susan Bernofsky, recent winner of the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.

‘Die Verwandlung’ was first published in Die Weißen Blätter, 1915.

‘The Men Running Past’ by Franz Kafka

For a long time, I didn’t read Kafka’s work, perhaps – I don’t know – because I felt it would be too old for me, or that since everyone else will (of course) already have read it, there was no point in my reading it. All silly non-arguments, because once I started to read Kafka (and other ‘classic’ authors), I found that, as long as I read openly, the years and outside interpretations melt away. There’s just me, engaging with the work, here and now.

I started with some of Kafka’s short fiction (I haven’t even got to Metamorphosis yet). ‘The Men Running Past’piece is only three paragraphs long, but still dizzying to me in how it reveals the uncertainty beneath a seemingly ordinary moment. In the first paragraph, the narrator is out walking one night and sees a man running in the opposite direction, being chased by another, but chooses not to intervene. The second paragraph is a mesmerising swirl of possibility, as the narrator imagines – sometimes quite fancifully – who these men might be. The third paragraph closes off these possibilities in short order (“have we not had a lot of wine to drink?”). There will be no resolution here; a story has been averted.

First published in the collection Betrachtung (Contemplation, 1913). Available widely, including online here. I read Michael Hofmann’s translation in the Penguin Modern Classics collection Metamorphosis and Other Stories, 2007)