The audacity of writing a story from the point of view of an unidentified rodent struck me as a young reader. The madness of the narrative voice and its utter relatability as it spirals into insanity and paranoia and then blooms with a kind of transcendent joy, seems to me an ideal structure for any piece of art. This story has shaped my understanding of reading and writing and I continue to appreciate it. I read it in Metamorphosis and other stories as a teenager and the volume also included ‘In the Penal Colony’, which I made the mistake of reading before bed. It continues to haunt me.
First published in German in 1931. Widely available, including in The Complete Short Stories, Vintage 2005. Available online here
I was introduced to Kafka’s diaries around the same time I first read Pale Fire. I only discovered ‘A Country Doctor’ a couple of years ago, however, as the first story in Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories (1958, republished by NYRB in 2002). In his introduction Jarrell writes:
‘One of the things that make Kafka so marvellous a writer is his discovery of – or, rather, discovery by – a kind of narrative in which logical analysis and humour, the greatest enemies of narrative movement, have become themselves part of the movement. In narrative at its purest or most eventful we do not understand but are the narrative … in fiction, to understand everything is to get nowhere.’
In other words, a story can carry us to its conclusion but one of us will have to walk home again.
Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories is often astounding and the stories in it, alongside that introductory essay, challenged my preconceptions of what a short story is for and what it can be; nothing in that statement is an exaggeration. Get hold of a copy before it slips out of print again.
First published in A Country Doctor (Ein Landarzt), Kurt Wolff, 1919; translated by Edwin and Willa Muir, first published in The Metamorphosis, The Penal Colony, and Other Stories, Schocken Books, 1948. Now available in various translations, including online in Ian Johnston’s translation here)
I sometimes think ‘A Country Doctor’ is my favourite piece of short fiction. I will never get to the bottom of it. Walter Benjamin had it that every line in Kafka is allegory. Which is to say that every phrase, every image, withstands thousands of readings. And the closer I look at this story, the more its meanings split, double, triple, squirm in the mind like cells in mitosis. It begins with the stunning sentence (one I’ll admit I cribbed for a story of my own) “I was in great perplexity”, and goes on from there, rattling forward with the force of a cold and gnawing nightmare, filled with frustration, sickness, riddles, and hellish visions. There is a groom who bites a servant girl on the face. There is a worm-filled fatal wound that is simultaneously a precious flower. Indeed, many things described are other, often opposite things. The doctor becomes a patient. In a moment charged with mystic import, he is ritually stripped and laid down beside the florid wound of the boy whose life he fails to save. Meanwhile the villagers sing, “Only a doctor, only a doctor”. The story is flanked by two metaphysical creatures, two horses named “Brother” and “Sister” who teleport the doctor through time and space from one act of the story to the other. In both, he is rendered impotent by time. He is present at just the wrong moment. Those two horses grow in my mind the more I read this story that I will never figure out. Inscrutable dark creatures of great power, they are terrifyingly free of the binds of reality, of space, of time.
First published as ‘Der Landarzt’ in Der Landartz, 1919. First published in English in In the Penal Colony, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, Schocken, 1948. Now collected widely, including in The Complete Short Stories, Vintage, 1999
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
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.
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, 2007. Read it online, in a different translation, here
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