‘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)