The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, translated by Michael Hofmann

Old favourites: Lucy Sweeney Byrne on her most loved texts

If there’s such a thing as genius, Kafka had it. It’s difficult here to choose which of his titles to include, since everything I’ve read by him makes me feel that uncanny awareness of what life really is, under our polite facades, our petty, surface concerns and little, daily habits – that is, absurd, brutal and finite.

Reading Kafka is like staring at Munch’s paintings – it makes you feel vulnerable, somehow, like you’re slowly drowning, losing energy, out at sea somewhere – and that everyone else is doing the same, all around you, simply by getting on with things.

I’ve decided on The Metamorphosis, the story of Gregor Samsa waking up one day to find himself transformed into a horrible vermin, because the novella was the first (and most affecting) of Kafka’s works I’ve read, which I did at the ripe old age of 23. I was living in London after university, in a bleak little terraced house in Islington, two minutes from a large, barbed-wire-surrounded prison. That hot summer, I travelled to and from work in a clothes shop on Oxford Street, sweating profusely and speaking to nobody, beyond polite exchanges with other shop girls and customers.

Human touch

It was a time at which I developed strange, secret behaviours; starving myself, stealing, gouging deep holes into my skin. I remember watching a couple before me on an escalator embrace, and feeling my stomach buckle with the sharp desire for human touch.

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This was a good time to read Kafka. Or a bad time, I suppose, depending on how his writing makes you feel. For me, with his stories of human isolation, his stories that betray such an overarching comprehension of the structures of his world (structures he then defamiliarised by capturing in his writing their irrational inhumanity), Kafka offered a lifeline, both then and forever since.

Like hearing a laugh above the din, his ability to make strange our common misery taught me that I was not alone, that there could be other ways – ways of seeing, of recording, and thus, perhaps, of quietly resisting.