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When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.

This is one of the most famous opening lines of any story, not that I imagine had he lived to see it, its fame would provide any comfort to that master of shame and self-loathing Franz Kafka.

I always think of that line from Annie Hall “sex with you is a kafkaesque experience.[…] I mean that as a compliment”. Once featured as a punchline by that *other* king of neurosis, you knew the author had made it. Is it not appropriate that Kafka, so cleverly excising themes of personal failure enjoys a degree of celebrity that is entirely post-humous? What I enjoy most about his writing is the sly hints of a humour peeking through the quotidien miseries of his characters.

I previously had read The Castle, a book which filled me with a life-long fear of bureaucracy, only for me to become a bureaucrat; and Lettre au Pรจre which gives some insight into Kafka’s relationship with his father, his resentment of authority expressed in his stories. Metamorphosis is another classic texts that for one reason or another I have avoided for years. Perhaps because of a fear of overfamiliarity. The story even featured in The Producers, one of my favourite films, as an off-hand joke.

This collection features a number of Kafka’s stories, many unpublished in his lifetime. In The Penal Colony is a ready example of the writer’s horror at the domination horror, with an ending that is pure grand guignol. The Aeroplanes At Brescia feels like an odd combination of a Proustian social situation drama and the advancing machine age, represented in literary terms by the Ballardian emphasis on the sensuality of objects. Proust, Ballard and Kafka – all writers whose legacy is so fixated on singular thematic concerns that their names have become descriptive terms.

Metamorphosis itself is exemplary of Kafka’s concerns. Gregor Samsa within moments of waking from his ‘troubled dreams‘ immediately begins to fret about his job prospects, the petty difficulties that fill his life and his responsibility to his family. As the chief earner for his elderly parents and young sister, a delicate seventeen-year-old who enjoys playing the violin and attending parties. Gregor, it is clear, is carrying his own family, surrendering up his earnings to them.

When he fails to emerge from his locked bedroom, his family’s anxiety grows. They demand he have his breakfast and take the early train to work. Gregor is a travelling salesman whose livelihood depends on commission. Then, disaster of disasters, the chief clerk of his firm arrives. With his parents now panicking, Gregor attempts to assure them that he is fine, but his voice is transformed into a series of bestial squeaks. When he finally emerges his boss flees in terror. Gregor is incapable of recognizing his own monstrosity, his attempts to calm the horrified members of his family and the clerk resemble a threatening advance.

What follows is a slow and painful descent into absolute helplessness. Gregor becomes completely dependent on their family, with all signs of his previous humanity completely vanished. Kafka brilliantly evokes a crippling sense of guilt on the part of his protagonist. His loss of power creates a vacuum in the family which his father quickly fills. This reversal of fortunes has a oddly quirky sense of humour about it. The contemporary sense of casual absurdism in science fiction no doubt owes a large debt to Kafka.

I was quite taken with the deliberate parlaying of unconscious desires and resentment in the author’s sentences. In total what emerges is a brilliantly structured fable of repression given full vent by some incomprehensible twist of fate.

“You really don’t remember, do you?” Margaret asked, as he was leaving. She looked wistful. “I’ve always wondered if you don’t listen to begin with, or if you listen and then forget because whatever it is doesn’t interest you. I suppose it amounts to the same thing. You know your mind.” She said this without the chill Uncas might have expected. There was a kind of resigned wonder. As though she were used to it, but it still puzzled her after all these years.

I remember the first time I was invited to a faculty party. It was an odd experience. After four years of college on some level I still saw my professors as teachers. The near parental authority I had assigned to them they had no interest in though. They were looking at a class of undergraduates, most of whom went on to further study and seeing future peers, perhaps even rivals. It was a distinction that was entirely lost on me. I got my degree and then emigrated to Scotland looking for work. It was only in later years when I met some of those same professors at social functions that I realized the formal relationship I had imagined was just that – entirely imaginary.

Uncas Metcalf is the opposite of what I have described as a professor. An overly formal man who corrects everyone’s grammar before he can stop himself, even complete strangers, or mild acquaintances. Even his own children he views as curiously intransigent students, who have not taken his lessons to heart.

Of his three children he has a particularly troubled relationship with his daughter Fauna, who has moved back to the neighbourhood with her husband and family looking for work in the small college town of Sparta. Uncas has difficulty understanding what to him seem like wild mood swings and an unusual sense of humour. His wife Margaret and he enjoy quiet, inoffensive banter, conducting themselves through catchphrases and Jimmy Durante quotes that have grown old with them.

Then one day Uncas discovers his bicycle has been stolen. Putting it down to a local prank he tries to put the incident out of his mind, certain it will eventually reappear. Bewildered by the experience he wanders into a bagel shop and meets the daughter of a friend, Hanna. In his confusion he decides to buy a bag of bagels from his grandchildren. Then he receives a call that Margaret had an accident at a book sale and injured her leg.

The Metcalf family has to reorganise itself to provide proper care and attention to Margaret during her convalescence. She, however, insists that things should proceed as normal, even planning the annual family Christmas party. Uncas on a whim employs Hanna and her close friend Alex, whom he out of propriety insists on calling Alexandra, to care for his wife during the day. In Alex he finds a kindred soul of sorts. Both of them seem to regret a life not lived to the full, disappointed in romance and lacking confidence.

Then Uncas’s bicycle reappears in a children’s playground. Alex accompanies him to collect it, only to discover a threatening note attached. Someone from his past stole his bike to get his attention. Uncas becomes increasingly alarmed as he realizes he is being followed. His pursuer knows him very well. Uncas unfortunately knows no one having long ago retreated from the society of humans into his study of botany. His relationships with his family and colleagues are based on habit, ritual. Alex is the first person to actually cause him to speak his mind. He fears it is already too late after a lifetime of saying nothing.

The playfulness of Uncas and Margaret hides an emptiness in their marriage that unbeknownst to him, his children are aware of. Why else would Fauna place a more sinister spin on her mother’s nickname for him – “Lord Reticent Taciturn”. What is admirable about Osborne’s book is its quiet assurance, the slow building of tension within small town Sparta, the intrigues and jealousies of college society that appear so dry later in life.

The comical moral rectitude of Uncas, that spans from how one conducts their personal life to correct grammar disguises a life not lived, an embittered perspective on life masked with a genteel smile. Set in the 80s, Uncas for example has a really hard time with the slang word ‘sucked’.

Sad, bittersweet and tender, a very nice surprise. It was not what I was expecting.

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