I read things differently now, of course. I read more carefully. The mechanics of the writing and the details of the story are what interest me, more than the overall sense of the narrative. Occasionally, still, a plot line can break through my been-there-done-that apathy. The last time that happened, that I can recall, was with a story that appeared last year in The New Yorker, which I have not been able to locate on the internet, but the title and author of which I will insert here when I find them out, about a yuppie couple who crash a party to which they feel they should have been invited but were not. Man-turns-into-cockroach has become old hat, though.
One thing struck me after my extra careful reading of Metamorphosis: the graphic detail with which Kafka describes the appearance of Gregor-as-cockroach, more particularly, the mechanics of his maneuvers, his injuries and his physical tribulations. It occurred to me that Kafka must have been an observant eye-witness, that he must have captured a cockroach and put it through its paces, teased it, set up obstacles similar to those faced by Gregor, and tortured it.
Otherwise humane individuals, who figuratively “would not harm a fly” literally do so on a regular basis, swatting flies and other insects, sucking them up into vacuum cleaners, flushing them down the toilet, stepping on them, poisoning them. One can hardly fault Kafka for treating cruelly what all mankind regards as a pest, for the sake of art.
In my youth, on my many journeys to and from school, I destroyed literally thousands of ants who happened to be on the sidewalk in front of me. Until recently I swatted flies. And I still, with equanimity, perhaps even a frisson of pleasure, can watch a bug which has wandered into the bathtub or sink swirl away down the drain. The older I get, however, the more closely I draw the uncrossable line of cruelty.
Last winter we were infested with what are called, at least in this part of the woods, stink bugs. Supposedly, they stink when crushed, but I never found out if this was true. They would appear mostly after dark and I developed a technique for “saving” them: getting them onto a piece of stiff paper (loose magazine subscription inserts were ideal) and dropping them out a window. What would happen to them in the freezing night I did not dwell on too much. I thought they would at least provide food for the birds. I suspect that many of them made their way back into the house.
I have a very clear memory of one hot afternoon at summer camp. I must have been about eleven. I had joined some friends who were out on the dirt pathway between the cabins, using a magnifying glass to concentrate the sun’s rays onto the backs of largish insects, beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers. I was handed the magnifying glass and prepared to burn a hole in the back of a grasshopper which my friends had disabled or trapped. I couldn’t do it. Peer pressure be damned.
But then, I could never have written this:
Gregor pushed himself into the doorway without regard for what might happen. One side of his body lifted itself, he lay at an angle in the doorway, one flank scraped on the white door and was painfully injured, leaving vile brown flecks on it. Soon he was stuck fast and would not have been able to move at all by himself, the little legs along one side hung quivering in the air while those on the other side were pressed painfully against the ground.
Would I have wanted too, though?