"The Metamorphosis and Other Stories" by Franz Kafka
"What could one write to such a man, a man who had obviously gone astray and who was certainly to be pitied but could not be helped?"
Franz Kafka wrote these stories between 1913 and his death of tuberculosis in 1924. He is known for his surreal style of writing, and from his name we derive the term "Kafkaesque." He was born to a German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, and his family did not fare well under the Nazis.
None of the stories in this collection are long enough to grow tiresome, though after reading them I have little desire to read Kafka's novels. Having read these stories, I can now say that yes, I have read Kafka, and that no, I wasn't that impressed.
I wouldn't say that his stories are surreal in the modern sense of the word. Yes, many of them follow a peculiar kind of dream-logic, but the majority of his stories just don't seem to go anywhere, or build to a satisfying conclusion. A few of them aren't even stories, but rather extended descriptions of social interactions and phenomena.
"The Metamorphosis" is by far the most famous of Kafka's works, and I couldn't understand what the big deal was. It is as advertised - a story about a man who wakes up as an insect - and little else happens after that. He scurries around his room, his family takes care of him, and that's about all there is to it.
I did like two of the other stories, "The Judgment" and "In the Penal Colony." "The Judgment" has a nice twist at the end, and "In the Penal Colony" offers an interesting look at the criminal justice system. I won't bother explaining them any further, because they are very short.
Those looking for something truly strange will probably find Kafka disappointing. Modern authors have really upped the ante when it comes to strangeness. Likewise, those looking for something intellectually challenging might also wonder whether his reputation is truly deserved. It may be that his novels are much weightier, but I have no desire to find out.
Kafka is light reading compared to authors like Nietzsche, Hesse, or Mann, though it is interesting to speculate on what he might have done if he had lived longer. He was a writer of unquestionable talent, but he, like many of the characters in his stories, seemed unsure about which way to turn.