lecture by Vladimir Nabokov
annotation by Tina Rubin
Kafka’s remarkable tale of a young man who awakens after unsettling dreams to find himself changed into a monstrous vermin invites interpretation on every level. Before reading Nabokov’s lecture on the novella, I suspected that the theme was religious, based on Gregor Samsa’s humanity and selflessness to the end; his lonely death of starvation after his sister’s declaration that he, the beetle, must go; and the resurrection of his family after his death. Thus I read Nabokov’s interpretation with great interest. He says that Kafka was not interested in religion at all but in literature.
The greatness of this work, which Nabokov points out, to me lies in Kafka’s ability to portray “objective reality,” which includes elements of lunacy, poetry, emotion—in other words, an average sampling of a million different realities—while winning the reader’s sympathy. Gregor belongs to an absurd world that he tragically refuses to accept, and dies trying. As Kafka layers in the details of the family’s life and Gregor’s human role as the sincere breadwinner trying to pay off his father’s debts, he stirs up disdain for the family’s cruel treatment of him—including his father’s deception and his beloved sister’s cold betrayal. Too, the skill with which Kafka balances Gregor’s humanity with his growing insect attributes creates ever-increasing tension, and the symbolism throughout adds brilliant richness. As Nabokov notes, Gregor is a human disguised as an insect; his family are insects disguised as people—“nothing more than mediocrity surrounding genius.” Kafka is one of those geniuses to learn from.