12 Unsettling Facts About The Metamorphosis

It is one of the most enigmatic stories of all time, with an opening sentence that’s unparalleled in all of literature. Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman living in Prague, wakes one morning from troubled dreams to find himself transformed into—what, exactly, isn’t clear, just as any clear interpretation of The Metamorphosis has eluded readers for decades. In celebration of Franz Kafka's birthday (the author was born in Prague on July 3, 1883), let's take a look at a few things we do know about his mysterious novella.

1. A TORTURED, LONG-DISTANCE RELATIONSHIP PROVIDED INSPIRATION.

In 1912, Kafka met Felice Bauer, an acquaintance of his friend Max Brod, at a dinner party in Prague. He began writing to Bauer, who lived in Berlin, shortly after, eventually penning two and three letters per day. The correspondence was desperate—and pretty much one-sided. Kafka demanded detailed accounts of Bauer’s days, expressed his love for her and visions of their future together, and demanded that Bauer, who would eventually become his fiancé, respond to him in kind. Lying in bed one morning, Kafka told himself he wouldn’t get up until he’d received Bauer’s next letter. A story, he later wrote her, began to take shape.

2. HE WROTE IT WHILE WORKING ON ANOTHER NOVEL.

Kafka was having a hard time turning out his first novel (which he never finished, and which was published after his death under the title Amerika). Once the inspiration for The Metamorphosis came, he seized on it and resolved to write it quickly, in two or three sittings. There were delays—Kafka was, after all, working full time at an insurance company—but he still was able to finish the first draft in three weeks, from mid November to early December, 1912.

3. IT TOOK THREE YEARS TO GET PUBLISHED.

Kafka read a section from his "bug piece," as he called it, aloud to friends on November 24, 1912. They began talking about the work, and soon publishers were expressing interest. Due to his preoccupations with writing Bauer and with Amerika, though, it took Kafka months to write a new manuscript. Then World War I broke out, causing further delays. Finally, in October 1915, the story appeared in the literary journal Die weissen Blätter, with a book printing two months later by publisher Kurt Wolff Verlag in Leipzig.

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS TRANSLATIONS OF THE FAMOUS OPENING LINE.

Over the years, translators have had Gregor Samsa transform into "a monstrous cockroach," "an enormous bedbug," and "a large verminous insect," among other things. While scholars agree Gregor changes into a bug of some sort, the exact entomology remains a mystery. And that seems to be Kafka's intention, as the German word he uses for Gregor’s new form, "Ungeziefer," suggests a bug, a vermin and, in Old High German, an unclean animal unfit for sacrifice.

5. KAFKA FORBID HIS PUBLISHER FROM PORTRAYING "THE INSECT" ON THE COVER.

Given the ambiguity over Gregor’s new form, Kafka argued that its picture should not appear on the cover, as his publisher suggested. Kafka wrote to Verlag, "The insect itself is not to be drawn. It is not even to be seen from a distance." He got his wish, with the first edition featuring a drawing of a tormented man wearing a robe. Subsequent editions, however, have interpreted Gregor in all sorts of creepy, crawly forms.

6. IT'S A PRETTY FUNNY STORY, IF YOU THINK ABOUT IT.

Viewed one way, a story about a man who wakes up to find he’s a bug is horrifying. Viewed another way, it’s hilarious. Indeed, scholars and readers alike have delighted in Kafka’s gallows humor and matter-of-fact handling of the absurd and the terrifying. The first pages of The Metamorphosis where Gregor tries to communicate through the bedroom door with his family, who think he’s merely being lazy, is vintage screwball comedy. As translator Susan Bernofsky wrote: "I imagine Kafka laughing uproariously when reading the story to his friends."

7. THE LANGUAGE IS FULL OF DOUBLE MEANINGS AND CONTRADICTIONS.

Dream logic and contradictions abound in Kafka’s work. A man is summoned to a trial for an unnamed offense; a country doctor is instantly transported to the home of a sick patient, who tells him he only wants to be left to die. These contortions happen even at the language level, leaving translators to puzzle over the double meanings in Kafka’s German. In The Metamorphosis, he describes Gregor crawling along the walls of his room using the verb "kriechen," which means "to creep" as well as "to cower." Thus Gregor’s meekness as a man is reinforced even as he tries to assert his new insect identity.

8. ITS MANY INTERPRETATIONS INCLUDE A FREUDIAN ONE.

It’s an interpretation of the human condition, an allegory for aging, and a cry of desperation in a rapidly industrializing society. There are many different interpretations of The Metamorphosis, from the oddly specific (it’s all about the dangers of insomnia) to something resembling Lost (it was all just a dream!). There’s also a Freudian theory that states, in essence, the book was Kafka’s way of getting back at his overbearing father.

9. VLADIMIR NABOKOV WAS A BIG FAN—AND CRITIC.

The Lolita author, in a famous lecture he gave about The Metamorphosis, called Kafka "the greatest German writer of our time." Nabokov was also a first-rate scientist and lepidopterist, and he concluded that Gregor Samsa had been transformed into a winged beetle. Despite his reverence, Nabokov the wordsmith couldn’t resist line editing Kafka’s story—or the English version of it, anyway.

10. STAGE PRODUCTIONS HAVE GOTTEN PRETTY CREATIVE.

How do you portray a man who turns into a giant insect on stage? Plays, operas and even ballet productions have done it using everything from distorted sets to animation to buckets and buckets of brown slime. A Japanese theater company did away with the bug motif altogether and made Gregor a robot.

11. IT WAS ON DAVID CRONENBERG'S MIND WHEN HE FILMED THE FLY.

When writing his script for the 1986 sci-fi/horror classic, Cronenberg couldn’t help but see the parallels between his story, in which a brilliant scientist accidentally transforms himself into a grotesque human/fly hybrid, and Kafka’s. In an introduction to a recent translation of The Metamorphosis, Cronenberg wrote that he thought of Kafka specifically when he wrote this line for the unlucky Seth Brundle (played by Jeff Goldblum): "I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over, and the insect is awake."

12. BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH READ IT ON BBC RADIO

Can you imagine a more ideal voice for such a surreal story? The Sherlock actor read the novella in its entirety to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Sadly, the broadcast is no longer available for free on the BBC's site, but you can find it here.

5 Facts About Shirley Jackson

Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House
Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House

Midcentury American writer Shirley Jackson has long been known for her spooky short story "The Lottery," which caused widespread controversy when it came out in The New Yorker in 1948 and continues to appear in short story anthologies today. Her equally haunted novels are less widely read. But ever since her 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House was turned into a hit Netflix series, her work has been experiencing a critical and popular revival more than 50 years after her death. (A well-reviewed 2017 biography as well as new releases of some of her short stories and previously unpublished writings in the last few years have no doubt helped.)

If you’re just catching on to Shirley Jackson mania, here are five things to know about the master of gothic horror.

1. Many modern writers cite her as an inspiration.

Shirley Jackson has a number of fans among modern writers. Stephen King has called The Haunting of Hill House one of the two "great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years,” and he has said he wrote The Shining with Jackson’s The Sundial in mind. Writers like Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates sing her praises, and Donna Tartt has called her stories “among the most terrifying ever written.” Sylvia Plath was a fan, too, and hoped to interview her during summer internship at Mademoiselle in 1953. It didn’t work out, but Plath would go on to write works with plenty of parallels to Jackson’s.

2. Shirley Jackson was her family's chief breadwinner.

Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, was a writer, too. A literary critic who taught literature at Bennington College, it was his job that brought the couple to the small Vermont city, where Jackson often chafed at being placed in the role of faculty wife. Yet it was Jackson’s work that supported the family. (Like many wives of her day, she also did all the cooking, cleaning, taking care of their four kids, and driving the family around town—as one of Hyman’s former students wrote of him, “Stanley never did anything practical if he could help it.”)

In addition to the fees she earned selling short stories and novels, Jackson had a lucrative career writing lighthearted essays on motherhood and family life for women’s magazines, which she eventually parlayed two successful memoirs.

3. Shirley Jackson claimed to be a witch.

In keeping with the haunted themes in her writing, Jackson studied the history of witchcraft and the occult, and often told people she was a witch—though that may have been in part a publicity tactic. As Ruth Franklin writes in her 2017 Jackson biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life:

"During her lifetime, she fascinated critics and readers by playing up her interest in magic: The biographical information on her first novel identifies her as ‘perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch, specializing in small-scale black magic and fortune-telling with a tarot deck.’ To interviewers, she expounded on her alleged abilities, even claiming that she used magic to break the leg of publisher Alfred A. Knopf, with whom her husband was involved in a dispute. Reviewers found those stories irresistible, extrapolating freely from her interest in witchcraft to her writing, which often takes a turn into the uncanny. ‘Miss Jackson writes not with a pen but a broomstick’ was an oft-quoted line."

It’s not clear whether she actually performed any magic rituals, but she referenced them often, usually in a tongue-in-cheek way. She often joked with her editors about bringing about victories for her favorite baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, through her magical abilities.

Her interest was definitely real, though. She started studying witchcraft while writing a paper as a student at the University of Rochester, and later took up tarot reading. Her personal library was filled with hundreds of books about witchcraft, and in 1956, she wrote a children’s book, The Witchcraft of Salem Village, about the history of the Salem witch trials.

4. Shirley Jackson considered becoming a professional cartoonist.

Jackson wasn’t just good with words. She loved to draw, and even considered becoming a professional cartoonist at one point, according to Franklin. While her favorite subjects were cats, she regularly made minimalist, humorous sketches of herself and the people around her (particularly her husband), keeping a kind of cartoon diary of her life.

“They’re Thurber-esque in style, but they’re kind of edgy, too,” her son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, told The Guardian of the drawings in 2016. “There’s one in which she is trudging up a hill carrying bags of groceries, and my father is sitting in his chair, reading. ‘Dear,’ he says, without bothering to get up. ‘You know you’re not supposed to carry heavy things when you’re pregnant!’” Some of these drawings are held with Jackson’s papers in the Library of Congress, including sketches she made of how she imagined the layout of Hill House. Her unpublished illustrated ABC book for kids, The Child's Garden of New Hampshire, is also held there.

5. Shirley Jackson died before finishing her last novel.

Jackson died unexpectedly from heart failure in 1965 at the age of 48. (At the time, newspapers listed her as 45, as she often lied about her age, perhaps to minimize the age difference between her and her husband, who was two years younger than she.)

A significant chunk of her work has been published since her death, though. When she died, she was in the midst of writing a novel, Come Along With Me, which was published in its incomplete format by her husband in 1968. In 1996, Laurence Jackson Hyman found a crate of unpublished stories by his mother, and, with his sister, Sarah Hyman Dewitt, turned them into a collection called Just an Ordinary Day. In 2015, they edited and released Let Me Tell You, a collection of stories, essays and lectures from her archive that were mostly unfinished or unpublished at the time of her death.

12 Surprising Facts About Evelyn Waugh

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Evelyn Waugh was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century. From his early satires, like Decline and Fall, to his more serious works, like Brideshead Revisited, Waugh is beloved by both literary critics and readers. But many readers don’t know much about Evelyn Waugh, the man, who was born in London in 1903. Here are 12 facts about his colorful life and work.

1. Evelyn Waugh's first name caused confusion.

Waugh was often mistaken in print for a woman, thanks to his first name. In 2016, a TIME poll even named him the 97th "most read female author in college classes," a mistake that inevitably went viral.

This wasn’t even the strangest incident. When Waugh arrived in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia and Eritrea) in the 1930s, on assignment from the Daily Mail, he found that the Italian military's occupation of the city of Asmara had resulted in a population of seven white women and 60,000 men. Waugh's Italian host was ecstatic to hear about the arrival of the female-sounding Evelyn Waugh, and raced to the airport with a bouquet of flowers—and was sorely disappointed. Ironically, Waugh's given first name was Arthur (Evelyn was one of his middle names).

2. Evelyn Waugh’s first wife was also named Evelyn.

Waugh married Evelyn Gardner, an aristocratic socialite, in June 1928 despite the objections of her family; they thought Waugh lacked ambition and direction. Their friends called them He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn. The marriage broke down a year later, however, when Gardner had an affair with their mutual friend, John Heygate, and eventually left Waugh for him. In 1936, Waugh had his first marriage annulled and married Gardner’s cousin, Laura Herbert, in 1937. They had seven children.

3. Evelyn Waugh was incredibly old-fashioned.

According to NBC producer Edwin Newman, who filmed a TV interview with Waugh in 1956, the novelist wished he had been born 200 or 300 years earlier. He loathed the modern world and its technology; he refused to fly in a plane or learn to how to drive a car. He resisted using the telephone in favor of writing letters, which he did with an old-fashioned pen dipped in ink. His quirky eccentricity informed his conservative political leanings and his opposition to reforms in the Catholic Church, of which he was a devout convert.

4. Evelyn Waugh's brother wrote a bestselling novel at age 17.

Alec Waugh, Evelyn's older brother, wrote the semi-autobiographical novel The Loom of Youth based on his time at the elite Sherborne School, a boarding school in Dorset. The novel was incredibly controversial for its time—it depicted homosexual relationships between students as well as hypocrisies and prejudices in the school system—and it was also an immediate success when it was published in 1917. Alec was then fighting as part of the British army in World War I.

The Loom of Youth hit close enough to the truth that Sherborne's headmaster wrote to Alec and accused him of libel. He also told Alec that he was being expelled from the Old Shirburnian Society, a private organization for former Sherborne students; he remains the only student to have ever been booted from it.

5. Evelyn Waugh based his novel Scoop on his career as a journalist.

In 1935, Waugh and approximately 100 other journalists arrived in Abyssinia to cover the invasion of Benito Mussolini’s fascist military. Waugh didn't think much of being a journalist. According to The Guardian, he described journalists as "lousy competitive hysterical [and] lying." Waugh didn't even know how to use a typewriter and regularly predicted breaking news that never materialized. His distaste for journalism and the people who practice it inspired his satirical, semi-autobiographical novel Scoop.

6. Evelyn Waugh failed to deliver his one real scoop.

Portrait of Evelyn Waugh by Carl Van Vechten

While in Abyssinia, Waugh befriended some Italians, who gave him a heads-up when their leader was preparing to leave Addis—a move that meant the fascist invasion was imminent. It was the moment they had all been waiting for, and Waugh didn't want the tip to find its way into another journalist's hands. Waugh sent a telegram alerting his Daily Mail editors to this development, but wrote it in Latin. The attempt at subterfuge backfired: The editors thought it was nonsense and threw it away.

7. The Daily Beast is named as an homage to Evelyn Waugh.

The paper at the center of Scoop is the brazen tabloid The Daily Beast. In 2008, editor Tina Brown chose that name for her news website to honor Waugh's novel. But critics picked up on the fact that, just like its fictional counterpart, Brown’s project was owned and financed by a media baron. In her case, it was film and television executive Barry Diller; in Scoop it's the unscrupulous Lord Copper, which invited unwanted comparisons when The Daily Beast website launched.

8. Winston Churchill procured a military commission for Evelyn Waugh.

At the start of World War II, Waugh solicited his friend Randolph Churchill, the son of future prime minister Winston Churchill, to help him obtain a military commission. Waugh finally got a position in the Royal Marines because of the elder Churchill’s admiration for his dogged determination. While one of his subordinates said that he was "everything you'd expect an officer to be,” nothing in his plummy upbringing prepared him to lead rank-and-file soldiers.

9. Evelyn Waugh stole his children’s bananas.

After World War II ended, a shipment of bananas arrived in England for the first time in years. Laura Herbert Waugh managed to procure three bananas for her three oldest children. As son Auberon recounted in his 1991 autobiography, Evelyn snatched the fruit for himself, peeled each one, doused them in cream and sugar, and ate them as his children watched. "He was permanently marked down in my estimation from that moment," Auberon wrote.

10. Evelyn Waugh killed a Hollywood film of Brideshead Revisited.

MGM proposed a film version of Waugh's epic novel Brideshead Revisited in 1946, and offered a significant sum for the rights. When Waugh met the screenwriter in 1947, he realized that Hollywood saw Brideshead only as a love story with a happy ending—not a family and class saga interwoven with Catholic themes, as Waugh had written it. He sent the studio a condescending letter that effectively guaranteed the project would fall through.

11. Evelyn Waugh got his friend to change his will to avoid lawsuits.

While he was in Hollywood for the Brideshead discussions, Waugh visited the famed cemetery Forest Lawn Memorial Park, where numerous movie stars are interred. Forest Lawn aimed to erase signs of mourning by replacing headstones with brass plaques, giving corpses extensive cosmetic treatment and elaborate embalming, and naming sections of the cemetery Babyland, Graceland, and Eventide.

The visit inspired his 1948 novel The Loved One, which satirizes the funeral business and the movie industry. His publishers were concerned that he could get sued, since "Whispering Glades" in The Loved One could easily be recognized as Forest Lawn. So he got his aristocratic friend, Lord Stanley of Alderley, to vouch for the legitimacy of his prose by adding a codicil to his will stating that he wanted to be buried at Forest Lawn because it resembled the beautiful place described in The Loved One. The endorsement of a lord evidently carried weight: After 10 years without a lawsuit, Stanley removed the codicil.

12. Sunset Boulevard owes a debt to The Loved One.

When he couldn't secure film rights to The Loved One, director Billy Wilder used elements of the story in his masterpiece Sunset Boulevard. Wilder's main character, Joe Gillis, is a washed-up screenwriter like Waugh’s Dennis Barlow. Both men live with a faded Hollywood talent in a dilapidated mansion with an empty swimming pool: Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond was a silent film star and Waugh’s Sir Francis Hinsley is a former scriptwriter. And Waugh’s protagonist works in a pet cemetery, while Wilder's Norma mistakenly thinks that Joe has come to bury her pet monkey.

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