Guest Post/Book Review: Kafka for Kids: Matthue Roth’s My First Kafka and Challenges of Representation


“Kafka for Kids: Matthue Roth’s My First Kafka and Challenges of Representation” by Hillel Broder

Matthue Roth’s fancifully illustrated and elegant, poetic adaptation of three of Kafka’s short works , My First Kafka, was released this month, and to a series of high-profile and sweepingly positive reviews, receptions, and readings. Most recently, bits from Roth’s work were read on the BBC the morning of June 25, 2013 as part of a feature piece on the disturbing and uncanny elements generic to children’s literature. Likewise, The New Yorker’s book blog Page Turner offered a brief but flattering review on June 19, 2013; in it, Kelsey Osgood employed Roth’s work as a site to similarly interrogate the dark complexity of children’s literature in general and the comfort with which children negotiate the uncanny elements of their early lives a la Freud and Sendak. While characterizing Roth’s adaptation as paradigmatic of the genre, Osgood distinguishes  Roth’s pithy verse as “smooth”, “naturally eerie and imaginative”, and even Seussian; he sees the work’s accompanying black-and-white illustrations (by the very talented Rohan Daniel Eason) as a “cross between Edward Gorey and a dichromatic ‘Yellow Submarine’”.

As a father of young children, high school teacher of literature, and doctoral student of literary modernism, I wondered, too, about Kafka’s relevance to and reception by younger minds. Having read Roth’s book myself this past spring to both my own four-year-old son as part of his bedtime routine and to my sixteen-year-old students as part of their unit on Kafka’s original work, I was surprised by the various receptions and responses. Child and adolescent alike took great pleasure in the absurd premise of the work, as they were likewise sympathetic for Gregor Samsa’s alienating plight and bothered by Gregor’s father’s cruelty.

What’s most interesting, however, were the different registers in reading—the sorts of questions related to representation and even morality that children come to expect when reading, more generally, but which are foiled—or at least complicated—by Kafka’s work.

I’ll start with the following, perhaps disputable assertion. Kafka’s work is quite accessible to even the most challenged readers and critical thinkers, and here’s why: first and foremost, it is a work that demands to be taken literally, and so superficially, it is a simple tale that is tragic, comic, and direct in its telling. For a four-year old who believes, instinctively, in the magic of fairy tales, this isn’t much of a mental hurdle. But for students who have been taught, year after year, to read fiction for its symbolic richness, figurative language character development, plot conflict, and various other familiar forms, The Metamorphosis can be off-putting.

In fact, Kafka’s work is most challenging in the figurative register because it, on no uncertain terms, literalizes what students have been trained to recognize as a metaphor. Generally speaking, high school students’ first reactions to the work—either following a first read or having heard of the work from others—immediately move to the symbolic realm: the “monstrous vermin” into which Gregor Samsa has transformed seems to carry with it a tremendous amount of cultural baggage (and indeed, the German ungezeifer was later used by Hitler to depict the verminous Jew)—and so such a transformation must be a dream, a self-image, a self-inflicted punishment, or some other symbolic means to depict the abject (perhaps the Czech, the Jew, the newly Secular). And ethically speaking, to a certain degree this is a kind and compassionate reading—students have been taught to recognize and redeem, to the best of their ability, the downtrodden.

And yet, Kafka’s work plays on the surface, as it were: it demands that we read a tale, from the very start, about an already-transformed Gregor, his alienation within his own home, his general neglect by his own family, and his final demise through festering wounds triggered by miscommunications and reactions of violence. It is a fantasy made reality of an industrious worker who is at once enslaved by providing for his family but retains his family’s disabled state through their complacent irrelevance. In turn, through his abjection, the family transforms into an industrious and productive unit. Indeed, the true transformation (Kafka’s German title Die Verwandlung is closer to “transformation” than  “metamorphosis”) is enjoyed by Gregor’s family as they flourish in his absence.

In this regard, Roth’s telling of the story does a fantastic job retaining Kafka’s rich literality, while amplifying some of the empathic elements that might be most evocative to children. Roth’s first stanza incorporates the nonchalant shock of Kafka’s original—“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect-like creature”, but with a slight preface:

“Gregor Samsa always had bad dreams. /One morning he awoke to find / He’d become a giant bug”.

Here, Roth allows the child to know—and the adult to recognize—that Gregor’s disturbance precedes his transformation; that we should pity Gregor, too, goes unsaid, but is very much a significant sentiment in Roth’s iteration of the character that extends through Gregor’s final moments in part three in which he euphemistically passes as “his head sank down /and he watched the dawn.”

A distinguished slam poet, memoirist, and fiction writer  in his own right, Roth’s precise use of line break and stanza break and deep sensitivity to metered verse informs the pacing of such a reading as much as it influences the reader’s organization of meaning. The first line cited above is neatly trochaic, almost Poe-like; the final two aforementioned perform as elegant Iambs.

And yet. Despite the work’s literal ease—and the way in which such an aesthetic is enhanced by Roth’s elegant lines and Eason’s illustrations–Kafka himself demanded, in a  1916 letter to the Kurt Wolff Publishing Company, that his literalized metaphor never be illustrated on the book’s cover or otherwise: “…The insect itself cannot be drawn. It cannot even be shown at a distance.” Perhaps there’s some insistence here of the sacrosanct Word—from a post-structuralist point of view, it would be heretical to depict a signifier as anything other than other signifiers; from a theological perspective, making an image of the holy Word would be to make a fixed fetish out of the dynamic Becoming of God.

Regardless, here’s where the really complicated twist lies: while Kafka’s work demands to be read literally and nearly without a moral—almost as a sequence of events, without fully developed characters, and without a clear conflict and climax—it also resists the clarity that might accompany such literality. This is manifest in both the linguistic and visual registers.

Visually, not only must the vermin never be illustrated, for Kafka, but it is clear that the vermin is not obviously classified. The word itself—Ungeziefer—translates colloquially as vermin, bug, or insect, but means in formal German “unfit for sacrifice”. While many render Gregor’s creature-self as an ambiguously roach-like figure (R. Crumb’s visual rendition of Gregor in his Introducing Kafka approximates that of a giant roach; Peter Kuper’s surreal and complete graphic novel The Metamorphosis likewise maintains a human head, though on a roach’s body), Nabokov famously rejected such a possibility given the creature’s capacity to turn its head and its short legs. Instead, he suggests, on zoological grounds, that Gregor approximates a beetle. For the experimental reader but textual purist, the Metamorphosis Ipad app, illustrated and designed by Joel Golombeck of Rocket Chair Media, retains the dynamic movement of Kafka’s text through focused, paneled reading, even as it offers an abstract, watercolor illustrations, which illuminate, but not depict, the text and its characters. In Roth’s edition, however, Eason’s illustrations of Gregor attempt a balance that is at once psychedelic and concrete: elaborate designs that seem to shift over the course of the work and mimic butterfly wings, peacock feathers, and what seems like Rorschach Ink blots adorn Gregor’s definitive beetle shell. Such designs constellate new faces on Gregor’s creaturely body and seem to suggest the opacity of Gregor’s undefinable image—or at least as one that contains the possibility for many.

Textually, Roth’s writing reads easily to a four year old, but Roth retains Kafka’s ambivalent and indeterminate narrating voice. It is in the narrating voice in Kafka’s text, I suggest, through which the reader of this masterwork apprehends his or her own uncertainty about the “moral of the story” or a proper empathic reaction to the characters’ tragedies. On the one hand, both Kafka’s and Roth’s narrating voice seems to possess a privileged perspective into Gregor’s mind alone; we learn, for example, that “Gregor realized that nobody understood him” and that when “he could no longer move / at all”, “it was a nice feeling.” On the other hand, this third person narrator retains a certain distance that forbids the reader certain guidance regarding how he/she could—or should—react. Kafka does this magnificently well, and Roth retains this distance in his pithy prose poem. Take, as a lucid example, three of the six final stanzas of the work:

In the morning / they discovered / that Gregor could not move.

“Look how thin he was,” / said Gregor’s sister./ “He hadn’t eaten / in so long.”

The three of them / left the house together / (something they hadn’t done / for months)

Here, what goes unsaid breathes between the lines of Roth’s careful verse. Gregor’s immobility displaces the non-event of his passing, and Gregor’s family is content to literally sweep his dead carcass under the rug, with only a single but casual query of what seems an unconcerned sister. The final stanza depicting their subsequent departure screams of injustice as they celebrate their triad (threes, in Kafka’s work, are everywhere—and seem to indicate an impenetrable structure to which Gregor is the abject fourth).

Walter Benjamin famously wrote that Kafka “could grasp some things always only in gesture. And this gesture, which he did not understand, forms the cloudy spot of his parables.” Here, the gesture is that which, within Kafka’s parabolic language, resists an easy movement of meaning making. Put even better, Werner Hamacher writes the following about Benjamin’s reading of Kafka:

In the text of the parable, the cloudy spot about which Benjamin speaks is the

dark moment that remains opaque to doctrine. The cloud does not present doctrine but rather conceals it. At best, it distorts doctrine and disavows the task of exemplary, instructive narrative: to make one aware of its moral without delay and without obfuscation.

Thus, the challenge of reading, teaching, translating and adapting Kafka (even for children) is retaining both its parabolic sense—its sense that it demands a symbolic or even moralistic reading—and its resistance to being read in any other way but literally. In turn, a literal rendition of Kafka’s work must retain this very opacity—this cloudy spot or gesture—that continues to keep Kafka’s work alive through its very impenetrability. Roth’s work, in this regard, is a welcome addition to the long tradition of retelling Kafka’s Metamorphosis: it is elegant and accessible in its understated and literal tone, and it challenges the reader with the very same textual and visual impasses evoked by Kafka’s original. What Roth knows is that children luxuriate in the literal—in all of its complexity and irrationality, and the sensibility of the Schliemel, too (as has been explored in these very pages), retains this tension of the relationally textual—and playful—surface.

Hillel Broder is a doctoral student of English at the CUNY Graduate Center–where he specializes in twentieth-century modernism and cognitive cultural studies–and a high school teacher of English at SAR High School in Riverdale, NY.  This is his second guest post for Schlemiel-in-Theory.  His first was on Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka and Gesture.

Kafka, Seriously: Paul Auster’s Kafka


After reading and posting Matthue Roth’s guest post yesterday, I reflected on how seriously many writers, literary critics, and philosophers took Kafka.  I find it interesting that few can sense the irony and humor in his work. What they usually find is weight and despondency.  What I’m looking for in Kafka is much different.

I’m looking for the comical aspect of his work.  Like Walter Benjamin, I am looking where no one else looks.  And taking Kafka’s cues, I’m looking for the small things.  Its these small things that make for a nuanced schlemiel.   One need not go so deep.  One can stay on the surface.  But, strangely enough, staying on the surface is a serious endeavor.

The comic aspect of Kafka’s work may be found in the close attention to detail. One may not think this comic; but for Shalom Aleichem, Motl or Menachem Mendl’s attention to detail is the basis for their constant distraction.  The same can be said for Charlie Chaplin or any of the Three Stooges.

Like children, they forget what they are supposed to do and get caught in something else.  They don’t get caught up in the depths or with the seriousness of the sacred.  They play.

And this is what Matthue was pointing out in his post.  To be sure, his book My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents, and Giant Bugs is for kids.  It is replete with accessible phrasing and illustrations to capture the imagination of children and adults (or man-children).

As I pointed out in my reading of Kafka’s “Temple” aphorism, the childish scribbles on the temple remain.  They are on the surface of the temple and reduce its depth.  Yet, at the same time, the children’s scribbles have made a serious joke out of the temple.

The trick, in Kafka, is to figure out how to retrain the tension between the serious and the comic.  By doing this, the reader will not get stumped in the seriousness of his or her solitude and despondence.

On this note, I recently read Paul Auster’s “Pages for Kafka” with great interest. The piece, written in 1974 (and published in The Art of Hunger), is an indication of how seriously one can take Kafka.  The short piece was written, like Walter Benjamin’s piece on Kafka, for the anniversary of Kafka’s death.  Due to the occasion, one would expect it, to some extent, to be serious and mournful.  Moreover, Auster is not known for writing comic novels.

On the one hand, Auster’s reading reflects an acute sense of despair that is based on a journey that never goes anywhere.  On the other hand, it has a comic ring to it since ‘he’ (that is, Kafka) is constantly getting distracted.  Even though the failures Auster enumerates in this piece seem to tilt the balance toward a serious and mournful approach to Kafka, they are ultimately based on Kafka’s ridiculous and impossible endeavor.

Auster begins his piece by describing Kafka’s main endeavor (which we find in the Octavio Notebooks or in a piece like “Before the Law”): “He wanders toward paradise.”

This wandering is endemic for Auster.  He meditates on it in the whole piece and relates it to one of his favorite themes (in many of his books): the travelogue.

Auster notes that Kafka “moves from one place to another, and dreams of stopping”(23).   But he can’t stop because this “desire to stop” haunts him. This makes no sense.  How could a desire to do something keep one from doing it?  Isn’t he haunted, rather, by the goal, paradise?  Auster explains by simply reiterating: “He wanders.  That is to say: without the slightest hope of ever going anywhere.”

If that is the case, then why is he still walking?  And what would a schlemiel be if he had no hope of going anywhere?  Gimpel, for instance, is the embodiment of hope.  That’s why he continually trusts people while being betrayed by them.   And, as we learn at the end of Singer’s tale, he keeps on wandering.

I’d like to suggest that we read Auster against Kafka (or “him”).  The narrator is making his skeptical observations of “him” – the fool on the road to paradise named Kafka.  By reading Auster this way, we can see just how comic this piece really is.

For the narrator, the central paradox can be found in Kafka’s inertia and its relationship to wandering: “He is never going anywhere.  And yet he is always going.”  The reason for this, says Auster, has to do with the fact that Kafka is “invisible to himself.”  Lest we not forget, this is one of the most important aspects of the schlemiel.  S/he doesn’t know what s/he is doing.  Although they are hopeful, his/her actions don’t fit with reality.  Auster tells us that, in being invisible  to himself, Kafka “gives himself up to the drift of his body, as if he could follow the trail of what refuses him.”

In other words, Auster is willing to concede that Kafka, like Don Quixote, is a blind wanderer.  Even though he doesn’t know where he is going and is blind to it, his “blindness…invents the road he has taken.”  This invention is not “intentional”; it is, rather, based on giving in to what Kafka, in his Octavio Notebooks, called the “indestructible.”  Because he is a skeptical narrator, Auster won’t call it faith or passion.  Rather, for Auster, it is a surrender to “the drift of his body.”    And we can have no doubt that this can be comical and even inspiring – although it is “misguided” and although we “know” he’ll never reach paradise.

Here Auster notes the “existential” nature of this “road.”  Even though it is misguided, it is “his road, his alone.”  And the further along he goes on it, the more he “doubts.”  His breaths become “fitful.”   No one “rhythm” or “pace” can be held because of this ever-increasing doubt.  The image is kind of like Chaplin’s going down a road, but with a difference.  This movement is more fitful and less graceful.

Auster adds another element to Kafka’s walk; namely, his past and his point of departure.  Auster notes, with melancholy, that he leaves it behind and thinks he has a vantage point, but he doesn’t.

His only “law” is that “he remains.” And instead of looking to the future, Auster tells us that he looks down:

All this conspires against him, so that each moment, even as he continues on his way, he feels he must turn his eyes from the distance that lies before him, like a lure, to the movement of his feet, appearing and disappearing below him (24).

In other words, the fool will look at what’s near him and get caught up in it.  That’s where he foolishly “remains.”  He’s caught up in the details and, as Auster puts it, he becomes an “intimate of all that is near.”

But unlike the playful Motl or Menachem Mendl of Shalom Aleichem, he gets too caught up in detail and this attachment weakens “him”:

Whatever he can touch, he lingers over, examines, describes with a patience that at each moment exhausts him, overwhelms him, so that even as he goes on, he calls this going into question, and questions each step he is about to take (25).

This is the Kafka-schlemiel trap.  He can’t move because he is too attached to what is near him.  He gets caught up in it and questions about where to go after he has encountered this or that detail.  Auster sums this up with an adage of sorts: “He who lives for an encounter with the unseen becomes an instrument of the seen.”  He becomes a “spokesman of its surfaces.” But that is not what “he” wants.  He wants to go to paradise but, Auster tells us, Kafka gets caught up on the way with the road.  In other words, he’s a schlemiel like Mendl Mocher Sforim’s schlemiels The Wanderings of Benjamin III who can’t arrive at their destination.

After noting “his” being stuck on the surface, Auster repeats the message: “He wanders.”  And then he states Kafka’s other law.  He doesn’t simply remain “where he is” he also has an ethos:

Whatever is given to him, he will refuse. Whatever is spread before him, he will turn his back on.  He will refuse, the better to hunger for what he has denied himself. For to enter the promised land is to despair of ever coming near it.

This is Auster’s law.  It is the law of hunger.  And it keeps him moving and not moving.  It keeps him hungering for fragments.  For, between one shadow or one fragment and another, says Auster, there is light.

What this amounts to is a serious endeavor that clings to and rejects revelation.  Yet, on the other hand, it is a comic endeavor.  But who is “he.”  Kafka? Auster?

In the end, he, whoever he is, is like Sancho Panza following Don Quixote.  The narrator’s description ends with a note of redemption in the sense that he says that between one shadow and another there is light.  But does he think this or does the narrator?

Who would take such a foolish path?  Is the author dreaming of light between this or that thing or is the he, the schlemiel, dreaming this?

A rationalist would reject such a road, but the writer doesn’t.  For Auster, the poet must trust experience even if it is, at times, deceptive.  This is what the schlemiel teaches us. Although we, the readers, may see that paradise is not to be found, the road to experience paves the way (or as Auster says, “invents” the way).  And it brings the world near to us in the most comic fashion.  As the world approaches, Paradise withdraws but the schlemiel insists that the way to paradise is through the world.  And this is the comic conceit.

He actually thinks that in this or that fragment, this or that thing, redemption is near.  While we all “know” its ridiculous, however, we still foolishly follow “him” (like children who should ‘know better’) in his journey   And so does Auster.

Seriously.  I’m not joking.

Guest Post by Author Matthue Roth: “How to Analyze Kafka (Hint: It Helps if You’re 4 yrs Old)”

It’s either a huge compliment or a huge mistake to be invited so kindly to write a piece for this blog — and, more particularly, this series. Diving at the heart of what Kafka has to offer the universe is a noble pursuit, and the idea that I turned some of his stories into a picture book for kids either fits in perfectly or is way out of its depth.
Earlier this week, on this blog’s fabulous series of Kafka-related pieces, the Schlemiel wrote that “Kafka and Benjamin direct us to a more acute sense of the ‘how’ of their work rather than the ‘what.'” When you read Kafka, whether you’re an academic or not, and whether you’re a kid or not, it’s pretty impossible not to look for deeper themes and connections, some meaning beyond the apparent text and, well, thestory of the story. At some point in every Kafka piece, there’s a moment where you pull back* and realize that maybe there are deeper things going on than just the plot, the characters, the events in motion. Is Gregor Samsa a disgrace to his family because he’s a giant vermin, or because he’s a hopelessly single middle-manager? Are The Castle’s K. and The Trial’s Josef merely physically lost, or is there a deeper existential lost-ness?
We’ve been conditioned not to ask these questions, not because they’re obvious (although they certainly are) but because the nature of the question disspells everything we’ve been taught to believe in about stories. Stories are spells, and in them the interior and exterior are fused together, from the sublime to the ridiculous; it’s taken for granted in what we think of today as “serious” literature, but it’s no less true in popular literature. In Twilight, Bella is drawn to a dark, sulking guy because he makes his solitude and broodiness into something supernatural and magical, something she wishes it would be for herself (spoiler: it happens! She becomes a vampire too). In Dan Brown’s books, “symbologist” Robert Langdon is solving literal puzzles and infiltrating secret orders, but he’s also ostensibly engaged in a quest for self-definition, simultaneously attempting to impress whatever vaguely international love interest pops up as well as the naysayers who are, essentially, always asking, what is a symbologist?
So now that I’ve offended basically everyone who’s ever liked Kafka by comparing him to two of the most vapid, flaccid characters in modern fiction (both of which I think are reasonably good books, taken at their own merits), let me dig the knife in a little deeper by suggesting that, if we’re going to set up some sort of objective comparison, Kafka’s stories are more fundamentally poppy than both. Part of what draws us to Kafka, I think, is that there’s no distinction between signifier and signified, barely a set of cultural constructs that we need to understand, barely any references beyond the words themselves. A lot of the time, all we need to understand Kafka’s writing is a rudimentary understanding of the language.
None of which is actually true. The qualities about which he writes, loneliness and isolation and the fundamental meaninglessness, or our inability to find meaning in our lives, are the very stuff that our lives our made of. The other day someone asked me about my My First Kafka book, and, when I explained, he said, “Kafka? You mean, the philosopher?” Maybe once you pare human experience down to a labelless blob of emotions and motivations, as Kafka does, you switch from stories to philosophy. Or maybe at heart all our greatest philosophy are just stories. And that’s why, in the end, kids understand them so much better than the rest of us.
* that is, if you’re me
(In addition to My First Kafka, Matthue Roth is the author of several works of fiction: Never Mind the Goldbergs, Yom Kippur A Go-Go, Candy in Action, Losers, and Automatic. Check out his blog for more: