Hearing Gregor Samsa

April 26, 2019   •   By Nathan Goldman

Kafka and Noise

Kata Gellen

FOR BETTER OR WORSE, whenever a literary work’s reputation precedes it, this foreknowledge obscures the work itself. At the very least, it privileges certain details while eliding many others. So last year, when I set out to read Franz Kafka’s beyond-famous story The Metamorphosis in full for the first time, I knew I would find something that exceeded my expectations.

The story’s beginning didn’t catch me by surprise. The first line is, perhaps, the best known of any Kafka ever wrote. In Willa and Edwin Muir’s translation, the one I read, it runs: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” My first real surprise — and my first moment of unexpected fascination and delight — came a few pages later, in Kafka’s account of Gregor’s voice as he attempts to respond to his mother’s morning greeting:

Gregor had a shock as he heard his own voice answering hers, unmistakably his own voice, it was true, but with a persistent horrible twittering squeak behind it like an undertone, which left the words in their clear shape only for the first moment and then rose up reverberating around them to destroy their sense, so that one could not be sure one had heard them rightly.

It is Gregor’s transformed voice, rather than his shape, that alerts Gregor’s family (and the chief clerk from his office, who has come to see why Gregor is late to work) to his condition. It causes Gregor’s mother to insist that his sister seek a doctor. “Did you hear how he was speaking?” his mother asks. “That,” says the chief clerk, unnerved, “was no human voice.”

After I finished the story, this figure of Gregor’s vocal disfigurement is what stuck with me most persistently. Its account of this acoustic force that “destroy[s] [words’] sense” reminded me of the use of vocal distortion in recent pop music, which can have a similar effect: take, for instance, Kanye West’s exaggerated use of autotune to let his voice flicker in and out of legibility in the outro to “Runaway.” As I made my way through more of Kafka’s oeuvre, I noticed a persistent interest in sound of a particular, provocative kind. As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari observe in the first chapter of their 1975 book Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (in Dana Polan’s translation), Kafka is not interested in “composed and semiotically shaped music” so much as in “a pure and intense sonorous material that is always connected to its own abolition — a deterritorialized musical sound, a cry that escapes signification, composition, song, words — a sonority that ruptures in order to break away from a chain that is still all too signifying.”

In her fascinating new monograph, Kafka and Noise: The Discovery of Cinematic Sound in Literary Modernism, Kata Gellen writes, “Given how influential Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of minor literature has proven, it is remarkable how little attention has been paid to the role of noise within it.” The same could be said for the study of sound in Kafka specifically. Gellen dutifully cites her colleagues and forebears in this venture — chief among them the German scholars Wolf Kittler, Gerhard Kurz, Gerhard Neumann, and Bettine Menke — but states clearly that she is breaking new ground. “This book,” she writes in the first chapter, “constitutes the first sustained study of sound in Kafka’s writing.”

Part of what makes this project such an exciting one is the way in which it strides into uncharted territory while also fulfilling a premise proposed intermittently by major figures in the history of interpreting Kafka. Gellen draws upon a remark made by Theodor Adorno to Walter Benjamin in a letter sent more than 40 years before before Deleuze and Guattari’s book. Adorno writes (in Nicholas Walker’s translation):

Kafka’s novels are not screenplays for experimental theatre, since they lack in principle the very spectator who might intervene in such experiments. They represent rather the last and disappearing connecting texts of the silent film (and it is no accident that the latter disappeared at almost exactly the same time as Kafka’s death); the ambiguity of gesture lies somewhere between sinking into speechlessness (the destruction of language) and the emergence from the latter into music.

Adorno’s analysis is the true precursor to Gellen’s book, which puts into constellation three key concepts: Kafka, sound, and film. “I am not the first to write about sound in Kafka,” Gellen writes, “but I am the first to do so through the conceptual framework of film.” This makes her book the first full elaboration of the framework proposed in Adorno’s comment to Benjamin. From the ground of this elliptical aphorism, Gellen summons a detailed, rigorous study.

Because her approach exceeds the traditional bounds of literary scholarship, Gellen carefully delineates her methodology. She outlines two ways of combining literature and film: an “instrumental” use, in which she “call[s] on terms and concepts from film theory and practice when they help explain something that literary ones alone cannot,” and an analogical use, in which “a previously acknowledged parallel between cinematic and literary phenomena helps us grasp new dimensions and implications of each.” These techniques guide Gellen’s readings of a wide range of Kafka’s works alongside an array of films, from Singin’ in the Rain to The Purple Rose of Cairo. Her goal is not to propose what sound means in Kafka — or, as she sometimes extends her focus, in literary modernism — but rather to show what sound does.

For Gellen, what sound does is even, as Deleuze and Guattari suggest, actively opposed to meaning. Gellen writes that her book’s “central premise is that noise, a phenomenon with no apparent function, meaning, or value, presents a productive obstacle to modernist literary narration.” This resistance to extracting meaning from Kafkan noise puts Gellen implicitly in conversation with another early reader of Kafka, Susan Sontag, whose “Against Interpretation” singles him out as someone whose work “has been subjected to a mass ravishment” by the insatiable will to interpret. (Sontag specifically cites social, psychoanalytic, and religious readings, all of which she finds destructively reductive.) “The function of criticism,” Sontag writes near the essay’s stirring conclusion, “should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.” Gellen’s project shares this spirit, even if her scholarly restraint results less in Sontag’s longed-for “erotics of art” than, perhaps, a technics.

What, then, does sound do in Kafka, and why would the study of film help speak to this function? For Gellen, the answer to the latter question is the generative dissonance created in the application of film studies concepts to literary texts. Concepts forged for one purpose will never quite fit objects of another medium, but, as Gellen writes, “it is precisely this misapplication and this imperfect fit that proves so productive and revealing, since it creates a kind of interpretive tension.” The misapplication, she argues, “creates friction and thereby exposes the assumptions we make about the media in question, their limits, and their possibilities.” This tension runs parallel to “the tension between sound and literature” in general, and it is the limits and possibilities of literature as such — extrapolating from the limits of Kafka’s literature and literary modernism — that lie at the heart of Kafka and Noise. “Noise,” Gellen writes, “becomes a phenomenon through which to investigate […] what literature can and cannot do.” For what, Gellen’s book drives us to ask, is literature an ill-suited medium? And how might this very ill-suitedness become an engine of literary possibility?

The reading that goes the farthest toward advancing these provocative questions is Gellen’s analysis, in the second chapter, of Kafka’s last published story, “Josefine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.” As Gellen points out, this story is suffused with a noise to which the reader is denied access: Josefine’s song. It is a simple fact of literature that it is, in modern practice, a silent medium; this might seem to be an impediment to its ability to represent sound and thus a problem for a story such as “Josefine.” But, as Gellen elucidates, “Josefine” could only exist in such a medium. This is because of the nature of the mouse singer’s song, which is fundamentally indeterminate. The narrator remains uncertain whether it’s “singing” at all, or instead something more like the “whistling” common to the mouse folk, perhaps with some untraceable minor difference. This irresolvable uncertainty is itself the story’s subject. Gellen writes, astutely, that literature’s “stubborn silence is the necessary condition for representing a kind of music whose acoustic effect contains its contradiction.” Here she compares literature to silent film, another “nonsonifying medium,” in which silence doesn’t preclude the representation of sound itself, but rather opens up new possibilities for the kinds of sounds that can be represented. In “Josefine” and other Kafka stories, Gellen argues, in a way similar to silent film, sound is evoked by means of gestures — “descriptions of bodies that signal the presence of sound” — which “do not communicate the content, form, or feeling of the sounds they stand for; rather, they stand in place of sound.”

Particularly engrossing is Gellen’s reading of The Metamorphosis in her first chapter. There, she reveals what can be gained by the application of specific sonic or filmic concepts imported from outside of literary studies. In the case of The Metamorphosis, the operative concept is the “acoustic close-up,” which Gellen develops from the early film theorist Béla Balázs, who proposed it as a way to understand how the then-forthcoming addition of sound to film might provide an opportunity for the medium to inspire reflection on the “soft, intimate sounds” of life of which we often are not conscious, “since they are drowned out by everyday noise as if by an avalanche of sound.” Gellen suggests that this is possible in silent film, too, by visual means — for instance, by a close-up shot of the source of a sound — and also, by different means, in literature. She reads the opening of The Metamorphosis as “an acoustic close-up of the various sounds that constitutes Gregor’s ‘moment’ of awakening,” which allows Kafka “to capture and extend a momentary state on the border between consciousness and unconsciousness, as well as the perceptual conditions that govern it.” Gellen highlights intrusive sounds that punctuate Gregor’s extended period of awakening: the sounding of his alarm clock, his mother’s “soft voice,” his own deformed voice, and finally the “clearer click of the lock” as he manages to turn the key to his bedrom door, which “positively woke Gregor up,” ejecting him from this liminal state. Gellen argues that, by representing the sonic sensitivity characteristic of waking, Kafka narrativizes “a direct, unfiltered, and unbuffered encounter with the external world.”

Gellen’s readings of various films throughout the book do not possess the same depth as her literary analyses. Occasionally, they’re interesting in themselves. But they rarely provide much insight into Kafka’s work beyond what is afforded by the more general application of concepts from film theory or broader comparisons between film and literature. The superfluity of these analyses suggests a possible discomfort with the book’s true subject, or an uncertainty over how much treatment of film goes beyond the central aim of elucidating Kafka. Kafka and Noise is at its best when most deeply engaged in readings of Kafka; when it strays from this mission, whether to explore the details of specific films or to make unspecific historical claims, it falters.

This is not to say that Gellen’s interest in broadening the book’s scope from particular readings of Kafka is unwelcome, when done precisely. The short epilogue, in which Gellen proposes the idea of a “modernist epistemology of literary sound” — that “sound and noise […] reflect distinctly modernist ways of perceiving and knowing” — convincingly suggests ways in which her research could be extended to better understand modernism, and — because of modernism’s characteristic concern with pressing the limits of literature — to better understand literature as such. She concludes with a few possibilities for pursuing this idea of a modernist epistemology of literary sound through the emerging field of sound studies, and, conversely, for enriching sound studies by expanding its scope to include consideration of literature, which it has largely ignored.

Indeed, the most far-ranging possible application of Gellen’s work is its argument for the significance of the possible presence — by means of absence — of sound in literature, in a distinctly generative sense. Near the book’s conclusion, she writes:

[Kafka and Noise] demonstrates that literature does not merely represent historical realities about acoustic experiences […] but is a complex medium with its own tools and techniques for grappling with sound and expanding acoustic worlds. In short, literature’s relationship to sound is not merely derivative or mimetic.

For any reader captivated by the curious persistence of strange sounds in Kafka’s work, the consequences of Gellen’s work simply for understanding Kafka’s are exciting in themselves. Of Deleuze and Guattari’s contribution to the discussion of noise in Kafka, Gellen writes, “It is not so much that their book offers the first interpretation of difficult sounds in Kafka as that it reminds us again how impenetrable and central those sounds are, decades after Adorno’s comment to Benjamin.” Kafka and Noise succeeds as a return to that mystery and a rigorous, new articulation of it in a way that imaginatively deepens rather than dispels it.


Nathan Goldman is a writer living in Minneapolis. His work has appeared in The Nation, Literary Hub, The New Inquiry, and other publications.