A Review of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Folio Society Edition & A Penal Colony, LEC Edition

{ed note, 9/17/2011:  added a description and pictures of the Limited Editions Club edition of Metamorphosis also).

I recently received and read two volumes of Franz Kafka’s works.  The first, a 2010 edition by Folio Society, is Metamorphosis and Other Stories, which contains most of Kafka’s short stories along with his famous novella Metamorphosis.  It also contains In the Penal Colony, though for that story I switched over to a fantastic edition published by Limited Editions Club (LEC) in 1987.  Comments and pictures of the volumes themselves follow later in this post, near the bottom.

Franz Kafka was born in Prague in 1883 and died from tuberculosis at the age of 40 (though he essentially died of starvation as his throat was so painful, he could not eat).  Despite his youthful demise, Kafka is generally considered one of the great writers of the twentieth century, certainly one of the most influential, despite having virtually nothing published during his short life.  Most was published posthumously and much of his works, including his three novels (The Trial, The Castle and Amerika), remained unfinished at his death.  As an aside, Kafka was one of six children, his two brothers dying in their youth, while his three sisters were killed in Nazi concentration camps in 1943.

You will see in some examples that follow (though more effectively by reading his stories) that Kafka says what he means, not using micro-metaphors, though the stories can be thought of as macro-metaphors for man’s condition in the world.  One is to take his writing literally, which can take some getting used to.

Metamorphosis and Other Stories is done in chronological order, starting with various short stories written from 1904 to 1912 grouped under the title Contemplation.  One of my favorites, The Plight of the Bachelor, perfectly encapsulates in one paragraph something that I have always dreaded:

The prospect of remaining a bachelor is so awful: to be an old man and struggle to preserve one’s dignity while asking to be taken in for an evening’s worth of human society; to be sick and to gaze for weeks on end into one’s empty room from the vantage point of one’s bed; always to say goodbye from the front door; never to make one’s way upstairs at the side of one’s wife…to carry one’s supper home in one hand; to have to stare at children, without always adding, unasked: “I haven’t any myself’…

In The Men Running Past, Kafka ponders what to do if he sees one man chasing another on a city street.  Is the one chasing the other to kill him?  Perhaps they are running for unrelated reasons?  Perhaps they are just having fun?  Perhaps one may have a weapon and would not be happy to be stopped?  The story is from the point of view of one not uninterested, but disinterested in getting involved, which most can certainly relate to in many situations in life.

In The Rejection, Kafka lashes out at an imaginary woman, after rejection based on his perception of her thinking he unworthy, with comments I am sure many men have thought:

You forget that no automobile is carrying you through the streets in powerful thrusts; I don’t seem to see a retinue of gentleman pressed into livery attending you, murmuring blessings as they follow you in a pedantic semi-circle; your breasts are stowed away tidily enough in your corset, but your hips and thighs make up for their parsimony; you are wearing a taffeta dress with plisse pleats of the sort that delighted us last autumn, and –garbed in this menace as you are — still you do not scruple to throw us a smile from time to time.

In The Window on to the Street, Kafka clearly alludes to the alone-ness that  all men can feel, saying all, especially those living in solitude, need, at the very least, a window on to the street so to get some minimal human participation. One can almost feel the sense that this was auto-biographic, written in one lonely night.

Metamorphosis itself was first published in 1915 and is considered one of the greatest pieces of short fiction of the twentieth century.  It certainly starts in a very Kafka like manner, when in the first paragraph, the protagonist (Gregor) wakes to find himself having been transformed into an insect (think roach-like).  It is not a metaphor, but to be taken literally.  The story than follows Gregor as he seeks to deal with his transformation, and with his parents and sister who also struggle to adapt to his new found circumstances.  While it sounds phantasmic, Kafka writes, and expects the reader to read, as if this is less outlandish than what it sounds.  One can debate meanings of the story, but to me it is a study of man’s isolation from others and how transitory and delicate man’s relationship with others really is.

The story contains some gems of thought, such as the following as Gregor first comes to terms with his transformation and is trying to figure out what to do:

At the same time, he didn’t forget to remind himself periodically that clarity and calm were better counsels of despair.

Gregor thinks to himself, about his parents, as the situation starts to spin out of control:

…they were so consumed by their anxieties of the present moment, that they had lost any premonitory sense they might have had.

We could all stand to remember that in the hustle and bustle of modern life.  After all:

But what if all peace, all prosperity, all contentment, were to come to a sudden and terrible end?

Eventually, their new life together fails, but in Gregor’s death, the parents and sister have hope renewed.  Is this Kafka saying that despite how important we think we are to the well being of those we love, often we can be more of a burden and their life may be better without us?

The three of them all together left the flat, which was something they hadn’t done for months, and took the tram to the park at the edge of the city.  The carriage is which they sat was flooded with warm sunshine.  Sitting back comfortably in their seats, they discussed the prospects for the future; it turned out on closer inspection these weren’t at all bad….

I next moved to a number of short stories, grouped under the title A Country Doctor: Short Prose for my Father, Kafka wrote between 1917 and 1920.  The first, An Old Journal, is an interesting take on a ‘barbarians at the gate’ theme, somewhat relevant to how many in the West feel today.  The story closes with the protagonist, in desperation, remarking:

The salvation of the fatherland has been entrusted to workers and business people like us; we are not equal to such a task; never claimed we were. It’s a misunderstanding and it will be the end of us.

His Jackals and Arabs is an interesting parable.  A traveller in the desert is confronted by a bunch of jackals, asking them to help them in their age old rivalry with the Arabs.  In some ways the jackals are dependent on the Arabs, often eating the carcasses of what they kill or animals of theirs that die.  The traveller tries to stay out of it saying:

I don’t really care to judge things that are so distant from me; it seems to be a very ancient quarrel you have with each other; probably it’s a feud, and probably it will take blood to wash it clean.

Sounds like some foreign policy advice  that could be taken seriously in the present day. In A Message From the Emperor, Kafka tells a bleak story of man seeking validation of their worth from the outside, and inevitably failing to get it. In Eleven Sons a man contemplates his eleven children giving a frank assessment of each, in a type of thinking that probably all parents through time have faced at one point or another.  A good example of his writing in this story is:

The fifth son is good and kind; he promised much less than he delivered; was so unassuming that one felt alone in his company; and yet has attained a degree of respect.  If I was asked how such a thing came about, I would hardly know what to say.  Perhaps innocence is the quality best able to make its way through the turmoil of warring elements in the world, and he is certainly innocent.

Kafka’s A Hunger Artist, written in 1924, could reflect any individual today whose skills or interests in life are no longer wanted or needed, resulting in them being marginalized to society.  It is another take, somewhat powerful, on Kafka’s recurrent them of isolation, loneliness and despair in life.

In the Penal Colony was first published in 1919.  I found it the most interesting story of the bunch, eerily foreshadowing the Mengelian savagery that would engulf his own Jewish people (not too mention his sisters) twenty years distant.  The story is of an officer at a camp who, along with the previous commandant (whom the current officer finds infallible), invented and still use a torture machine to kill those they accuse and condemn for crimes or offenses defined by themselves.  The officer is judge, jury and executioner wrapped into one.

The officer explains that “My guiding principle is this:  Guilt is never to be doubted.”  The machine ‘writes’ upon the condemned’s body (using needles causing the unlucky soul to bleed to death) the commandment the prisoner disobeyed, such as “Honor thy Superiors”.  The officer goes in to wallow is his depravity when saying:

How we all absorbed the look of transfiguration on the face of the sufferer, how we bathed our cheeks in the radiance of that justice, achieved at last and fading so quick! What times these were, my comrade!

The explorer, who represents a European dignitary, contemplates to himself in a manner many in the west still struggle with today when seeing injustice performed in other parts of the world:

It’s always a ticklish matter to intervene decisively in other people’s affairs.  He was neither a member of the penal colony nor a citizen of the state to which it belonged.  Were he to denounce this execution or actually try to stop it, they could say to him:  You are a foreigner, mind your own business….Yet he found himself strongly tempted. The injustice of the procedure and the inhumanity of the execution were undeniable.

Kafkaesque is a term that has made it into our popular lexicon, and is defined by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity.  Any cursory reading of his work will highlight how that term came to be.  This type of world view became so predominant across the arts in the early part of the twentieth century, obviously influenced by the nightmare of World War 1.  It has always been interesting to me that artists like Kafka often railed against the inhumane nature of bureaucracy, yet were often so involved in Socialist dogma which inherently promotes such bureaucracy.

I enjoyed many of these stories, though like I feel towards many modernist writers, I find Kafka a bit anti-septic and overly raw and tight in style and substance.  Some stories are certainly thought provoking, though I find many simply bizarre and without much point.  The crisp and concise style can be refreshing; the use of words in their literal sense, not metaphorically, is often enlightening by asking the reader to not imagine, but to believe his literal meaning.  Having said that, I find serious and thoughtful reading of Kafka a bit depressing and do not fully share his view of the human condition.  Like Modernist paintings, I often find the over interpretation of these works by artistic elites a bit frustrating, digging for treasures and meaning that may or may not be there. Kafka can be appreciated, though I struggle to say that his works will be timeless classics.  Will  they be studied two hundred years from now?  Will they be enjoyed?

The Folio Society edition is very nice, and typical of the quality of the Folio Society.  The design on the cover sort of turns me off initially (who likes the shadow of a roach?), but one must admit it is apropos for the literalness of Kafka’s writing. The illustrations by Bill Bragg are very nice, appropriately capturing the scenes they highlight, though in my opinion lack a bit of emotional connectivity to me (though perhaps that is part of their point, as Kafka’s characters are often distant).

The translation is a relatively new one by Michael Hoffman in 2007.  The introduction, by Will Self, does not provide enough context for me, though Self does have provide some good reflections such as “…as the crowd grows, so its individual members are fated to feel themselves increasingly alone” and “free will is only that pleasurable feeling we experience when our desires happen to coincide with what is necessitated.”  Both of these thoughts appropriately reflect underlying themes that Kafka infuses into his stories.

Here are some details on the edition (with pictures at the bottom of this post):

  • Paper over boards with a design by Bill Bragg
  • Typeset in Elysium at the Folio Society
  • Printed on Abbey Wove paper at Martins the Printers Ltd, Berwick-upon-Tweed
  • Bound by Hunter & Foulis, Edinburgh
  • 248 pages.
  • 8 colour illustrations.
  • 8¾” × 6¼”.

The Limited Editions Club edition of Metamorphosis, done in 1984, is a very popular and somewhat expensive LEC edition.  The paper and type are fantastic.  The etchings are very well presented, though not my style.  Overall the design, like most of Ben Shiff’s, is very nicely done, though again this particular presentation does not really fit my stylistic preferences.

  • Designed by Ben Shiff
  • Printed by Daniel Kelcher at Wild Carrot Letterpress
  • Set in American Monotype
  • Deepdene by Pat Taylor at his Out of Sorts Letter Foundery
  • Etchings printed at Water Street Press
  • Mold-made paper made for this edition by Cartiere Enrico Magnani
  • Book cased-in by hand at the bindery of Gray Parrot
  • Illustrated and Signed by Jose Luis Cuevas
  • Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir
  • introduced by Robert Coles
  • Limited to 1500 copies, this is #1372

The Limited Editions Club edition of In the Penal Colony, done in 1987, can only be described as marvelous, truly an astounding bit of book making.  Hand sewn, hand bound, phenomenal paper, fantastic letterpress text… the works.  All in all, beautifully minimalist.  The translation by Willa and Edwin Muir is the earliest English translation and is still widely used.  The lithographs by American figurative expressionist painter Michael Hafftka are beautifully done, both matching the darkness of the story and the beauty of the book they are contained within.

Here are some details on the edition (with pictures at the bottom of this post):

  • Hand sewn and Hand bound by Carol Joyce in Stockton, New Jersey
  • Text set in Monotype Walbaum at the Out of Sorts Letter Foundery in Mararonek, New York
  • Printed on mould made Magnani paper at the Shagbark Press in South Portland, Maine.
  • Lithographs printed on hand-made Japanese paper at Threstle Editions Ltd., New York City
  • Designed by Ben Shiff
  • Limited to 800 copies (mine is #587)

Here are pictures of both editions, Folio Society first, with LEC a bit further down.

Folio Society, Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Pictures

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided to highlight and visualize the work being reviewed.  A side benefit, hopefully, is encouraging healthy sales of fine press books for the publishers and fine retailers that specialize in these types of books (of which Books and Vines has no stake or financial interest). Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Folio Society, Book in Slipcase
Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Folio Society, Cover and Spine
Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Folio Society, Title Page
Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Folio Society, Copyright Page
Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Folio Society, Sample Page with Text
Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Folio Society, Sample Page with Text and Illustration
Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Folio Society, Second Sample Illustration

Limited Editions ClubMetamorphosis, Pictures

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided to highlight and visualize the work being reviewed.  A side benefit, hopefully, is encouraging healthy sales of fine press books for the publishers and fine retailers that specialize in these types of books (of which Books and Vines has no stake or financial interest). Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

Metamorphosis, Limited Editions Club, Cover and Spine
Metamorphosis, Limited Editions Club, Title Page
Metamorphosis, Limited Editions Club, Half Title and Frontispiece
Metamorphosis, Limited Editions Club, Sample Page with Text
Metamorphosis, Limited Editions Club, Sample Page with Text and Illustration
Metamorphosis, Limited Editions Club, Second Sample Page with Text and Illustration
Metamorphosis, Limited Editions Club, Colophon

Limited Editions ClubIn the Penal Colony, Pictures

In the Penal Colony, Limited Editions Club, Solander Box Spine
In the Penal Colony, Limited Editions Club, Book in Solander Box
In the Penal Colony, Limited Editions Club, Cover and Spine
In the Penal Colony, Limited Editions Club, Side View
In the Penal Colony, Limited Editions Club, Inside Front Cover
In the Penal Colony, Limited Editions Club, Title Page
In the Penal Colony, Limited Editions Club, Copyright Page
In the Penal Colony, Limited Editions Club, Sample Page with Text
In the Penal Colony, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration
In the Penal Colony, Limited Editions Club, Second Sample Illustration
In the Penal Colony, Limited Editions Club, Colophon Page

10 thoughts on “A Review of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Folio Society Edition & A Penal Colony, LEC Edition

  1. I might have a better opinion of All the King’s Men if I read it today. I read it when I was in my mid-twenties, and found it just too tedious, althogh I did finish it. If you are looking to complete an LEC series, you might want it, Otherwise, watch the Broderick Crawford movie. John Ireland gives the best performanc of his career.

    1. I’ll drop my nickel into this discussion. “All the King’s Men” became my favorite book the moment i finished it. I was about 20 years old, a University student in Moscow, USSR, and I read this book in a wonderful translation into Russian. My English was not good enough at this time to read it in the language of Robert P. Warren. Lat 20 years I have lived in US and read mostly in English – All the king’s men is still not easy to read because of the very rich language.
      It is still my favorite book, and I open it quite often. Many quotes accompany me all my life, and I rethink about them with a new understanding.

      “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.”

      “You got to make good out of bad. That’s all there is to make it with.”

      “Her eyes were glittering like the eyes of a child when you give a nice surprise, and she laughed with a sudden throaty, tingling way. It is the way a woman laughs for happiness. They never laugh that way just when they are being polite or at a joke. A woman only laughs that way a few times in her life. A woman only laughs that way when something has touched her way down in the very quick of her being and the happiness just wells out as natural as breath and the first jonquils and mountain brooks. When a woman laughs that way it always does something to you. It does not matter what kind of a face she has got either. You hear that laugh and feel that you have grasped a clean and beautiful truth. You feel that way because that laugh is a revelation. It is a great impersonal sincerity. It is a spray of dewy blossom from the great central stalk of All Being, and the woman’s name and address hasn’t got a damn thing to do with it. Therefore, the laugh cannot be faked. If a woman could learn to fake it she would make Nell Gwyn and Pompadour look like a couple of Campfire Girls wearing bifocals and ground-gripper shoes with bands on their teeth. She could get all society by the ears. For all any man really wants is to hear a woman laugh like that.”

      The LEC 2 vols edition is awesome. Yes, it is quite expensive. I got it for $600 in pristine condition, and the book dealers usually ask for more, knowing that the set will be sold shortly for 700 – 800 USD.

  2. Most collectors I have talked to do not like the Illustrations for In the Penal Colony. As for myself, I suppose I’m neutral. As to the book, I don’t care for books bound in paper flats. I intend to get mine bound in Nigerian as soon as I can.

    I agree with you about the first years of Shiff’s producing LECs being the best. I have all of these up to A Season in Hell which I think is overpriced. Would like to get a copy of Mann’s The Black Swan, but I haven’t found one at a reasonable price.

    One which shouldn’t have been done as an LEC is All the KIing’s Men. I realize this is a personal opinion., but this book is overly long and gets very tedious. My advice is skip this book and watch the movie (the Broderick Crawford one).

    1. On All the Kings Men, I have never read it, but did have some interest in acquiring it (until I see your comments). As for the edition itself, is it nice? I have not seen a copy.

      1. I have to reiterate that I do not care for the Shiff era. The quality of the printing is certainly superior to most of the LEC editions produced after the Macy era, but on the whole, the design falls short of the imaginative design of the best products of the George Macy era wherein the choice of typography, page layout, illustrator, and binding were all keyed to the content of the book. Content takes very much a back seat in these later books and the artist becomes the raison d’etre. For some, this is fine, but when I want a book I want something to read and when I want art, I’ll hang it on the wall. To each his own.

        I have read All the King’s Men and remember liking it, though I admit to being fascinated by the milieu. I’ve seen a few reproductions of the photos used for illustrations in the LEC and think they look first-rate. I doubt, though, that this book would command the prices it gets without the author’s signature. As well-written as it is, the poetic language of the narration seems out of key with the earthier quality of the dialogue (of which I would prefer a lot more of the latter and a lot less of the former). For a novel set in the Deep South, it tiptoes around racial issues. But my biggest problem is that the central character is really Burden, who is slightly pathetic, but that the dominant character is Stark. It’s sort of as if Shakespeare would have written a play called “George, Duke of Clarence” rather than “Richard III.”

        Still, this is one of the books from the Shiff era I wouldn’t mind having–were it 1/3rd the price sellers are asking for it.

  3. Chris:

    The LEC edition of ‘In The Penal Colony” is an excellent example of what I referred on the Fine Press Forum of LibraryThing to as the ‘sweet spot’ of LEC publications —- namely, the first decade of Sidney Shiff’s stewardship (1978 to 1988) after he acquired the LEC legacy and rescued it from indifferent corporate hell. These books were pubished in runs of 1000 to 1500 and preceded Sidney Shiff’s decision to transform the LEC into full-blown livres des artistes books with runs of 200 to 500 and astronomical price tags.

    The books published by Shiff from 1978 to 1988 and of remarkable quality and design, especially for the number of copies printed. These books are true bargains and although they are more expensive than the typical George Macy LEC books the quality of materials and hand workmanship far exceed most of the Macy LEC books.

    As an aside, if you are smitten with Shiff’s work on ‘In The Penal Colony’ try to obtain his publication of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis’ published three years earlier in 1984. It is equally stunning with the following publication details:

    1500 copies printed by letterpress at the Wild Carrot Letterpress using the Willa and Edwin Muir translation. The paper is mould-made from Cartiere Enrico Magnani (yummy!) and the book was cased-in by hand at the bindery of Gray Parrot. There is a brief introduction from Harvard professor and psychiatrist Robert Coles. What makes this volume exceptional, however, are a series of extraordinary etchings and drawings by Jose Luis Cuevas.

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