Sunday, April 25, 2010

Metamorphosis Redux

Life went on for the Samsas. After their spontaneous excursion out of the city, they immediately took up where they had left off. First of all, they moved into a smaller apartment in a well-tended building; it was very much to their liking and -- they thought approvingly -- quite well situated. Even before removing to their new abode, Mr. Samsa took upon himself the liberty of discharging the door-slamming harridan they had been unfortunate enough to engage in the first place; their new cleaning woman performed as well the services of maid and cook; so, freed from these mundane tasks, life went on for the Samsas.

Their main concerns were these: earning a livelihood and paying off the debt they owed their late son's company. To this end, Mrs. Samsa sewed such a prodigious pile of delicate lingerie as to amass a tidy sum. Day after day, she sat at the table, head bowed over her work, cutting and joining, embroidering and clipping til her eyes reddened from the strain and her fingertips swelled, calloused over, and eventually remained numb. Mr. Samsa, invigorated somewhat by their relocation (as well as a thorough cleaning and mending of his stained and well-worn uniform, for which he had his wife to thank), rose steadily in the hierarchy of his company, from messenger to doorman at the bank. At his age he should not have had to work at all (he thought), but, circumstances being what they were, he was glad for the job that provided for his family. His relief at the easing of their so recently precarious financial situation showed in the self-importance with which he swung open the portals to the passing of some minor functionary or other, giving the gleaming handle (which he polished incessantly) a peculiar flourish in the unlatching process that seemed, to him, quite impressive.

As for Grete -- ah, the changes wrought in recent months had affected her the most. The bloom in her fresh young cheek, the pith of her lithe young frame, could not go unnoticed for long. Her study of shorthand and French, added to her burgeoning beauty, served to further her career. From salesgirl she rose to sales secretary, administering to the needs of the store's several salesmen: sorting their samples, inking their itineraries, tracking their timetables. She too was able to contribute a small sum towards the elimination of the family's now rapidly dwindling debt (imagine! what would have taken one person five years to accomplish would take three persons less than half that time!), but the grueling hours of her work precluded the pleasure that had at first attended the weekly ceremony. Grete played her violin infrequently, preferring instead to peruse the illustrated magazines that were currently all the rage.

* * * * *

One still evening in the spring of that year, Grete was suddenly seized with the desire to play her violin. Taking up the instrument and fetching the music stand and sheet music from the closet to which they had been relegated, she embarked upon a plaintive air that had always been a particular family favorite, and their rooms were rich with dulcet tones. As Grete played, the melancholy melody moved her to shed silent tears, and her parents wept in concert. The dim memories of family tragedy were purged somewhat; they felt refreshed, as though after a spring shower, while the aqua vita traced its course down their creasy miens in a meandering search for the gravitational flashpoints of nose and chin. "Ah, Grete," murmured her mother. And "ah, Grete," echoed her father more firmly -- the patriarchal stamp of approval. The swelling sounds escaped their modest quarters, embracing the crepuscular night and enveloping the Samsas in a tranquility they had rarely known.

The violin's piercing tremolo permeated the stolid building's musty crevasses. One of the tenants was moved to respond to its call, in a manner that at another time might have been considered too forward, for this tenant traced the music to its source -- he knocked on their front door. There followed a cessation of all sound, as Grete was startled into the here-and-now. Mr. Samsa stood smartly in instinctive answer to the impersonal summons and marched briskly to the offending instrument. He grasped the door knob and twisted it sharply, thereby demonstrating to the unknown entity outside his annoyance at such an unwelcome intrusion. He swung open the door (professionally, it should be noted).

At the entrance stood Hermann Brodsky, a young man of medium build whose dark hair stood in sharp contrast to a rather pale complexion. The Samsas knew him to be the son of their neighbor, and therefore a neighbor in his own right; when they met in the halls or passed on the stairs, they nodded politely one to the other, never betraying any additional familiarity than what was required of propriety.

"I beg your pardon, sir," he began, "but I could not resist the beautiful music, which surely came from your rooms?" His questing glance took in the scene, and the answer was evident. " I hope, sir, that I will not be the cause of its surcease," he continued somewhat more earnestly, seemingly imbued with fresh courage upon glancing in the musician's direction. Focusing his attention upon the doorman (reluctantly, it seemed to Grete, who felt in his perusal a potential for ... something), young Mr. Brodsky spoke more firmly. "I wished merely to thank the musician for the entertainment, for myself and on behalf of my family." Mr. Samsa's gruffness faded in the face of the young man's palpable discomfort; he held the door invitingly open as he smiled a welcome. And so Hermann Brodsky entered their lives, to the lament of the Liebestraum.

* * * * *
Grete and Hermann had many common desires. They both worked to contribute to the support of their families. Hermann was an administrator in a large, government-funded insurance company and spent his days filing papers, drafting policy statements, and writing brochures. He was regular in his habits and generally a first-class civil servant; his was a promising and respectable career.

Hermann was very concerned with his status in the community. One could find no fault in his attire or his posture -- both were exactly what was required of a man in his position on the social ladder. He and Grete would pass many an evening tracing the precise steps of his bureaucratic ascension, up the rungs to the pinnacle of class. "You see, Grete," he would often pontificate, "how right it is that I attend to my responsibilities. My employer cannot fault my diligence or my loyalty. My acquaintance cannot fault my diligence or my loyalty. My acquaintance cannot fault the regularity of my behavior. I have always been careful to maintain a correct character, and I must say it pleases me exceedingly that you are in agreement with these views." Grete was flattered to be so complimented. She basked in his approval; it was rarely necessary for her to participate verbally in these conclaves. An occasional "yes, Hermann, you are right," would suffice. Her very acquiescence gratified him.

In the course of their courtship, with its elaborate displays of preening and posturing, it was determined that they both wished -- someday -- to have children of their own to care for. (After all, who would be there to provide for them when it became necessary? One really had to entertain the possibility, circumstances being what they were in those times.)

On this firm foundation they built a relationship that very soon admitted the possibility of marriage. Shortly after the subject was broached, the ceremony was performed. All involved were extremely satisfied as the inevitable end was attained. The Samsas and the Brodskys both benefited from the joining of their progeny, as Hermann and Grete, by pooling their earnings, were able to engage much larger rooms on Charlotte Street and there to install both sets of in-laws in relative comfort.

* * * * *

In due time, the Samsas' debt was repaid; they were no longer under so onerous an obligation. To celebrate this new freedom, Grete became pregnant and, in the month of July of that year, on the second day, she gave birth to a son. She asked Hermann if he liked the name Gregor, for that was the name she wished to give their son. "His name will be Gregor, if that is your preference, but I wish to give him a name also, if you will not object too strenuously." And in answer to Grete's query, he named the name Joseph. "Who is Joseph to you?" she quizzed artlessly. "Well," he replied, somewhat taken aback by her guilelessness, "and who is Gregor to you?"

Little Gregor Joseph Brodsky, it seemed, was to be named after two uncles who had died tragically. Grete told Hermann about her late brother Gregor -- never before so much as hinted at -- and Hermann told Grete about his late brother Joseph -- likewise a complete mystery to the Samsas. In what seemed at first a remarkable coincidence, both men had succumbed to the same affliction; the doctors had a name for it -- chronic orthopterosis they diagnosed it. The name of the malady meant nothing to the two families, but they were intimately acquainted with the symptoms. Apparently the condition was not so unusual in the city at this time; much as, at another time, another plague cuts a swath across a civilization's habitats, leaving death and despair in its wake, but leaving so much of it as to inure the survivors to the destruction. (It seems that it is possible to habituate oneself to whatever fate may throw out, if only at the price of a certain numbness -- a paralysis, as it wwere, of the psyche.) But what had seemed at first remarkable, became in time less so.

Shortly after the birth of the heir apparent, the elder Samsas both ceased working at their jobs. The elder Brodskys had left off work entirely many years earlier, so all four in-laws now lived in retirement in the home of their children. Mr. Samsa left off wearing his uniform, opting instead for a fine warm robe purchased at one of the betterr shops. It was a time of great contentment for him, that he could once again indulge himself in his rightfully deserved retirement. He and his counterpart, Brodsky pere, reflected each other in their daily routines -- they rose and retired, robed and disrobed, ingested their meals and expelled their wastes, with an unremarkable synchronicity. Their wives devoted the majority of their waking hours administering to the menfolk, which arrangement, in all its comfortable monotony, appeared to appease them all.

Grete was able to take leave of her secretarial position, so as to attend to Gregor Joseph personally. Hermann, you see, did not approve of a mother who did not raise her son at first hand. After all, what would people think? Grete, of course, was in complete agreement with her husband. As they often reminded each other, baby Gregor was their investment in the future. That was as it should be. You only had to look to their parents to see perfect complacency.

* * * * *

The years pass in a welcome tedium -- nothing occurs that is not planned well in advance, no situation arises to challenge the status quo. Life goes on for the Brodsky clan. Gregor graduates from the nursery at an early age and takes up residency at the top of the house, where -- as his father never fails in reminding him -- he can reflect upon the responsibilities that in time (but not so soon!) will be his.

When Gregor first leaves the nursery for the solitude of the attic, he often whimpers in his loneliness, wishing for the warmth of the hearth two flights below. Hermann cures him of this unseemly habit in the same way that his father had cured him -- he snatches Gregor up from his cot and carries him, clad only in his thin cotton nightshirt, out to the balcony, deposits him onto the cold brick floor, and locks the door behind him, leaving Gregor to contemplate the alternative of an even colder loneliness. Gregor learns his lesson well (he is quite intelligent, you see) and subsequently becomes a quiet and obedient child, much to the satisfaction of his parents.

* * * * *

Gregor is exhibiting some interest in a literary career, his teacher informs them. Hermann -- speaking practically and in the interest of the whole family -- will not even consider such a career for his son and heir. Between father and son there grows a rift; Hermann's uncompromising hostility is natural, when one considers the notoriety a literary career would bring to a good, hard-working civil servant ... and his family, too, of course. The budding author would do well to recall the forbidding cold of his childhood punishment, for that is the lot of the literati in society.

Gregor embarks upon a career as a salesman. It is a socially respectable career (his mother and his namesake uncle having broken ground, so to speak), and his father approves. More and more, the Brodsky enclave comes to depend upon Gregor. He dutifully shoulders the responsibilities that gravitate toward him, day after day, week after week, year after year.

The young man is satisfied -- nay, even more, content -- with his life. He feels a little thrill of pride with every monetary contribution to the family pot. He is an adult, and his elders depend upon him; the responsibilities upon which he had so often reflected are now his; he is more than ready to accept them. Yet, during the autumn of one particularly difficult year -- it is this year, as a matter of fact -- he begins to have unsettling dreams.

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