Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed right there in his bed into some sort of monstrous insect. He was lying on his back -which was hard, like a carapace- and when he raised his head a little he saw his curved brown belly segmented by rigid arches atop which the blanket, already slipping, was just barely managing to cling.

That is the opening passage from The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. The story evolves around Gregor, a traveling salesman, who woke up one morning as an insect. His transformation changes him and everything around him.⁣

I was hoping the story would give me a lot of self contemplation and psychological details but it didn’t (well, not as much as I hoped). Regardless, I highly appreciate how the story forces me to think in terms of analogy and of reflexive interpretation.⁣

I think everyone goes through transformation in life that is forced by nature and irreversible such as growing up. Such transformation changes our dynamic within family and society in general. I see how my own family dynamic changes as I grow up. In my 30s now, I find myself an equal to my parents and my older brother. Needless to say, Gregor’s transformation is far more challenging than mine.⁣

Before the transformation, Gregor is the backbone of his family’s financials, the caretaker.⁣

If I didn’t have to hold back for my parents’ sake, I’d have given notice long ago -I’d have marched right up to him and given him a piece of my mind… Well, all hope is not yet lost; as soon as I’ve saved up enough money to pay back what my parents owe him -another five or six years ought to be enough- I’ll most definitely do just that. This will be the great parting of ways. For the time being, though, I’ve got to get up…

And obviously, the role shifts to an opposite direction after he becomes an insect. And although family is the central topic of the story, it also discusses employment and society in general.⁣

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The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas

But as I said, I loved flowers, Rosa, and I discovered –at least, I think I did– the secret of the great black tulip that people think is impossible to grow and which, as you may or may not know, is the subject of a prize of a hundred thousand florins offered by the Horticultural Society of Haarlem. I have those hundred thousand florins in this piece of paper -and, God knows, they are not what I regret. They will be won with the three bulbs in here, and you can take them, Rosa; I am giving them to you.’⁣

The Black Tulip is a historical novel that is set in 1600s in Holland where the market for tulip bulbs was comparable to the finest town houses in the centre of Amsterdam until it crashed in 1637.⁣

The story evolves around Cornelius van Baerle; a respectable doctor and tulip-grower who dedicates his life to cultivate the elusive black tulip and win a prize for it. Unfortunately, he is caught up in a political upheavals and is thrown into jail.⁣⁣

The tulip also serves as a central of romantic relationship between Cornelius and Rosa, the daughter of the jailer who helps grow the tulip in her bedroom.⁣⁣

Although it is historical novel, some details are not necessarily accurate. Dordrecht, Cornelius’ hometown, is described as hilly, which it is in fact flat. Dumas was not necessarily meticulous about facts and utilized them as mere good material for his imaginative fiction.⁣⁣

I picked this because it was book club read in July. It is not a story that typically interests me. But I am very glad I picked it up and enjoyed reading it thoroughly. Although the story is a bit tragic —with imprisonment, rivalry, etc, it flows quite lightly and some dialogues are quite dreamy. It is perfect for an easy summer read.⁣⁣

Look at some of these passages.

‘So, let’s say goodbye, Mijnheer Cornelius.’

‘Please say: goodbye, my friend.’⁣

Goodbye, my friend,’ said Rosa, a little consoled.⁣

‘Say: my dearest friend.’⁣

‘Oh, my friend . . .’⁣

‘My dearest friend, please Rosa. My dearest, no?’⁣

‘Dearest, yes, dearest,’ said Rosa, trembling, intoxicated, mad with joy.⁣

And this one is a bit cringe worthy at first but I think it’s so romantic!!⁣

‘That’s true,’ said Rosa. ‘But what does it matter? Your tulip is my daughter. I shall give her the time that I should give to my child, if I were a mother. It is only by becoming her mother,’ Rosa said with a smile, ‘that I can cease to be her rival.’⁣

Pictured on the background here is Binnenhof, House of Parliament in The Hague. My friend told me that this is the place where some characters in the story are publicly beheaded.

Autumn by Ali Smith

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Very pleased to meet you both. Finally.
How do you mean, finally? Elisabeth said. We only moved here six weeks ago.
The lifelong friends, he said. We sometimes wait a lifetime for them.

The story centers around an extraordinary friendship between Elisabeth Demand and Daniel Gluck. They started out as neighbors in 1993 when Elisabeth was 9 years old and Daniel was 78. Despite her mother disapproval of the friendship, Elisabeth continues visiting Daniel’s house, taking a walk with him, and in 2016, when Daniel is 101 years old, Elisabeth comes every week to his care place even though he is in deep sleep most of the times (but not comatose!).

It is always lovely between the two of them. The conversations are delightful although random at the same time.

The word gymkhana, Daniel said, is a wonderful word, a word grown from several languages.
Words don’t get grown, Elisabeth said.
Words aren’t plants, Elisabeth said.
Words are themselves organisms, Daniel said.
Oregano-isms, Elisabeth said.
Herbal and verbal, Daniel said.

This is also very much of a bibliophile’s book. Whenever Daniel sees Elisabeth, he always asks: “What are you reading?”. And Elisabeth is someone that we can connect with: reading “Brave New World” while waiting in line to renew her passport and the reference to A Tale of two Cities is deliberate.

Throughout the story, Smith tells how Britain is changing post the UK EU membership referendum in 2016.

It is just over a week since the vote.
All across the country people looked up Google: what is EU? All across the country, people looked up Google: move to Scotland. All across the country, people looked up Google: Irish passport applications… All across the country, racist bile was general. All across the country, people said it wasn’t that they didn’t like immigrants. All across the country, people said it was about control.

The story touches broader subjects than friendship and Brexit. It discusses feminism through the characters and (UK) pop culture. There are many references to Pauline Boty, Christine Keeler, Julie Christie which are not familiar to me so I had to google all these on the side. Needless to say, I enjoyed reading this from beginning to end. The friendship aspect certainly gives a cozy, warm feeling in this transitional season.

And whoever makes up the story makes up the world, Daniel said. So always try to welcome people into the home of your story.

Needless to say, I feel very much welcome into the home of Smith’s story.

 

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

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It is true that the city is accompanied by two projections of itself, one celestial and one infernal; but the citizens are mistaken about their consistency.

Invisible Cities tells a story about imaginary conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan where the Venetian traveler describes the cities he has visited in his travels to the Emperor. Khan does not necessarily believe all the things Polo says and challenges him with questions which I find very amusing.

The description of the city does not fit the bill in terms of architectural concept but it speaks to me in so many different ways and makes me wonder about the cities I’ve lived in or visited. About what I remember of each place —the name, the landscape, the citizens, and my own state of mind when I was there. And despite the abstract descriptions of these cities, each story transports my mind around the globe together with Marco Polo.

Try Leonia as an example.

The city of Leonia refashions itself every day: every morning the people wake between fresh sheets, wash with just unwrapped cakes of soap, wear brand-new clothing, take from the latest model refrigerator still unopened tins, listening to the last-minute jingles from the most up-to-date radio.

Perhaps given that Calvino is Italian, I quickly associated Leonia with Milan when reading this passage. But it can also be Paris or New York or even someplace completely different.

As Sunday Times writes: A subtle and beautiful meditation. I found myself reading a chapter and then closing my eyes for few minutes to absorb Calvino’s enchanting words.

And Polo said: ‘The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demand constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.’