Posts tagged Franz Kafka
Project Proposal — The History of Beauty and the Beast: A Biography

My novel, The History of Beauty and the Beast: A Biography, is a retelling of Madame de Villeneuve’s The Story of Beauty and the Beast (published in 1740). Villeneuve and her “original”—about whether Beauty will consent to have sex with the Beast—have been forgotten by history. My novel aims to recover the life story of author-salonnière Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and to restore to her tale her 18th-Century proto-feminist philosophy. My PhD dissertation situates itself between serious literature and mass-market fairy-tale romance, between the folkloric historiography of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 425C and the bestselling genre of historical fiction, between novel and biography and the intersection of these in the mimetic-parodic literary tradition of fictional biographies, such as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography (1928) and Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, Told by a Friend (1947).

In the Author’s Preface to The History of Beauty and the Beast: A Biography, “I” am my novel’s first 1st-person narrator, and I ask if we really need another retelling of Beauty and the Beast. I quote fairy tale scholar Maria Tatar, who claims: “That every culture seems to tell ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in one fashion or another suggests it is part of our DNA. We make the story new so we can think more and think harder about the stakes in partnerships and marriages.”[1] I also refer to critic Jerry Griswold, who believes its “popularity over time suggests its importance. The oldest version [… is Apuleius’s] ‘Cupid and Psyche,’” which appeared around 150 A.D. but drew on Greek versions derived from India’s “The Woman Who Married a Snake,” which “existed in oral form before its appearance in print in 500 A.D.” The story’s “endurance” for “more than two millennia,” Griswold contends, is one reason for its “significance and power” — as well as its “geographical distribution” the world over and its appeal to mainstream and marginalized child and adult audiences.[2]

In the next section, the Introduction, I go on to explain that the goal of my retelling is to re-narrativize our commonly held belief about the historical rise of the novel. I aim to reach Creative Writing, English, Folklore, and Literary History professors who might teach my book. Chapter by chapter, I will chronologically mimic and integrate the traditions of the 18th-Century novel; the 19th-Century’s Gothic, social realist, and Decadent novels; 20th-Century Modernist novels; 21st-Century Postmodernist novels. My retelling of Beauty and the Beast will provide professors, students, book clubs, and casual readers with a step-by-step model that traces the development of the Western novel from the 18th Century to today. From this new context I provide, I hope English majors in particular can further appreciate the objectives of their required “Survey of English Literature” courses. I hope they will enjoy reading my novel, but also that they will discuss and debate the literary, historical, creative, and artistic issues it raises.

In my Prologue, I reveal a new 1st-person narrator (Villeneuve’s biographer) and an editor who points out that Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (also about a young beauty imprisoned in a country estate by a beastly “Mr. B”) was also published in 1740. This footnote propels my novel’s first sub-narrative, about Pamela’s spinoff products, “critiques, parodies, translations, plays […], and several sequels.”[3] Our editor will further compare the production of Pamela-inspired ephemera to Beauty and the Beast’s transmedial phenomena. Villeneuve, however, in her Eighteenth-Century Paris salon — our biographer interjects — could not have known the extent to which her story would endure. My Prologue becomes the opening frame of my novel proper, with Villeneuve in her salon the night she begins telling “La Belle et la Bête.”

In chapter one, Villeneuve becomes our third 1st-person narrator (fourth, if we count our editor). She opens with the misfortunes of Beauty’s father, a merchant whose ships have been pillaged by pirates, and tells how he and his children are forced to relocate from a city “not far from here” to their country house that “might well be considered the saddest abode in the world.” Our editor tells us this is significant because Villeneuve’s tale is set neither “far away” nor “long ago,” making it the first of its kind to place its characters in the author’s own space and time. This may reflect Villeneuve’s awareness of her audience’s receptivity, as she satirizes the merchant’s friends who were “so cruel as to attribute [his] misfortunes to his own bad conduct.”[4] Her jab at victim-blamers mirrors Henry Fielding’s contemporaneous notes/manifesto toward the new novel, in which he states the satirist might punch up but never down.

In The Inward Turn of Narrative, Erich Kahler states that in the 18th century, “the ego engaged in monologue and dialogue became the vehicle of the new narrative.”[5] Villeneuve, then, a historical figure recast as character-who-narrates in my own novel, employs the same playful monologuing as Fielding, and, in dialoguing with her salon-audience, she digresses like Laurence Sterne — which our editor identifies as the main reason Villeneuve’s version never stuck (and why Disney adapted instead Madame de Beaumont’s much-abridged 1756 version). Reveling in Cervantes’ and Fielding’s subplots, and Sterne’s anti-plot shenanigans, Villeneuve in my retelling joins the ranks of these men who famously inaugurated the rise of the novel.[6]

In chapter two, when Beauty’s father receives his death sentence, my novel turns Gothic. I will draw from Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria; or, The Wrongs of Woman so that my editor-character can investigate Diane Long Hoeveler’s claim that Wollstonecraft’s “devices—hyperbole, dramatic self-stagings, repeated presentation of heroines as victims, [… are] very similar to [those] employed by later female Gothic novelists.” I wish to examine the father’s emasculation as well as this chapter’s potential to highlight “the Gothic’s role in reforming class attitudes, in defining appropriate behavior for both sexes, and in codifying literature’s role as an ideological system that operates to shape and enforce what we now call values in society.” [7]

In chapter three, the Gothic turns Romantic when Beast sends his white horse to bring Beauty to the castle, where she is greeted with fireworks, gardens filled with unseasonably fruiting trees, costumed monkeys pantomiming Renaissance dramas (hidden parrots beneath wigs performing the voices), and his library that houses every book ever written and every book yet to be written. In this epistolary chapter, Beauty’s letters are laments about how she has only her imagination for company. Terrorized by Beast’s request to let him sleep with her, she nightly answers, “No,” which prompts our editor to remind us of Beaumont’s revision, “Will you marry me?” I cannot overstate the importance of restoring Villeneuve’s original. Her boar-headed, lion-tailed, lizard-scaled Beast understands the meaning of consent—unlike Richardson’s refined Mr. B., whose repeated attempts to rape Pamela will go neither unmentioned nor unpunished in my dissertation.

Chapter four, in which Beast insists that Beauty go home, is written as 19th-Century social realism with a dash of decadence. The chapter begins with a nod to Madame Bovary, briefly utilizing the 1st-person plural of Beauty’s five sisters who sabotage her return to the castle. Their point of view — their disinterested Des Essientes-style cataloging of the fine clothes and jewels they wear (thanks to Beast’s generosity, owed to Beauty’s self-sacrifice), their lavish living arrangements, their petty amusements and desires for suitors with titles — transforms into a Bleak House-inspired 3rd-person narrator whose judgments are harsh and unfailingly unforgiving, drawing attention to social norms, mores, hierarchies not usually observed.

Chapter five — my modernist episode — is told from Beast’s close 3rd-“person” point of view. Like Gregor Samsa, he wakes in his monstrous form. His stream-of-consciousness is as fragmented as his body: transported into a memory of overtaking and ripping open the throat of a doe, he smells the sweat and fear of prey the way Marcel tastes tea; he speaks, when he speaks, like Gertrude Stein, stuttering interrogatives to determine whether Beauty is satisfied with his castle’s objects, rooms, and food; he thinks like Beckett’s Unnameable, in the ever-present, consumed by his inability to communicate, to comprehend his body; he desires obsessively like Humbert Humbert; yet he observes, always, like the narrator of Jealousy, from the outside looking in; and, finally, like Gregor, he “[hangs] on until […] his last feeble breath,” and dies.[8]

In chapter six, my postmodernist episode, Beauty is in the library — reading every version of her own story she can find. She has perhaps just arrived at the castle, and, having discovered Beast’s library, begun poking around only to encounter a novel, and then another and another, that uncannily features a young heroine resembling herself. Perhaps we too have been reading an assemblage of different texts written in different times. The many Beauties born over the past two millennia are all gathered in my final chapter; and certainly they must differ from one another in ways I imagine will be fun to reshape and recontextualize as I cut and paste from as many variants of the animal bridegroom tale as I can find. For in my own retelling, I wish to defer to these and to the other texts mentioned here. In so doing, I will produce a novel that is itself in a constant state of transformation, a demonstration of my desire to obliterate boundaries between literary time periods, forms, and genres; and a challenge to myself at this point in my career to strive toward a stylistic range I have never dreamed of undertaking—a manuscript indebted to my PhD education at the University of Utah and to those most enduring novels that have so magically and beautifully inspired me while here.


[1] Maria Tatar, Beauty and the Beast: Classic Tales about Animal Brides and Grooms from Around the World, Penguin Books, 2017, p. ix.

[2] Jerry Griswold, The Meanings of “Beauty and the Beast”: A Handbook, Broadview Press, 2004, p. 15.

[3] James Grantham Turner, “Richardson and His Circle,” The Columbia History of the British Novel, edited by John J. Richetti, Columbia UP, 1994, p. 76.

[4] Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, The Story of Beauty and the Beast, translated by Ernest Christopher Dowson, John Lane Company, 1740, pp. 1, 2-3, 5.

[5] Erich Kahler, The Inward Turn of Narrative, Northwestern UP, 1973, p. 148.

[6] Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. Chatto & Windus, 1957.

[7] Diane Long Hoeveler, “Teaching the Early Female Canon,” Approaches to Teaching Gothic Fiction: The British and American Traditions, edited by Diane Long Hoeveler and Tamar Heller, MLA, 2003, p. 105.

[8] Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, B&N, 2003, p. 48.


Characters, Nathalie Sarraute maintained, are props. They exist. They react to external stimuli like "sunflowers twisting toward a light source," and they "force us to recognize people from the inside." She came after "the investigative methods of Dostoyevsky," after Kafka (his "legitimate heir"), and after Proust's limitless "mental universe." She came after Woolf's and Joyce's interior monologues, their privileging of interior subjectivity over objective external "reality." She absorbed these influences and developed a different kind of stream-of-consciousness. Let's call it: streams-of-subconsciousness? Streams, plural, for her singular narrators "made up of infinite facets." And subconsciousness, because they describe gut feelings, the indescribable emotions that come and go too quickly, fleetingly, elusively. So she made new the modernists' new . . . and the Nouveau Roman was born. 

Tristram and Gregor

For the most part, my posts have been written in response to the texts I've read as I've read them (in order by date of publication). But after Don Quixote, things started (fittingly?) to get all jumbled up and out of order. First of all, it's so damn long it was slowing down my progress. When the how-to-be-ready-for-exams plan is to read a book a day, it starts to feel impossible when a single book creeps into the three-day mark without an end in sight. So I decided to keep moving forward to trick myself into thinking I was making progress with the rest of my texts while I slowly returned to DQ and read little bits of it here and there.

The next text I should have read was Robinson Crusoe, but because my clearest thematic focus at that point had to do with liminal, marginal, and inferior figurations of women, wives, mistresses, maidens, etc., I chose to skip it and read Pamela instead, which then led to my request to read Shamela instead of Tom Jones, and Moll Flanders instead of Robinson Crusoe. I wrote about Pamela and Shamela but did not write about Moll because I figured I'd have more to say about her down the road in a future post about Molly Bloom. So, then, I should have read Tristram Shandy and Confessions but, again, because I wanted to stick with the ladies I jumped ahead to Maria; or the Wrongs of Woman which led to this long post about Maria, Jemima, Minerva, the three Madam Bovarys, the two Cleises in Sappho's poems, and the Minyades from The Metamorphoses. 

I'd already read Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Moby-Dick, and Bleak House; so at this point I had to decide if I wanted to keep moving forward into the late 19th century or go back and get caught up. I went back and finally read Tristram Shandy and Confessions. I didn't have a lot to say or write about them, so I opted to keep reading and finished Don Quixote and made my way into the Russian golden age with Gogol's Dead Souls, Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (the length of which has turned it into another DQ). After the Russians, and at the height of realism, I dropped down into Huysmans' decadent Against Nature, which I had never before encountered. I still don't know what to think, but I know I will still be thinking about it even as I make my way ever forward. Revisiting Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray was fun, sort of, and reminded me of a class I took a long, long time ago on the fin de siècle. At that time, though, I certainly had no clue about symbolism, deep psychological realism a la James's The Turn of the Screw, which I just now revisited, or dreams/involuntary memories/sexual repressions — which I've been thinking about quite a bit, re: Mann's Death in Venice and Proust's Swann's Way. When these texts made those moves through literary history undeniably clear, I stopped reading for a bit and went back to get my facts straight about the Enlightenment, Romanticism, the Gothic, Transcendentalism, Naturalism, and Decadence. Today, after this post, I'll be diving headlong into the modernists, and, I have to say, I'm quite sad to leave behind the bulk of my historical texts and authors. Ulysses is next. And I'm afraid. 

Tristram, that proto-pomo text, derailed me a tiny bit. I love that it's so out of place, that it's such a special snowflake historically, but I haven't yet gotten past my first impression after my first read — that it's a nine-act page performance about penis/castration anxiety and actively deplores women and puts them in their place. At one point, Tristram tells female readers they didn't understand the previous chapter and to go back and read it again while the narrative continues for male readers. Adding insult, one of the book's primary jokes leans on the fact that Tristram's autobiography takes an absurdly long time to finally get around to the event of his birth. So, in all that time, while he's waiting to be born, his mother is upstairs laboring while the men downstairs have important conversations. . . . 


Undeniably, Tristram Shandy is Rabelaisian. And so we can't ignore Gargantua and Pantagruel's treatment of the female act of giving birth or of female genitalia in general: first, there is Pantagruel's mother, Badebec, who instead of giving birth lets loose:

three score and eight tregeneers, that is, salt-sellers, every one of them leading in a halter a mule heavy laden with salt; after whom issued forth nine dromedaries, with great loads of gammons of bacon and dried neat's tongues on their backs. Then followed seven camels loaded with links and chitterlings, hogs' puddings, and sausages. After them came out five great wains, full of leeks, garlic, onions, and chibots, drawn with five-and-thirty strong cart-horses, which was six for every one, besides the thiller.

Then there is Gargantua's mother, Gargamelle, who "began to be a little unwell in her lower parts" and instead of giving birth lets loose a literal shitstorm: "it was her fundament, that was slipped out with the mollification of her straight entrail, which you call the bum-gut . . . Whereupon an old ugly trot in the company, who had the repute of an expert she-physician" glues and sews shut Gargamelle's anus and vagina.

And, of course, in Chapter 15, Panurge suggests "a pretty strange, and new way" to build walls around Paris "cheap," which is to say: out of vaginas, which will repel any who come near. To prove his point, he tells the story of the old lady, the lion, and the fox. Basically, the lady falls backward and her skirt flies up, exposing her genitalia. The lion thinks her vagina is a wound and tells the fox to "wipe it lustily well and hard . . . both within and without" while he goes to get moss to stuff it with. The poor fox:

wiped as hard as he could, here and there, within and without; but the false old trot did so fizzle and fist that she stunk like a hundred devils, which put the poor fox to a great deal of ill ease, for he knew not to what side to turn himself to escape the unsavoury perfume of this old woman's postern blasts. And whilst to that effect he was shifting hither and thither, without knowing how to shun the annoyance of those unwholesome gusts, he saw that behind there was yet another hole, not so great as that which he did wipe, out of which came this filthy and infectious air.

This hole smells of "five hundred devils," the fox tells the lion upon his return: "I am almost choked with the smell therof, it is so pestiferous and empoisoning."


Not only, then, is the thought of Tristram's mother's labor abhorrent, and horrific, but the stuttering, fragmentary nature of Tristram's narrative is, as I said, a page performance, which begins with Tristram's parents' coitus interruptus. It's his mother's fault, of course, that his father's pleasure is delayed, because of her apparent idiocy: "Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?" asks Tristram's father at the end of Chapter One. The narrative's constant disruption and the long dashes that mark digressions within digressions are a kind of visual reminder of the penis throughout, the ejaculatory nature of Tristram's life and opinions disrupted by a constant act of narrative coitus interruptus. 

So anyway, yeah, if proto-pomo Tristram gave me a taste of where I'm headed, like I said, well, I'm afraid. And sad to be leaving behind the rise of the novel of the 18th and 19th centuries. 


But none of that is why I wanted to return to this blog after my long absence and write this post. What I really want to write about is my response to Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" and "A Hunger Artist," which I read yesterday. What I can say today is that, while I have loved a lot of books on my historical list (Pamela being the most surprising of them), nothing has left me speechless. After reading these two stories, I was stunned. I just sort of sat on my couch in a state of sad, glorious desperation. At last, a writer from my literary family tree. Someone from whom I am clearly and recognizably descended — and not because of form or content but something more elusive, atmospheric, tonal. I don't know why I was so surprised, though. My first great literary influence was Garcia Marquez, who sings Kafka's praises for the same reason I now sing both of theirs: 

One night a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka. I went back to the pension where I was staying and began to read The Metamorphosis. The first line almost knocked me off the bed. I was so surprised. The first line reads, "As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, and found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. . . ." When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn't know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories. 

It's bittersweet that the image I used above is of Gregor Samsa in bed reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. What would Kafka have said about it? We'll never know. He died three years before Garcia Marquez was born. In any case, I was stunned, and it's not like I haven't read Kafka before. His Amerika is clearly (well, maybe not clearly, but obliquely) referenced in We Take Me Apart. I wanted Amerika on my list, to have a chance to read it again, but my committee members recommended the stories instead. I'd read them before. I wasn't much interested. So, yesterday, to have the response I did was shocking. I'd opened the book expecting to plod through yet another read of "The Metamorphosis" and to come away with something, at least, to say about Ovid's The Metamorphoses. I thought Kafka could supplement Ovid. Wrong! But what's changed since I first (and last) read "The Metamorphosis"? I think I was in high school the first time a teacher assigned it. I didn't get it. It was weird. And gross. I read it again as an undergrad. By then I'd fallen in love with Garcia Marquez, so the weirdness wouldn't have concerned me. Thinking about it now, all I can come up with is maybe because that same class introduced me to Calvino I forgot all about Kafka and his disgusting bug when I chose to climb up into the trees instead, and onto the surface of the moon, from which I still haven't come down. 

So here we are. "The Metamorphosis," yet again. And this time, it knocked the wind out of me. I got lump-in-throat emotional. I felt things. Unnameable things. Emotions and feelings turned visceral, the precise magic act of transformation that I hope my own writing inspires in readers. I don't cry easily, but I came close in the aftermath of just these two stories. I don't even know what to say about them because they're everything. Throw any question at me about craft and/or literature, and I'll find the answer somewhere in "The Metamorphosis." Throw any question at me about art and entertainment, and the answer is in "A Hunger Artist." I'm not even kidding. A while ago my dad sent me an article about what Kobayashi has been up to since being banned from professional eating. His refusal to sign a sponsorship contract kept him from becoming the caged circus animal that the hunger artist ultimately becomes. His fifteen minutes of fame is the hunger artist's. I could write anything here. My God, Kafka! These stories! I wish I could stop for a few weeks and read all the Kafka and all the criticism from his time to now. I can't, though, because I need to keep moving forward with my lists. But after exams, yes, after exams, I will read everything Kafka wrote and I will cry an ocean.