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Old 27th Mar 2004, 19:32   #1
John Self
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Ah, Kafka. One of the few twentieth century writers who can truly be known by surname alone, not least because it spawned an adjective (although, as Martin Amis points out, it has become wildly devalued to the point where a long queue in the post office is described as kafkaesque). Until this week I had only read a few of the stories that were published during his lifetime, like 'Metamorphosis' and this brief bright gem, 'Before the Law.' Reading these flawless pieces you really feel he deserves that adjectival honour.

As is widely known, Kafka left strict instructions to his friend Max Brod to burn all his writings that hadn't been published during his lifetime, including a whole bunch of other stories and the three unfinished and (then) untitled novels, The Trial, The Castle and Amerika (or America, depending on what edition you have). Of course Brod did nothing of the sort, and named the novels and published them. And who, faced with the possibility of rescuing a great writer from obscurity, combined with the blindness of having a gigantic cheque placed over one's eyes, can say they would have done it differently?

But, reading The Trial this week, I wish he hadn't. It turns out, I think, that Kafka was not only a great writer but a really great judge of his own work. The Trial doesn't stand up. As someone who believes Nabokov's dictum that showing unfinished work is akin to handing round specimens of your own sputum - and who has never felt enthused to read his own copies of The Last Tycoon or The Salmon of Doubt - I had my suspicions about The Trial from early on. Completion is a necessary requirement of a work of art. These suspicions redoubled when I read in the appendix to one edition that Brod had not only titled the novel (as there's no actual trial in it, the German Der Prozess seems more fitting), but also ordered the chapters, other than the first and last (which does end the book pretty definitively, but Kafka apparently intended to write much more for the middle of the book). So immediately I should have let go of any hopes that there might be a followable plot. Instead what we get is a series of vignettes, where the put-upon 'hero' Josef K. meets various people and officials and non-officials in an attempt to put paid to the unfair proceedings which have been brought against him by the state.

As a classic, The Trial has all the muddled expectations that come with any well-known book. I supposed, for example, that at the beginning of the novel Josef K. would be arrested for a crime he did not commit, taken into custody and be subjected to a series of escalating processes of demeaning confusing humiliation by the state, full of circular crosstalk and unresolved reflexive arguments. There would perhaps be almost circles of hell for K. to pass through, each more baffling and clinically bureaucratic than the last; until, eventually, separated from society and reason, K. would take his own life.

Well if you fancy writing that book, go ahead, because Kafka didn't. Instead there are only two scenes of confrontation with authority: the opening scene, where K. is told he is under arrest and - that's it - left to be; and a scene where he appears before a crowded room of magistrates and the public, and nothing much happens. Other than that he is not required to do anything and never is he taken anywhere against his will. The dialogue is filled with non-sequiturs - rather as the chapters themselves do not necessarily follow on from one another - and is rendered semi-impenetrable by Brod's, or the publisher's, or the translator's, slavish adherence to Kafka's 'idiosyncratic' punctuation (hardly any paragraphs; dialogue running without line breaks; commas between speech and action appearing and disappearing randomly). The prose should be clear and lucid, to contrast with the muddied and complex ways of the law and the state (or it should, if the book was actually about those things, which it's not, so it isn't). And speaking of translations, here is the classic opening of The Trial, by Willa and Edwin Muir, who first brought us Kafka in English (this novel in 1935):

Quote:
Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.
Solid and elegant, you might think. Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K. Great stuff. It has resonance. So why did the translator of my edition (first published in English in 1994) feel the need to say:

Quote:
Someone must have made a false accusation against Josef K., ...
Made a false accusation? Now how idiomatic is that? The back cover is even worse, where it becomes "laid a false accusation." But perhaps this policy of adopting overdone locutions is appropriate for Kafka's overdone (yet incomplete) novel.

To be perfectly honest, I didn't even reach the end of my edition; put off by the absolutely certain knowledge that nothing of significance - or assistance in understanding - was going to happen, I gave up about two-thirds of the way through. Which enables me to quote Amis again, accurately, when he said "I have never been able to finish one of Kafka's novels. But then neither could Kafka."
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Old 28th Mar 2004, 13:04   #2
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I think you might be being a bit hard on the guy for not being what you expected. Is that his fault? Especially if what you're really criticising is a clumsy translation.

I read the Trial* before I had any real expectations of what it would be like and I really enjoyed it. For me it's not so much about the trial as the bureaucracy. Waiting all morning, in a corridor for a piece of paper, and then finding out that you need a different piece of paper to get that piece of paper, and the office you need to go to, to get that piece of paper is on the other side of town and will involve a a lengthy bus ride. Ah well, you say, best to get it out the way .You take the aforementioned bus, spend half an hour trying to find the office, and then when you arrive you find it's closed for the day. You turn up the next morning, wait for three hours, reach new levels of boredom that you previously thought unattainable, and finally you get to see the man.

'Ah but you need to have this piece of paper before I can give you that piece of paper.'

'No, I was there yesterday. They said I needed that piece of paper before they could give me this piece of paper.'

'No. You must get yet another piece of paper from them, which you give to me, so that I can give you that piece of paper to give to them. It's perfectly logical and simple.'

'I spent all day yesterday trying to sort this out, and now you want me to go over there again. Can't you fax or email it or something.'

'No. Sorry.'

Before I can say anything else, he gestures to the Turkish family, standing behind me patiently.

'As you can see. I'm very busy.'


This is what Kafka is like. As someone who has lived in Germany, I'd say that's a pretty accuracte description of what happens as soons as you try and do anything and that's what I really like about him. A single individual against a huge, faceless, amorphous system called the State.

*BTW Der Prozess in German, means both the Trial and the Process, which given the book is a pretty apt. English is not so convenient, so they had to choose one or t'other. And trial does also have the sense of something which must be endured.
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Old 28th Mar 2004, 13:22   #3
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Yes I realise I'm flying in the face of almost a century of wisdom but what can I say? I didn't like it.

By the way your little italicised section is, if I'd expressed it more clearly above, exactly what I thought The Trial would be like. But it's not. It's just ... not! Unless my eyes had glazed over by that stage, there was no blackly satiric bureaucratic doubletalk in the two-thirds I read at all...
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Old 28th Mar 2004, 13:33   #4
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if you don't like it, you don't like it. Shit happens. And I guess it is possible that my memory has been clouded by what people think K is like, though I do remember liking it.

People in the know tend to prefer Metamorphoses anyway though I haven't read it and couldn't say.
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Old 29th Mar 2004, 14:38   #5
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I find most of Kafka's writing very frustrating indeed. I've read The Trial, The Castle, Amerika and Metamorphosis (the only one I found comfortable-ish). This business of never getting anywhere and being introspective about it is vexing, and I don't much like wasting time reading a book about the waste of time.

May I, however, commend to you the Orson Welles movie of The Trial. Wonderfully well designed, it cuts through the interminability of the book and imposes a structure upon it. This, as you might imagine, makes it much more palatable.

Welles himself thought this his best movie, and I agree. Much better than the much-lauded Citizen Kane.
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Old 29th Mar 2004, 21:16   #6
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How nice to agree with John for once about some classic. The problem with The Trial as I see it is that it really works well as a symbol, metaphor, parable, archetype and all that but actual reading doesn't add anything to what moderately read person had known before embarking on it. Even if the book wasn't exactly what you had expected it's quite likely that after some time you'll remember much better your made on the general knowledge presumptions than the real book...

There's a short story by Kafka that I liked (don't remember the title) about a guy having some obscure job in some bureaucratic institution (that only he could do properly) who was haunted by three little balls following him everywhere. I have a vague impression that the little balls were yellow but wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't the case.
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Old 12th Nov 2004, 18:53   #7
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All right, I don’t feel like I’m terribly good at this reviewing business yet--especially because I figure people probably have torn apart older works, in particular, and have just about agreed on everything, so my opinions are irrelevant--but I’m trying.

If everyone has decided that Kafka’s The Trial is intended as nothing more than a scathing commentary on the courts system, my review can be quite short, I think. As a scathing judicial commentary, I would rate The Trial as Bleak House Lite—a general condemnation of bureaucracy with no characters or discernible plot. Some of this, as the honourable Mssrs Self and Cat have already said, can not be blamed on Kafka, as he didn’t finish the novel and in fact asked that it be burned upon his death [his friend who arranged and published the manuscript anyway explained that good ol’ Franz was always talking about burning this or that, and didn’t truly mean it, of course].

In addition, I didn’t find anything terribly exciting about the dialogue, narrative, or writing style in general, and I found Kafka’s (or his publishers’) tendency to create monstrous chapter-long run-on paragraphs to be EXTREMELY annoying. His refusal to begin new paragraphs for each new speaker in a conversation was particularly annoying, and it made some dialogue difficult to follow.

Moving on from the short review, I can’t help but feel, however, that Kafka was trying to say something beyond a simple condemnation of the courts. There are a few rather evocative things to emerge from the work, with the most evocative, to me, being K.’s doomed struggle against charges which he not only does not know, but which are being deliberately obscured from him by seemingly an entire world conspiring against him. This struck me time and again, and I really can’t see how Kafka could not have intended The Trial at least partially as a cynical swipe at organised religion. As it seems he may have been a bit of a religious fanatic, I could be directly wrong, I suppose, in which case I can only conclude that many of the points in his cynical swipe at the judiciary happen to closely resemble my own cynical view of organised religion.

Let me try to offer some defence to my assertion that Kafka is taking a swipe at religion. First, I will fall back on K.’s doomed struggle against charges he can not identify. This immediately struck me as a metaphor for the Christian concept of Original Sin. Look—you’re guilty, whether you think you’ve done anything or not, and you can’t make yourself unguilty. When we add to this the system in which one’s guilt is tried—which one can neither influence nor understand, and which is, however, extremely important and, therefore must be pursued throughout your life, this also would seem to reflect general Christian beliefs that various paths need to be pursued, and various rituals observed, although, in the end, it doesn’t really matter, because one is guilty anyway, due to this pesky Original Sin.

So then, what does one do? One must deal with the functionaries of the system, the intermediaries, represented by advocates and court officials, or by priests, depending upon which system we’re talking about, hoping that they may be able to help one’s case in these confusing, seemingly senseless matters. Unfortunately, all of these functionaries and intermediaries have a nasty tendency to take the importance of the system upon themselves, rather than providing any actual service, and one eventually realises that they don’t have much of an understanding of the system, either (ed: perhaps because the system is premised upon something ridiculous?).

K., I thought, was not exactly the sort of typical hero that you want to cheer through the various encounters with the bad guys. He’s a bit of an ass, it must be said, and he suffers from a superiority complex, evident not just in his dealings with the people of the courts, but in his dealings with everyone. It also must be said that he often takes steps that are directly detrimental to his case, alternating with stretches in which he will pursue his case vigorously—just as we imperfect, Original-Sin-tarnished humans can’t help but bugger things up in our quest for Eternal Forgiveness.

I think it was no coincidence that K. finds himself speaking to a Priest in a Cathedral toward the end of the novel, lending a distinctly religious air to things. The Priest’s parable of the court functionary guarding the door leading to access to the Law system against a lonely supplicant, being remotely kind to the man while resisting him over the years, eventually highlighting the man’s failure to gain access to the door by closing it as he dies, raises several questions to match my religious metaphor. Was the door ever really available to the man? Does the door-keeper really have any idea about what is inside, even if the door was available? Does he make a point of highlighting the dying man’s failure to gain access to the door because only through emphasising people’s own failures and weaknesses can the people be convinced to rely on this seemingly dodgy system?

And, of course, at the end, we have K. slaughtered/sacrificed (which, honestly, caught me by surprise but probably shouldn’t have, considering my thinking throughout the work). K. could not gain access to the system trying his hopeless case in life; perhaps he does not resist his killers because he realises his death will reconcile him with the system—or at least relieve him of the burden he has carried because of the system. This would seem to be an obvious parallel to Christian beliefs that the harm of Original Sin could only be undone through a great sacrifice, and individual people can only get their share of this undoing by ‘sacrificing’ themselves into a New Life.

Now, all of this being said, I will say that I understand perfectly that one of the following is true: 1) I am correct, and everyone else in the universe has figured this out already, because it’s fairly obvious; or 2) You will tell me that all of the world’s great minds have debated The Trial for decades, and I’m completely wrong. Either way, at least I’ve had some exercise in trying to piece things together intelligently.

Thanks and good night.
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Old 17th Nov 2004, 17:43   #8
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An interesting view - the religion one - Jerkass, which hadn't remotely occurred to me. But then I didn't actually finish it...

Just because a book is a hundred or more years old, doesn't mean we can't disagree about its supposed meanings or indeed think it's crap (Wuthering Heights, anyone?). For example my understanding of The Trial, before I read it, was something akin to bak's assessment of it above. But when I read it, I didn't see any of that, apart from the elements I was wishfully projecting onto it from my own expectations.

I thought K. was a bit of a pudding, but that I suppose is where my early-21st-century inability to empathise with the social mores of an earlier age causes my downfall. (I mean, why didn't Romeo & Juliet just elope to the next county?) And that, then, is where classics to some extent aren't up for debate, because unless we have a full understanding of the society and times of which they speak, then we can't properly appreciate or criticise them, just as someone from the late 19th century reading, say, American Psycho, would pale and protest at its explicit sex and violence, only for us to say, Ah but, the eighties, you see...
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Old 19th Nov 2004, 9:34   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by John Self
Wuthering Heights, anyone?
Always, always. But, I think, since Mon Mar 29, 2004, there've been some other things than Kafka I agreed with John about...

The religious interpretation never occurred to me either. It almost makes me want to reread the book, but no, maybe not. At any rate it's interesting, and perhaps as right as linking The Trial with the helplessness of the individual in the totalitarian systems, which we used to do at school. For me - but many years after reading it - it has more existentially psychoanalytical than political feel...
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Old 19th Nov 2004, 11:03   #10
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Now you mention it, I see what you mean about the potential religious or at least Judaeo-Christian aspect, though I must admit I never thought of it in those terms before. But I guess you may be more religious than me (it isn't hard, your average paperclip would also qualify) and therefore more likely to see things in a religious light. Personally I always thought it was more of a Rights & Duties, Individual vs The State kind of deal but now I've started reading the Trial again I'm not really sure of that either. As John says thats what you'd think it would be about, but that message if it's there at all does seem to get lost in the clumsy prose and confused, directionless plot.

Some of the stuff I mentioned, about being frustrated by time and space, not being told when or where to appear, and then being punished for not being there on time, does seem to be in there, and rings definite bells. I read the Trial just after I moved to Germany and it would have seemed especially apposite at the time, what with all the hassle of trying to register myself. Maybe this is what I remember more than anything and why K stayed so positive in my memory.

Anyway, I'm only on Ch. 5. if my impression changes before I reach the end or if I have any new thoughts to add, I'll be sure to let you guys know.

Herr B.
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