Wednesday, March 25, 2015

There can be no more beautiful spot to die in, no spot more worthy of total despair, than one's own novel.

The problem with talking about Franz Kafka's novels is that Kafka never wrote a novel. Amerika, The Trial and The Castle exist as unfinished drafts, as rough manuscripts that have been sometimes cleaned up by translators or editors, but they do not exist as complete novels. I've read essays that point to the internal contradictions in these books as evidence that Kafka was showing us something about the unknowable nature of life. The protagonist of The Castle (an unpleasant fellow named K) claims in the first chapter to have a wife and child. Around a fourth of the way into the story, he becomes engaged to a villager, having apparently forgotten his wife and child. Was he lying about the marriage, or does he intend to become a bigamist? Also in the first chapter, K claims to be a surveyor who has come to the Castle because he was sent for, and his assistants will be joining him soon with his equipment. Later he is assigned two assistants by unknown persons at the Castle, who have neither surveying experience nor equipment, and K's actual assistants and equipment never show up. Still later, K is thinking that he came to the Castle to find work, and had imagined that at the very least he'd get a position as a farmhand somewhere. His coming to the Castle had nothing to do with survey work at all. Which of these things is true? Did Kafka intend that none of them (or possibly all of them) is actually real within the narrative? A reader can point to these (and many more) inconsistencies and make claims about Kafka's philosophy of the unknowableness of things, of the instability and relativistic nature of truth, etc. Or, a reader can point to these things and say that the author never got around to revising the manuscript and making decisions about what was actually going on in his story. What we read when we read The Castle or The Trial or Amerika are works in progress, unfinished comedies, sketches and set pieces and a whirl of ideas and possibilities, but we do not read novels. Which makes it tricky if you come to the books expecting any sort of finished work. Kafka abandoned all three of these manuscripts, maybe because he didn't really know what to do with long form fiction other than keep writing and writing until he stops. Failure or exhaustion? The Castle ends mid-sentence. Kafka wrote to Max Brod that he had to abandon the project forever.

So why read these unfinished notes, these gestures in the direction of novels? Because there are great ideas, great passages in them. Kafka was not a brilliant prose stylist, but sometimes he hits his stride, like in this passage where he equates faith in government edicts with faith in religious scripture:
"I simply want to say that something is there, that Barnabas is being offered something, and that it is only Barnabas' fault if he can achieve nothing with that other than doubt, fear, and hopelessness. And as a starting point I always took the least favorable case, which is actually quite unlikely. For we do have the letters in hand, which I certainly don't trust much, though far more so than the words of Barnabas. Even if they are old worthless letters pulled out indiscriminately from a pile of equally worthless letters, indiscriminately, and with no more sense than that employed by canaries at fairs who pick somebody's fortune out of a pile, even if that is so, then at least these letters bear some relation to my work, are clearly intended for me, though perhaps not for my use, and, as the council chairman and his wife have testified, were personally signed by Klamm, and have, once again according to the council chairman, a significance that, while merely private and scarcely transparent, is nevertheless quite considerable."[...]

"That will greatly encourage him."

"But he needs no encouragement [...] He'll never accomplish anything; no matter how much you keep encouraging someone who is blindfolded to stare through the cloth, he still won't see a thing; it's only when you take off the blindfold that he can see."
That's good stuff. So is
"Let us come back to you, sir," they cried, as if K were the land and they were about to sink in the floods.
The Castle somehow equates government and feudalism with religion, and the unknowability of God is mirrored (maybe) by the unknowability of the intentions of government, and the well-meaning (maybe) fumbling of government clerks and officials is an allegory of the behavior of the clergy. Maybe. Somehow, now that I've finished The Castle, I've managed to have read all of Kafka's fiction. That was never my intention. This post is just a sort of shot across the bow at Kafka. I think I have more to write about, in a little while.


  1. It has been so long since I read any of these books, any Kafka at all. It is pleasant to read about them here.

    I wish the Marx Brothers had done an adaptation of The Castle.

  2. A Marx Brothers The Castle would be pretty good stuff. I like Chico for the K character.

    The ironic thing about this post is that I didn't mean to post it yet; I was still working away at it and I clicked the little "publish" button instead of the "save" button, so what you see is a rough draft. I guess the 'rough' part is obvious. Now that I'm back from a short vacation, I suppose I could clean it up, edit it a bit and clarify what I was thinking. But I probably won't.

  3. Maybe you could edit the post in some subtle way that makes my comment look idiotic or insane. That could be fun.

    1. I'm not that kind of blogger. But I see how it could be enormous fun.