The OF Blog: Leatherbound Classics: Franz Kafka, The Trial

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Leatherbound Classics: Franz Kafka, The Trial

Jeman mußte Josef K. verleumdet haben, denn ohne daß er etwas Böses getan hätte, wurde er eines Morgens verhaftet.  Die Köchin der Frau Grubach, seiner Zimmervermieterin, die ihm jeden Tag gegen acht Uhr früh dad Frühstück brachte, kam diesmal nicht.  Das war noch niemals geschehen.  K. wartete noch ein Weilchen, sah von seinem Kopfkissen aus die alte Frau, die ihm gegenüber wohnte und die ihn mit einer an ihr ganz ungewöhnlichen Neugierde beobachtete, dann aber, gleichzeitig befremdet und hungrig, läutete er.

Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.  His landlady's cook, who always brought him his breakfast at eight o' clock, failed to appear on this occasion.  That had never happened before.  K. waited for a little while longer, watching from his pillow the old lady opposite, who seemed to be peering at him with a curiosity unusual even for her, but then, feeling both put out and hungry, he rang the bell. (p. 1)

Czech/Jewish/German writer Franz Kafka (the confusion as to which ethno-national label to pin on him adds to his appeal) begins his "unfinished" novel The Trial with a false sense of banality.  The morning routine of a boarder is interrupted.  This fleeting glance at a "before," similar to the one sentence in his The Metamorphosis that changes Gregor's life forever, jolts the reader from the beginning.  Who is this Joseph K.?  Why is he being arrested before we know anything more about him?

Was waren denn dad für Menschen?  Wovon sprachen sie?  Welcher Behörde gehörten sie an?  K. lebte doch in einem Rechtsstaat, überall herrschte Friede, alle Gesetze bestanden aufrecht, wer wagte, in in seiner Wohnung zu überfallen?  Er neigte stets dazu, alles möghlicht leicht zu nehmen, das Schlimmste erst beim Eintritt des Schlimmsten zu glauben, keine Vorsorge für die Zukunft u treffen, selbst wenn alles drohte.  Hier schien ihm das aber nicht richtig, man konnte zwar das Ganze als Spaß ansehen, als einen gorben Spaß, den ihm aus unbekannten Gründen, vielleicht weil heute sein dreißigster Geburtstag war, die Kollegen in der Bank veranstaltet hatten, es war natürlich möglich, vielleicht brauchte er nur auf irgendeine Weise den Wächtern ins Gesicht zu lachen, und sie würden mitlachen, vielleicht waren es Dienstmänner von der Straßenecke, sie sahen ihnen nicht unähnlich - trotzdem war er diesmal, förmlich schon seit dem ersten Anblick des Wächters Franz, entschlossen, nicht den geringsten Vorteil, den er vielleicht gegenüber diesen Leuten besaß, aus der Hand zu geben.  Darin, daß man später sagen würde, er habe keinen Spaß verstanden, sah K. eine ganz geringe Gefahr, wohl aber erinnerte er sich - ohne daß es sonst seine Gewohnheit gewesen wäre, aus Erfahrungen zu lernen - an einige, an sich unbedeutende Fälle, in denen er zum Unterschied von seinen Freunden mit Bewußtsein, ohne das geringste Gefühl für die möglichen Folgen, sich unvorsichtig benommen hatte und dafür durch das Ergebnis gestraft worden war.  Es sollte nicht wieder geschehen, zumindest nicht diesmal; war es eine Komödie, so wollte er mitspielen.

Who could these men be?  What were they talking about?  What authority could they represent?  K. lived in a country with a legal constitution; there was universal peace; all the laws were in force; who dared seize him in his own dwelling?  He had always been inclined to take things easily, to believe in the worst only when the worst happened, to take no care for the morrow even when the outlook was threatening.  But that struck him as not being the right policy here; one could certainly regard the whole thing as a joke, a rude joke which his colleagues in the Bank had concocted for some unknown reason, perhaps because this was his thirtieth birthday.  That was of course possible; perhaps he had only to laugh knowingly in these men's faces and they would laugh with him, perhaps they were merely porters from the street corner - they looked very like it - nevertheless his very first glance at the man Franz had decided him for the time being not to give away any advantage that he might possess over these people.  There was a slight risk that later on his friends might possibly say he could not take a joke, but he had in mind - though it was not usual with him to learn from experience - several occasions, of no importance in themselves, when against all his friends' advice he had behaved with deliberate recklessness and without the slightest regard for possible consequences, and had had in the end to pay dearly for it.  That must not happen again, at least not this time; if this was a comedy he would insist on playing it to the end. (p. 4-5)

I quote this long passage because it contains the germ of the story which follows.  Kafka's Joseph K. represents a sort of everyman, a perfectly "normal" middle-class citizen, presumably respectable, who suddenly is thrust into a bewildering situation.  How would we act?  Wouldn't we likely be as baffled as he, thinking this must be some monstrous joke?  After all, don't we ultimately control the State, rather than the State controlling us?  It is a cruel, dark "comedy" that awaits Joseph K.; we can sense the rising fear and we anticipate the drawn-out horrors that await him.

The Trial, like most of Kafka's works, was never completed; he left his works to his friend and estate executor, Max Brod, to dispose of, preferably with fire.  Brod obviously chose not to follow Kafka's arguably halfhearted desire.  However, Kafka's notes for The Trial were in some state of disorganization; Brod had to experiment with chapter placement.  This fact alone (revealed in Brod's later prefaces, when he rearranged the chapter placements) makes reading The Trial an interesting experience.  As Joseph K. goes to trial, he has to witness several people he has previously known testify against him; their order may not be of utmost importance, yet there is something in the way that the trial is structured that makes the narrative work on a variety of levels.  Why are these people testifying against him?  Why is more and more evidence being found against him?  How can a single person resist the power of the State, even a presumably democratic one? 

These questions drive home the power of The Trial.  It is of little importance whether or not Joseph K. is "innocent" or "guilty."  What matters is the sense derived from the ponderous evidence presented.  Those feelings of confusion, of self-doubt, of worry; they all create a composite psychological portrait that is not limited to a single person's point of view, but instead envelops an entire society.  Written during the cataclysmic decade of World War I and its immediate aftermath, The Trial represents a break with the Positivism of the 19th century, with its now-quaint ideas on Progress (as opposed to progress) and Order (here held to be of questionable value).  Before Existentialism became a loose literary/philosophical movement, Kafka's works showed the internal contradictions of modern society.

Yet despite the importance placed on his writings, Kafka's writing style was not ornate.  His German is simple and direct.  The 1937 Muir translation which I quote captures much of Kafka's tone, although there are a few places where the translation feels stilted and inappropriate for the internal monologues of Joseph K.  Kafka creates odd, unsettling situations which then unfold in ways that can be morbidly comical, like the thrashing and flopping of a fish on the ground.  "Comedy," in both its classical and modern senses, might be the most apt word to sum up Kafka.  We see the development and unfolding of a life before us, simultaneously fascinating and farcical.  In that storm of socio-political movement, who is ridiculous enough to spit into its wind?

The Trial, however, is more than all this.  It is a story that invites us to provide our own takes to its events.  Joseph K.'s plight allows us to place ourselves into the narrative, to process what might ultimately be unfathomable for us.  Yet attempts to do so will be done and even if they prove to be inconclusive, the reactions derived from this can stimulate us to dwell upon the structure which Kafka has provided us.  Here is where I believe The Trial has lasting value, in that its readers do not receive its contents passively, but instead become active participants in what is unfolding.  Whether or not it is "complete" as a narrative is irrelevant here.  The Trial simply is a powerful narrative that moves readers nearly a century after its (partial) conception.  It truly is a classic work which will continue to move readers generations from now.

1 comment:

Roland said...

We had to read this book in high school and to my great surprise, I loved it! I still find it weird that a 17 year old would like this book.
It's funny and horrible at the same time.
My favourite part was when his lawyer (I think) babbles on without pause in a long paragraph that lasts for 7-8 pages and then ends it with "...but all this is irrelevant".
That's humor! :)

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