The Castle, Franz Kafka (Oxford World Classics 2009, RRP £8.99, 336p)
Sometimes I have this dream that I’m trying to get somewhere, urgently, but I never make it past the train station or airport. I don’t know where I’m going, just that it seems impossible to make any progress. I move sluggishly, as if through treacle, and my mind won’t connect clearly. If I try to make a phone call, my hands feel like I’m wearing gloves, my swollen fingers unable to press the right key. I suspect, like the teeth dream, this is a common night-time reality for many people, and it was what sprung to mind as I was reading The Castle.
For those unfamiliar with Kafka, I can give you a few tips, gleaned from my own hard-won experience. Firstly, start with something small. I found The Metamorphosis the most accessible Kafka I’ve read; though that’s not to say it’s not also rather disturbing. Secondly, don’t even try to understand what you’re reading, just go with it. There’ll be time to think about what the hell was going on for the last two hundred pages after you’ve finished. Otherwise you probably won’t ever finish the first chapter, but instead will spend the best years of your reading life fighting against Kafka’s meanandering prose, the same way K. struggles against the faceless authority of the castle.
K. is Kafka’s strangely two-dimensional protagonist, and the novel begins as he arrives in the almost permanently snow-bound village. As soon as he arrives, and enters a local tavern, he comes up against the bureaucracy of the castle, and is only allowed to remain in the village after he declares himself to be the Land-Surveyor. Here begin K.’s futile attempts to gain entry to the castle, though what he wants from it and its inhabitants remains a mystery. He becomes engaged to a barmaid, Frieda, who up until that point is mistress to Klamm, an important official in the castle. K. seems almost disappointed when Frieda ends her relationship with Klamm to be with him, as if he was hoping to use her influence. In fact, K. seems to be more aroused by the sight of Klamm’s messenger, Barnabas, than his fiancée.
Reading the novel, I was mainly struck by the odd, wandering passage of time. Everything seems to take a long time in the village, yet at the same time, a lot of things happen in a short space of time. K. finds himself engaged to Frieda within a couple of days of arriving in the village, yet he seems to spend endless hours trudging down snow covered paths, constantly being distracted from his intended task. This, I suppose, is where my dream analogy comes in. I was strongly reminded of this dream sensation of trying to get somewhere and being thwarted while I was reading The Castle. It was difficult to stop my own frustration at K.’s wanderings and just surrender myself to the flow of the story. However, in the end that is all the reader can do.
This brings me to the central question, which naturally the novel fails to answer; what is K. doing in the village? K’s main desire seems to be to get to the Castle, but what he wants to do when he gets there remains unclear. He certainly doesn’t seem interested in doing much land surveying. He frequently complains that he has travelled a long way to get to the village, but he never explains why. K. is a typical Kafka creation, a lone figure struggling against a faceless authority, in this case the castle.
There are as many different interpretations of Kafka’s work as there are academics who have read it. The introduction to my edition ran through some of these theories, before dismissing them as too simplistic. Personally, I see Kafka’s writing as primarily surrealist, so any meaning and symbolism comes second to the fact that Kafka saw the world differently from other people, and just as I like to gaze upon a nice Van Gogh, sometimes I like to read Kafka, just for what it is. However, that said, it doesn’t mean that I can’t look a little deeper on occasion. I do have an English degree after all. Better dust off my long forgotten literary-theory skills, such as they are. The main thing that was staring me in the face was Kafka’s contempt of bureaucracy. This was also explored in The Trial, and some of his short stories. The sheer pointlessness of much of what we discover about the Castle, the plethora of clerks and administrators, the fact that none of them seem to communicate with one another, and their strange, childish behaviour when they are staying in the village, is reminiscent of accusations often levelled at our own civil service. Office work can frequently be seen as both tedious and pointless, and Kafka did work as a in an office for some years, he was an insurance lawyer, so perhaps that was a source of inspiration for him.
There is also the relationship between the village and the castle. While the village obsesses over the castle, the castle scarcely seems to notice the existence of the village. This strange, one sided relationship is displayed best in the case of Barnabas’s family, who have been ostracised and shunned by society because his sister refused the advances of a prominent clerk from the castle, and allegedly insulted his messenger. Barnabas’s other sister tells K. the story, and the reader is struck by the way the village, and the family themselves, impose a rigorous punishment of social isolation, whereas the castle seems to care little for the supposed slight. It also emerges that Barnabas is only going to the castle and working as a messenger to try and set things right for his family, and he frequently has no messages to take, and those that he is entrusted with are of little importance. This whole idea, of how the family and the village people have invented this struggle for themselves, is almost funny. In fact, even K. can be seen as implicit in this, as he chose to come to the village and fight against the castle, when he could have lived peacefully elsewhere.
The Castle remained unfinished after Kafka’s death. I actually didn’t know this, until I reached the end, and it just breaks off in the middle of a sentence. I thought that this was Kafka being extra perverse, and cursed him. Then, after doing a little research, I discovered the truth, and felt more than a little silly. Sorry Kafka. Though, I have to shamefully admit, there was part of me that was relieved he never managed to finish it. The last fifty pages are a struggle, containing a couple of very long rambling monologues from characters such as Pepi the chamber-maid, and I really had to force myself to get to the impromptu end. Once again, sorry Kafka.