Years ago I read the three “major” Kafka works: The Castle, The Trial, and The Metamorphosis. I really enjoyed the The Castle and I was okay with The Metamorphosis. Well, I am recently reading a “genre” of books that The Trial sort of can be categorized within, so I finally scrounged up a used copy for $4.00 and read it again.
The Trial was originally published in 1925, after Kafka’s death. It is considered “unfinished,” but it does come to an end of sorts. The edition I read is the “Definitive” edition (as opposed to the “Critical”) and translated by Edwin and Willa Muir. Anyway, my copy was published in 1984 by Schocken Books, the cover illustration is by Anthony Russo. The cover for this edition is pretty neat, actually, so I will also say that the cover design was by Louise Fili – nicely done!
The Trial – if you don’t know – is about a bank clerk named Joseph K. who is “arrested” and spends his time coping with what this may mean. To be quite honest, I am not really into the “existentialist scene.” By this I mean that I really dislike Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Soren Kirkegaard. If you have read that The Trial raises “existential questions” or something like this, I cannot speak to the veracity of it. I suppose it does, but I find existentialism tedious and pathetic.
The noir-existential story of being “under arrest” and “having a case” all without knowing the charges or the accusers is actually an interesting concept. Fighting the unknown minions of an “Establishment/System” is also a well-trod path in literature, which never seems to grow old. However, Kafka is inconsistent and unable to maintain the greatness of these concepts in the novel. Frankly, he falls into boring sidetracks, navel-gazing, and pointless simpering.
I really hate the main character, so it’s difficult to work up any sympathy or concern for him. And even if we are going to interpret the main character as a focus for mocking the mid-level banking/lawyer/official – I don’t find his troubles enough to mock him, I’m more so disgusted by him. I did find it interesting that my response to this character was disgust – and I wondered, as I read along, if this would have been different had I read the novel in, say, the 1950s or 1960s. I suppose the main character moves through a series of psychological responses to the fact that he “has a case.” First it’s outrage and indignation, followed by indifference and disinterest, then the “case” begins to overwhelm him and he begins to obsess and suffer anxiety over it. I feel like in the hands of Dostoyevsky – this psychological movement could have been gripping and intense, whereas with Kafka the thing is weak and boring.
Anyway, the real reason I read the novel, as I said above, has to do with my recent interest in a certain category of novels. I was/am most interested in the sections of the novel that describe the bureaucracy and establishment. The entirety of Chapter Seven carries the bulk of the book and includes the passages that I was most interested in. For example speaking of the Court/Systems’ officials:
They could not help feeling the disadvantages of a judiciary system which insisted on secrecy from the start. Their remoteness kept the officials from being in touch with the populace; for the average case they were excellently equipped, such a case proceeded almost mechanically and only needed a push now and then; yet confronted with quite simple cases, or particularly difficult cases, they were often utterly at a loss, they did not have any right understanding of human relations, since they were confined day and night to the workings of their judicial system, whereas in such cases a knowledge of human nature itself was indispensable.
The ranks of officials in this judiciary system mounted endlessly, so that not even the initiated could survey the hierarchy as a whole. And the proceedings of the Courts were generally kept secret from subordinate officials, consequently they could hardly ever quite follow in their further progress the cases on which they had worked; any particular case thus appeared in their circle of jurisdiction often without their knowing whens it came, and passed from it they knew not whither.
I think these are the most relevant passages to the whole idea that this is a dystopian novel – and that Kafka is commenting on the legal system as a whole. Satirical and mocking, I suppose these are some of the thoughts that coincide with feelings from both Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathub, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, and Orwell’s 1984. There is this gigantic bureaucracy that employs minions who are kept occupied, many times with meaningless tasks, and who hardly have any knowledge of the huge edifice under which they toil. And I feel there is the derived sense of how, in contemporary times, we view huge government and lawyers in general. It also calls to mind the 1992 Egyptian film Terrorism and Kebab ( Al-irhab wal kabab), which takes place in the gigantic government building The Mogamma.
Also, there are instances in the novel that bespeak some weird sexuality of Kafka’s. The segments that are obvious are with Leni and Fraulein Burstner – but also the really BDSM Whippers chapter. I am no Freudian, but even I can see this is odd stuff. Overall, I give the novel two stars since I appreciate certain parts, but I do find it inconsistent and tedious.