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June Books 3) The Trial

3) The Trial, by Franz Kafka

Part of my continuing programme of literary education, this is listed as one of the Top 100 Books by the Norwegians, Robert McCrum and Bookslut. The most difficult thing about getting into it was the very long paragraphs, but after I'd found the right gear I found it a very quick read - only 177 pages, and even though you know pretty much what is going to happen, you keep turning to find out how it is going to happen. I was really struck by the main theme, and also by a couple of details illustrating it. In so far as there is a plot, it is well summarised here, and I found the whole text in the original German - fairly easy German, at that - here. I waited to read the introduction of my Penguin Classics edition until after I'd finished the main text, however was pleased to find it contained no spoilers, but rather a good explanation of what was going on in Kafka's life at the time he was writing the book.

The main theme of the book is often summarised as paranoia; and yet that word has been so devalued by psycho-speak over the ninety years since The Trial was written that it no longer really conveys the full weight of hopeless struggle against the irrational barriers erected by the hostile behaviour of other men depicted here. In fact I think it's better to think of depression, rather than paranoia, as the biggest part of the picture. The symptoms are pretty clear: the offers of help from friends or family which simply make matters worse; the inability to concentrate on normal tasks; the obsession over details of the problem that you can't actually change. The justice system in the book doesn't represent the Austrian Imperial justice system, nor even is it a metaphor for bureaucracy in general - it represents life as a whole.

One of the repeatedly used themes that I found particularly vivid (and contra what I just wrote, this is a particularly paranoid part of the book) was the way in which the agents of the Court are able to interpenetrate ordinary domestic and business life. The initial intrusion of the agents into K's lodgings is normal enough, a sort of invasion; but then the weirdness begins with the difficulty of finding the interrogation chamber in what appears to be an ordinary apartment block, and then even more so when K returns and finds that the ante-room to the chamber has become a fully-furnished apartment. The most disturbing bit is when he discovers that a room in his own place of work is actually a punishment chamber for the guards who first arrested him. I guess we all sometimes suffer from the delusion that there is Stuff Going On in our immediate vicinity that we just don't know about - it certainly features in my own dreams sometimes - and Kafka really captured that feeling here.

Another point that caught my eye was Kafka's treatment of sex. K has a girlfriend, who works as a waitress and "received her visitors in bed"; but he also then scours Frau Bürstner's face and neck with kisses, flirts with the usher's wife, and goes considerably further with Leni (and they fondle each other while he is talking to his lawyer). Yet none of this is explicitly linked with his judicial problems - when I wrote of the "hostile behaviour of other men" earlier I chose my words carefully (though perhaps I was unfair not to include Frau Montag, who is Frau Bürstner's first line of defence). Are we meant to think that, of course, all of these things are interconnected, but K is too deluded to see it?

I was left a bit puzzled by the symbolism of the paintings, and the painter Titorelli. No doubt all will become clearer if I re-read the book.

I must try and hunt down The Insurance Man, in which Kafka is played by Daniel Day-Lewis and Geoffrey Palmer gives what is reputedly one of his best performances. I only ever saw a couple of clips from it, but I think I'd enjoy it, especially now I've read this.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 11th, 2005 12:34 pm (UTC)
It is a long time since I read 'The Trial'. I was stunned by how much of it I had forgotten until I read over your summary.

I once saw an episode of 'the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles' where Indy, helped by a young clerk called Franz (played by Lord Percy from Blackadder II - he gets around), has to go through a very surreal process, including a trial, just to try and get a phone installed in a particular building. It was gloriously Kafka-esque and very funny but I haven't seen it since.

Re. your ongoing literary education: put Gogol's 'Diary of a Madman' on your list if not already there. I found it went v. well with 'The Trial' and is short and a fast read, which means at your reading rate it may only take you an hour.
Jun. 11th, 2005 01:51 pm (UTC)
The film of the book
Orson Welles' film version is also meant to be very good - especially since he shoots it from the opposite point of view from the book, i.e. "he's as guilty as hell."
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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