(w. 1911, p. 1927)
Translated by Edwin Muir
Schocken, 1996, ISBN 0805210644; Paperback $13.00. [Browse/Purchase]
Translated by Michael Hofmann
New Directions, 2002, ISBN 081121513X; Hardcover $23.95. [Browse/Purchase]
Kafka took some early stabs at writing a novel, but none of them really worked out. In 1903, he started The Child and the City
. He abandoned it, and the manuscripts have since disappeared. He tried to collaborate with Max Brod on a work called Richard and Samuel
, but that didnt work out either. The fragment Wedding Preparations in the Country was supposed to be much longer than it was, but he gave up on it. Therefore, when talking about Kafkas novels, we always have to start with Amerika
. Although like his other attempts it remains unfinished, enough of it exists for us to recognize it as a novel, and so it is here we begin.
The original manuscript bears no title Amerika
is the name given to it by Kafkas friend and posthumous editor, Max Brod. He chose the title because Kafka often called the work his American novel, but Kafka had a number of different names for it, such as Der Verschollene
(translated alternately as The Man Who Disappeared
, The Missing One
, Lost Without a Trace
, or The Lost One
) and The Stoker
, the title given to the first chapter and sometimes extended to include the entire work. Kafka wrote the majority of the novel from 1911-1912, with additional fragments being added intermittently over the next few years until it was finally pushed aside for other things. Only the first chapter was published during Kafkas lifetime, and though The Stoker
was recognized as a quality work, the rest of Amerika
had to wait for Max Brod to come along.
In its beginning stages, however, Amerika
received the rapt attention of its author. After scrapping his first attempt because he thought it too Dickensian, Kafka began it again and wouldnt stop writing, working in his typical fashion from the early evening until late at night. Having never been to America, he pulled some of his information from a series of articles describing one mans journey there. We know this because in both the articles and the manuscript for the novel, Oklahoma is spelled Oklahama. While a small mistake like that can be ignored, larger changes such as the one to the Statue of Liberty are of significant importance. What we come to realize is that Kafkas America is not so much a real place as it is a land of infinite possibility, where a man can succeed beyond his most far-flung dreams and fail beyond his most terrifying nightmares. This is a place that cannot be seen with the eyes it has to be grasped with the imagination. To picture Kafkas America as a plausibly real place is to miss the point entirely, and it would be a shame to read Amerika
The story begins with the main character Karl Rossmann nervously waiting for his boat to dock in the harbor of New York City. Karl is not quite a willing visitor to these shores after being seduced by a serving girl who subsequently became pregnant, Karl is being shipped to America by his parents. As the boat prepares to dock, he realizes that hes left his umbrella below deck. When he goes to retrieve it, he gets lost on the ship, running into a series of strange characters who push him from one plot point to the next. It soon becomes obvious that Karl will spend the rest of the novel wandering.
The next two hundred pages or so follow Karl on his journey. As his meandering takes him through the worlds of the amazingly rich and the despicably poor, he makes and breaks friendships along the way, always trying to find a steady footing, and always getting tripped up somewhere down the line. To his credit, Karl never resorts to despair; and even when he is depressed, he seems ready to take on the next problem with what could only be described as a youthful exuberance. Amerika
is said to be Kafkas most optimistic work, and he even entertained notions of giving it a happy ending, with Karl finding a steady job and reuniting with his parents. However, a September 29, 1915 diary entry suggests a more pessimistic outcome, in which Karl is destroyed by a legal sentence; and while he is not hurled to the ground, he is at least pushed to the side. The novel itself, giving us no real conclusion, leaves us to contemplate both possibilities as Karl travels steadily into the infinite expanse of the West.
doesnt have as many metaphysical conundrums as The Trial
or The Castle
, pointing out the relevant themes may seem an exercise in stating the obvious. Nevertheless, there are a few things that anyone reading Amerika
should look out for, so here are several points you can ponder over, refer to, or angrily disagree with:
The world of Amerika is one of gigantic proportions.
When Karl is not busy getting lost in ships or mansions, hes bounding down endless city streets or working as a lift-boy for a hotel that seems to grow larger with each description. The harbors are large. The crowds are large. The buildings are large. Even the writing-desks are impossibly complicated. But the size doesnt just extend to the physical. America is a land of dreams and nightmares, where any event is possible as long as it can be imagined. Fliers on street corners read: The great Theater of Oklahama calls you! . . . Everyone is welcome! . . . Down with all those who do not believe in us! Structures, ideas, bodily gestures everything everywhere is writ large. It can get downright overwhelming for poor Karl. Hes excited by the prospect of America, but at the same time, he wishes he could be home again, in the comfortable and courteous family environment that existed before sex came along to ruin everything. Americas infinite opportunity frightens him, particularly because he has nowhere to turn if he fails, and hes seen what its like for those who cant quite meet expectations.
The division between rich and poor runs deep.
In the course of his adventures, Karl finds himself in the worlds of both the privileged and the not-so-privileged. As with everything in Kafkas America, the division is a large one. On the one hand, we have enormously successful businessmen who can afford to build pointlessly grandiose mansions. On the other hand, we have laborers scrounging around for any kind of employment or financial support, cursing the entrepreneurs for not giving the workers what they want. The rich sleep in inordinately large bedrooms; the poor sleep (when they can) in inordinately cramped attics. Kafka makes a special point of acknowledging both extremes; and while this fondness for extremes is useful as a tool to critique capitalist society, it can also reflect Kafkas prejudices, particularly when applied unfairly to women. Which leads us to...
The women of Amerika are conveniently divided into virgins and whores.
Sex ruins everything in this novel. It is because of sex that Karl was sent away from his parents, and it should be noted that in Karls eyes, the sexual act was entirely the fault of the servant girl. The women who are kind to Karl have the chaste air of mothers and sisters. The women associated with sex are either the violent, spoiled daughters of the rich, or disgusting, smothering, lower-class beasts. There seems to be no middle ground, and the total picture feels more than a little unjust. This ridiculous dichotomy, however, turns Kafkas female characters into absurdly funny caricatures, and despite ones righteous indignation, its hard not to laugh.
Amerika is a comedy.
The very fact that Kafka considered a happy ending makes this novel far more optimistic than the bulk of his other works, and the tone of the novel carries a certain light-heartedness. The size of Kafkas America, while it can be frightening, is for the most part exhilarating, and its exaggerations are often comic. The goofy mannerisms of both the rich and poor transform everyone into clowns, from buffoonish fat cats to gigantic, slobbering whores. Theres no need to torture oneself over symbolic constructs with a novel like this its simply meant to be enjoyed as written.
Amerika is a novel for dreamers, for those who like to pretend that roads stretch into infinity after disappearing beyond the horizon. Kafka definitely sees danger in this limitlessness just as there are endless horizons, there are also endless chasms but for the most part there is hope, a never-ending hope. If a city fails you, you can always continue on to the next, and if that city fails you, and the next one and the one after that, you can always head West, to the mountains and the plains and beyond, where, as if by magic, everything is possible, for you and for everyone else. Enjoy this dreaming while it lasts. Kafka has a fondness for nightmares, and Amerika offers the patient reader a chance to breathe some fresh air before diving back down into darkness. It is a brief flash of levity surrounded by unending chaos.
(w. 1914, p. 1925)
Translated by Edwin Muir
1. Schocken, 1995, ISBN 0805210407; Paperback $13.50. [Browse/Purchase]
2. Schocken, 2001, ISBN 0613175638; Hardcover $22.85. [Browse/Purchase]
3. Knopf Everymans Library, 1992, ISBN 0679409947; Paperback $17.00. [Browse/Purchase]
4. Pan Books, 1987, ISBN 033024468X; Paperback $11.95. [Browse/Purchase]
Translated by Breon Mitchell, from the Restored Text
1. Schocken, 1998, ISBN 0805241655; Hardcover, Out of print. [Browse/Purchase]
2. Schocken, 1999, ISBN 0805209999; Paperback $13.00. [Browse/Purchase]
I once talked to a stranger on the subway, although for the most part he talked to me. He had seen me reading Amerika
, and he asked me how I liked it, having never gotten around to reading it himself. He had tried to read The Castle
once, but it had bored him half to death. As for The Trial
. . . he seemed to like The Trial
. He told me how he had read it in high school, and then had gone over it again a little while later. Yknow, it saw Nazism coming, he told me, and then he got off at his stop.
Ive found that lots of people have similar reactions to Kafkas novels. Amerika
gets pushed to the wayside, The Castle
almost seems pointless to read after a little while, but The Trial
. . . The Trial
is something different, and everyone has something to say about it. A sociology teacher of mine read it as a critique of bureaucracy, and an English teacher pointed out how humorously arrogant and stubborn the main character could be. Theologians get caught up in ideas of original sin, philosophers dwell on notions of existential guilt, and psychologists are happy to dig around for sexual anxieties. Artists reflect uncomfortably on the artist who serves the court, while office-workers find grim humor in the petty competition between bank clerks. Every reader can find some theme to focus on, some character to sympathize with, or some passage to capture the imagination. You cant nail down The Trial
to any one element and say, This is what it is. A simple story but a complex work, The Trial
has to be endured before it can be understood; so lets proceed slowly, so as not to get lost along the way.
Kafka started writing The Trial
just as World War I was beginning, in July and August of 1914. Kafka himself was exempted from conscription because of his valuable contributions to his insurance company (partly run by the government), and much of his experience with the companys bureaucracy and its relationship to the law found its way into the pages of the book. Kafka, at the time, was in a clumsy relationship with Felice Bauer, and biographers love to connect the relationship to the events surrounding it. Some liken their relationship to a war, providing a link to events in Europe. Others compare their brief meetings to increasingly torturous trials and it does seem a little more than coincidental that one of the chief female characters of The Trial
bears the initials F.B. However, to dwell too much on biographical details is to risk obscuring the work itself, and eventually we have to recognize what we are dependent upon: the words alone.
The German title for The Trial
is Der Prozess
, which has a slightly different connotation than the English one. Whereas trial implies a single event, Prozess
suggests something more drawn-out and continuous, like a journey. The process begins as our protagonist Joseph K. wakes up one morning to find himself under arrest. He has not been previously informed that he has done wrong, and no one can tell him what charges have been brought against him. Even the officials who have come to arrest him dont know theyre just doing their jobs. Joseph K. spends the rest of the novel trying to discover these charges, attempting to outwit the excessively bureaucratic system that has put him under arrest, while at the same time trying to maintain a hold on his fragmenting personal life. As the forces against Joseph K. steadily grow stronger, he slowly comes to the revelation that the entire world may be under control of the court that is trying to condemn him.
The novel does bring the conflict with the courts to a conclusion, but between its clear beginning and ending, The Trial
consists of a series of fragments, which were never satisfactorily organized by its author. After Kafkas death, Max Brod pasted together the chapters for publication, but its difficult to say exactly what Kafka actually intended. Different editors have since ordered the chapters in various ways according to internal evidence, but the lack of an authoritative structure confuses both the development of the plot and the interpretation of the text. Any attempt to piece together the meaning of The Trial
has to take into account its fragmentary nature.
As one might expect from the above introduction, there are several different ways to view Joseph K.s quest to exonerate himself:
The Trial as prophecy.
Kafkas friends found the first chapter of The Trial hilarious; and indeed, there is a certain humorous tone to the first sentence: Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning. The line resonates with a sort of playful sarcasm, but over time that line has become less and less funny. As governments have found increasingly more reasons to spy upon their citizens, and as history has continually revealed organized acts of absurd violence whose only purpose seemed to be to punish the innocent, the fear of being arrested for no particular reason has become disturbingly real. The book can seem prophetic at times, especially when one considers that the staged trial would soon become a regular political tool of fascism.
However, before one claims that The Trial saw Nazism coming, one should also consider that Kafkas world wasnt necessarily a garden of innocence. World War I was teaching Europe that progress could easily breed horror, and Kafka wrote one of his most harrowing tales, In the Penal Colony, after his sisters husband came home from the front with plenty of stories to tell. And fear and violence were not limited to the war; they had also found a home in anti-Semitism, with its biased laws, bloody pogroms, and widespread propaganda. One of the more gruesome examples of contemporary anti-Semitism was the blood libel, a disgusting myth claiming that Jews were under a religious obligation to ritually slaughter Christian children. In 1883, all the Jews of a small Hungarian town were accused of slaughtering a young girl who had recently disappeared. The girl turned up later unharmed. In 1889, a Jewish shoemaker named Hilsner was accused of raping a 19-year-old girl and draining her blood. It took an impassioned defense to save him from the equally impassioned anti-Semitic groups, and even then, it took Hilsner until 1918 to receive a pardon. The real murderer was never found. This notion of the blood libel was just one manifestation of a deeper hatred, which occasionally erupted into anti-Jewish riots. Even though he had a hard time identifying with his Jewish background, it wouldnt be entirely unusual for Kafka to entertain the notion that he could be publicly denounced simply because he was recognized as a Jew.
Even without this element of anti-Semitism, the Austrian government was known for its institutional paranoia, and it liked to keep a close watch on its citizens. In reaction to the revolutions of 1848, Austria had instituted the Bach system, which one critic described as a standing army of soldiers, a sitting army of officials, a kneeling army of priests, and a creeping army of informers. The police had eyes everywhere, carefully noting each and every person who attended an anarchist meeting. By the time Kafka was looking for a job, he would have needed an impeccable record in order to obtain a position with a government-affiliated agency. It wasnt much of a stretch to envision a nameless and powerful force coming to bear down upon a citizen for reasons both inscrutable and unimaginable. Kafkas genius lay in his ability to take vague, almost indefinable fears and turn them into things of flesh and blood knocking at ones door. The chill up our spines when we read Kafka is not so much a response to prophecy as it is a recognition of profound insight into our instinctual fears. In a world where we are watched by people we dont know, the absurd situation of The Trial is precisely what we are afraid of, and Kafka presents it to us without compromise.
The Trial as critique of bureaucracy.
It is very easy to see Joseph K.s arrest as the result of a simple mistake made on a single form; and once the courts set their mind on something, theyre not easily convinced to stop. Kafka had first-hand experience of bureaucracy in his government job. He witnessed its debilitating effects, many of these stemming from its obsessive focus on hierarchy. The hierarchy is everything. It provides people with their self-worth, their status, and their power. As a result, the truth of any matter may count very little towards the final judgment. What matters most is who you know, and how much control you have over them. Thats the way things get done through connections and anybody trying to get ahead through some other means (see what our main character does) is going to have a hard task ahead of him.
This critique isnt just limited to the court. It includes day-to-day business as well, such as Joseph K.s job at the bank, where he is in constant competition for customers and where he deals contemptuously with his underlings. It should come as little surprise that the lumber-room of the bank also serves as a torture room for the courts. It should also come as little surprise that the incomprehensibly large bureaucracy is inaccessible at its highest peaks. To have influence on the judges would be to have influence on the angels themselves; but unfortunately we can only know the judges through their paintings. We do not see the powers that control our very fates.
The Trial as meditation on guilt.
Human beings seem to come with a built-in sense of divine (or at least poetic) justice, so that if something bad happens to a neighbor, then that neighbor must have deserved it. A similar process occurs to Joseph K. and the readers of The Trial. Our main character has been accused . . . so couldnt he actually be guilty? His own family treats the arrest as a terrible scandal, as if Joseph had actually done something wrong. Joseph himself works so fervently to prove his innocence that one cant help but wonder if maybe he does feel a bit guilty. And if this is true, then our internal logic suggests that there must be something for him to feel guilty about, and pretty soon were looking for reasons to convict poor Joseph. Hes a banker . . . can he be charged with that? Hes a bachelor . . . how long can a person be put away for being a bachelor? He does seem arrogant . . . maybe the Court should knock him down a few pegs. He appears to be an example of alienated modern man . . . perhaps that is a chargeable offense? If worse comes to worst, we can cite Kafkas Hebraic studies, reference original sin, and claim that inherently sinful Joseph K. is being charged for his inherent sinfulness. And even if you dont accept this notion of original sin, there is still at least one more way for Joseph K. to be guilty, and that is through the retroactive effect of the arrest itself. If we trust the novel and assume that hes done nothing wrong prior to his arrest, we have to see what happens after the arrest. Perhaps his arrest makes Joseph K. guilty by forcing him into situations where he willingly transgresses the law; after all, his fight against the courts ends up hurting quite a few people. The arrest may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Trial as meditation on the Law.
Meditations on guilt inevitably lead to questions of law. If you are guilty, it would seem natural to assume that something has made you guilty, some transgression of the law; so if you could just figure out what that law is, then the problem of guilt may be eventually resolved. One problem in The Trial is that the law has become obscured no one really understands just what it is. The law is so far removed, so high above us, that it doesnt seem possible for anyone to reach it. Beyond these philosophical concerns, bureaucracy has played its part, constructing mazes of red tape to keep the law even further isolated. Given these conditions, its far too easy to despair, drawing conclusions that lead one to give up the search entirely.
Such possibilities are explored in Kafkas most famous passage from The Trial, Before the Law. It reads like an ancient parable whose explanation has long been forgotten. The only thing the characters (and the readers) can do is argue about the possible meanings. It puts all of Joseph K.s legal battles in an entirely different light, and ones interpretation of this passage affects ones interpretation of the entire novel.
While the above themes may be the books most far-reaching, The Trial also discusses art, religion, business, and the relationships between professionals and the state. As mentioned previously, The Trial hits a chord with almost everyone, giving it a universal appeal and lasting popularity, while providing space for many individual interpretations. In writing about the absurdity of an all-pervasive court, Kafkas story transcends itself into something significantly larger, but while Kafka has carried out the arrest, we are the ones who have to read the warrant.
(w. 1922, p. 1927)
Translated by Edwin Muir
1. Schocken, 1995, ISBN 0805210393; Paperback $15.00. [Browse/Purchase]
2. Knopf Everymans Library, 1992, ISBN 0679417354; Hardcover $17.00. [Browse/Purchase]
Translated by Mark Harman, from the Restored Text
1. Schocken, 1998, ISBN 0805241183; Hardcover, Out of print. [Browse/Purchase]
2. Schocken, 1999, ISBN 0805211063; Paperback $14.00. [Browse/Purchase]
was written in 1922 over a span of nine months, and, like all of Kafkas novels, it was left unfinished. It concerns the arrival of a man called K. in a town dominated by an incomprehensible bureaucracy, centralized in an edifice called The Castle. Throughout the novel, K. attempts to win the respect and recognition of the Castle, but every time he approaches he screws up, bringing him back to the lowly position from which he began. Yet the fault does not lie completely within himself the Castle appears to be fighting K., and at times, the entire village seems pitted against him as well.
is by far the most complex and contemplative of Kafkas novels. Paragraphs stretch on for pages, and the dialogue occasionally becomes so drawn out, its easy to forget whether one is listening to a character or the author. Whole chapters are spent discussing what seem to be pointless details, such as when a secretary explains the difference between day interrogations and night interrogations. And yet, one never knows when one of these pointless details may offer a chance to gain the Castle itself. Like K., you are not allowed to waver in your attention. Your attention, at times, is all you really have.
Given its themes of bafflement and obstruction, it comes as no surprise that the novel is set in a perpetual winter, in which a traveler must waste all his force attempting to get from one house to the next through streets of endless snow. To make a personal aside, I find that I can read The Castle
only when there is snow on the ground. The cold air seems to sharpen my thinking and, more importantly, everythings so quiet when blanketed by snow, the streets and the trees are empty and still. The Castle
must be read when theres absolute silence: any unnecessary noise will remind you of the real world, and the novel will fall apart in your hands. The Castle
is a subtle book, almost delicate: it must be handled carefully.
The German title of The Castle
is Das Schloss
, which means both castle and lock. And while the pun is obvious with respect to K.s frustrating odyssey, it may also be addressed to the reader as well at times it feels as though The Castle
requires some sort of key in order to understand it. While any keys I could fashion would be inevitably made of clay, it helps to clarify matters by asking a deceptively simple question: What is K. looking for? Of course, on a literal level, K. is looking for some recognition from the Castle but what deeper meanings does this have? The answer to this question may vary from reader to reader, but it is fundamental to understanding the book, so it might be helpful to look at a few possible answers:
K. is looking for God.
In this case, The Castle may be read as a kind of religious allegory. In the Castle resides divine knowledge, possibly even salvation, and K. is looking for the spiritual presence that mysteriously controls the village. Thus, the novel can be read as a meditation on the problems of religion in modern times.
Although still commonly put forth, this interpretation has received a lot of abuse over the years for a variety of reasons. For one thing, The Castle is no Pilgrims Progress. Its not as if K. is journeying to a Celestial City and encountering a collection of obstacles along the way, each symbolic of some greater ideology. On the contrary the Castle and its village compose a strange world of their own. Attaching a philosophy to the novel may mean ignoring the world of the Castle for the world of a particular theorist. Another argument against a theological interpretation cites the despicable behavior of the Castle officials. If the Castle holds God (or something akin to God), then all the Castle employees could in theory be likened to ministering angels. This is clearly not the case the officials of the Castle are spineless, fidgety blobs, and their servants are generally licentious creeps.
What this argument overlooks, however, is the possibility that this repellent vision of God may be precisely what Kafka had intended. Kafkas ideas of God were complex, often contradictory, and not always complimentary. God could be a distant Demiurge, or a Being separate from the ethical world of humankind, or an all-present Nothing, or could even be dead who knows? If one chooses to read The Castle as a religious allegory, one can do so only in a vague and contradictory sense, in which all the conventions of religious allegory are turned on their heads, and God is not quite as God-like as we might prefer. If the Castle does contain God, then it is a God we should approach with extreme wariness. Turning our backs could be disastrous.
K. is looking for community.
The novel, as we have it, stops abruptly in the middle of a sentence, as if Kafka suddenly realized he had better things to do. In his intended ending, however, a messenger from the Castle comes to tell K. that he is allowed to work and live in the village although he will not be officially recognized as a member of the village. But when the messenger arrives, K. is on his death-bed.
It could be that from the very beginning our main character is simply looking for a place to live in comfort and security. After all, he is a stranger here, and his entire quest for the Castle is the act of someone who desires to be recognized. For a few days, K. even manages to gather together a dysfunctional sort of family, through which he hopes to gain membership in the community at large.
Such interpretations tend to look at K. as a quintessential early 20th Century Jew, trying to adapt to a world which doesnt appreciate strangers. In a larger sense, K. can be seen as a portrait of alienation, wandering about alone, trying to be something else besides alone, and always ending up as alone alone, alone, alone. His journeys in the novel are attempts to resolve these feelings of alienation, but he can never quite get there. Like God, the community lets few people near, and all K.s efforts ultimately fail.
K. is looking for power.
When saying that K. is looking for God or that K. is looking for community, it becomes easy to forget something: K. is a jerk. He is consistently self-interested. When he becomes tired of trudging through the snow, he whips snowballs at near-by windows to catch peoples attention and get their help. When he arrives in the town, he claims to be a married land surveyor, but we really dont know he could be lying. If K. is indeed a surveyor, he never actually proves it; and if hes married, the swiftness with which he forgets his wife is remarkable. All of his efforts are directed toward the Castle, which is itself undeniably attached to feelings of power.
One conclusion to draw here is that K. is interested in power; and in a town ruled by the Castles bureaucracy, power consists in being able to convince everyone else that you have connections with the Castle and can use them as you please. In this case, the reader cannot trust anything that comes out of K.s mouth, because he is merely manipulating his listeners for his own self-interest. At the same time, if K. is telling the truth, the case can be made that K. is a revolutionary of the people after all, as a land surveyor it is K.s job to redistribute the land. And after all, what revolutionary wouldnt seek entrance to the source of control?
While all three interpretations may be adopted, blended, or discarded at will, they all have one thing in common: in each, K. is a failure, and all of his devious plots are to no avail. The Castle defeats him, or the village defeats him, or he manages to defeat himself. In the end, his attempts at attaining God, community, and power all come to nothing.
What makes K.s quest all the more bewildering is the lack of reliable information throughout the novel you can never be sure if you can trust anybody. The cabalistic dialogue is frequently so subjective, speculative, or elusive that a reader has no way of knowing which characters may be taken at their word everything is interpretation. When any event occurs, each character has a different opinion as to what it means with respect to the village, to a certain official, or to the judgment of the Castle itself. By the end, the reader is stuck with the same question as the rest of the villagers: what does the Castle want? There may be many answers to this question, but one thing is certain: whatever the Castle wants, you dont have it. If you want answers, you have to go to the Castle, because the Castle will not come to you.