The Castle (1926)
by Franz Kafka
Published by Munich
The Castle is an unfinished novel, quite literally ending on an incomplete sentence, by the late Franz Kafka. My translation is Mark Harman’s which is only worth noting since he has an elaborate foreword that contends previous translations which only purport religious themes or attempts at completing the text. This version is meant to be as true to the original manuscript as possible and it’s just as broken and fragmented as you can imagine.
The story follows K, a land surveyor, who has been summoned to the castle on official orders, but is refused entry. Of course, to do his job, K must gain entry but all the people living in the town tell him it’s impossible unless positioned in the castles. Paradoxes, hypocrites and oxymorons ensue.
There’s no real ending, so discussing the plot or point may be unnecessary. Kafka is more of an experience, where snippets provide you with some understanding about something, but it may have nothing to do with the content. Chapters seldom feel as though they’ve been written in sequence… immediate—and dramatic—shifts occur at random within characters, in many cases erasing and rerecording whole personalities to fit the plot.
Does this make it abhorrent? Certainly not. However, if you’ve never read Kafka, remember the key themes of futility in opposition or you’ll find yourself overwhelmed with frustration.
My review of The Castle, may as well be a review of Kafka as a whole. He’s most known for The Metamorphosis and excels in his short stories and the reasons are for that very reason: they are short, concise, complete.
The Castle may as well be a labyrinth of text, theme, and character, as the story navigates you through every which way, but there’s no end to the maze; like using a GPS programmed with roads from the 1800s. In fact, I believe Kafka would better have made this a poignant text if he stayed with his original draft. The translator mentions how Kafka originally wrote “I,” but scribbled in the “<” in “K” upon editing. This may have been to further distance himself from the novel, but I believe it may have been to offset the frustration. Reading in the first person would—ironically—aggravate “you” while reading the text, so Kafka made the “I,” “K” so as to keep you distanced as well, so you’re not frustrated by all the running back and forth. At a certain point, I believe if it were written in the first person, you’d simply want to charge the castle with guns blazing—what’s the worst that could happen in a Kafka novel?
In any case, K. is incorrigible. His character is poised, but not without some conceit as he believes he can gain access to the castle when no one else can. Every character attacks his ego and tells him it’s impossible, but K. stands firm against their insults and coarse manners because he is the most enduring man alive. Everyone is always mad at K., everyone thinks he’s rotten, is a poor judge of character, worthless and a waste of time. Even the people that love him—or claim to—fight with him ad nauseum about his goals. This is most representative of Kafka’s works and the futility to change anything in a world where everyone hates you for being different. In that sense it’s a very tragic read, knowing that, if things were a little bit more organized, we’d get a lot more done.
One of the qualities I like most about Kafka is his laymen expression. Both The Trial and The Castle appear to be politically based, but no research needs to go into concocting these stories. Kafka is a storyteller and a philosopher, not a researcher. He’s an author who “writes what he knows,” in the same way that we might satirize a doctor’s prognosis by writing, “Kafka, you’ve been diagnosed with Phlegmohelia. I’ll prescribe you, Jangoelikairridium, and borganshlogens to cure you right up.”
So what do you gain from reading this novel? Why not just read about the novel? Because Kafka is in the literary canon and was well aware of literary criticism.
Kafka ordered his books to be burned by Max Brod, and many speculate he did so knowing Brod would disobey, but regardless, I’ve said it makes him immune to critics discussing Kafka’s personal intent. However that does not stop Kafka from criticizing critics in his texts.
Throughout The Castle, K. has conversations with characters that delineate into his, or their, motives. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could not write better detective work himself. The characters analyze every scene and nuance like self-conscious, love-struck teens that have nothing to go on but a cryptic text. They analyze each others’ motivations and piece together what the other characters must want. They do it so well that you, the reader, begin to see the subtext you’d been missing all along.
(For specifics, read Frieda’s chapter when she first accuses K. about his reasons for marrying her; Olga’s lengthy dissertation on the cruelty of all others; and Pepi’s chapter on K.’s romance with Frieda.)
Each of these characters discusses the ulterior motives of the other characters and all of them could easily be correct… and subsequently, none of them, because only one can be right. And K. is right in the middle of all of them, never denying or affirming anyone. With Frieda, he tells her to assume she’s right, would it make a difference? With Olga, he affirms and denies her words. With Pepi, he tells her that her story may be true, but there are plenty of holes and her bias may very well be a factor that she cannot see.
Kafka criticizes the critics and in that sense, The Castle is not unlike Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Admittedly, with both, the criticisms are far more entertaining than the content as they provide context to the labyrinth of content, but they have no more meaning than the rest of the novel. K.’s talk with Frieda—his short-term fiancé—is most telling because she directly attacks K.’s personal motivation and he tells her to go on believing that, but their future remains the same even if what she says is true. This terse rebuttal only solidifies the inability of criticism to wholly capture a novel as it’s not perpetually being written, it’s been written and read. Regardless of your thoughts on a text, you cannot change what has been done. The published worked is stationary and there’s no way of knowing the official intent.
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