The Castle. Franz Kafka.

Kafka, Franz. The Castle. Translation from German by Mark Harman, Schocken, New York, 1998. Original publication as Das Schloss, 1926. F; 7/21.

The first time I read any Kafka was in a university European Literature in Translation course as an English lit undergrad, somewhere around 1967. I was fascinated by his early modern dark ambiguous stories which seemed to suit my own uncertainty in those years. The only translations then were by a Scottish couple called Muir, whose formal style seemed to make Kafka’s difficult, weird, pessimistic content feel like it was a modern chaotic sinister painting in an older ornate carved frame. A friend gave a less austere generalization about Kafka’s work: “a pile of shit served up on a silver platter”.

I found this much more recent translation accessible in a different way. The content which is just as psychologically gripping and worrying came at me as if the character “K” (originally he was a first-person narrator) were an eccentric troubled guy next door. Reading this story now for the first time with that new presentation felt like certain recurring dreams I now have from time to time: I’m in a hospital or a high school for example and have to either see a whole bunch of new and difficult patients or get ready for an exam that’s in a couple of days which I haven’t even attended a single class for, and my desperate attempts to straighten everything out compounds into complete hopelessness. Until I wake up.

The plot of this unfinished novel (Kafka died of TB at the age of 40) runs discursively through a village at the base of an inaccessible elite community, the Castle. K has arrived as a land surveyor at the village from his home some distance away, apparently hired to do a job for officials in the Castle.  He meets all sorts of people whose lives and significance seem subordinate to and measured against proximity to, access to, knowledge about, and influence with that Castle.

Each time K tries to establish the legitimacy of his land surveying he runs into opposition, disbelief, ambiguity, arrogance, and frustration. Klamm is an elusive Castle official who at times stays at the Gentleman’s Inn in the village, with whom K is unable to even speak. He meets the Barnabas family, the son a messenger from the Castle who gives him a letter appearing to provide hope of legitimacy but which is also filled with ambiguity. Of the two daughters, one was given a demand from a Castle official for what sounds like a romantic one-night stand, which she refused. This though obviously honourable threw the family into disrepute and poverty. The other sister, Olga, has a long and heartfelt potentially romantic conversation with K, but she has her own troubles as a result of her sister’s action. Servants, peasants, and minor officials in the village all confuse and misdirect K. He seems about to marry Frieda, one of the servants at the Gentleman’s Inn, but eventually she rejects him. The story in this translation ends in mid-sentence, with K no closer to his goal (whatever that really was) than when he first showed up in the village.

What’s going on here? The ambiguity and contradiction of an irrational towering hierarchy obviously represent bureaucratic entanglement which of course is frustrating. But as K works through his experiences and relationships it starts to look like his failure to advance, to make his apparently legitimate claims to employment, to find people that aren’t ambiguous and at times dangerously duplicitous, and to understand or even approach the Castle hierarchy are creeping toward representing struggles with one’s inner life.

K’s problems extend to relationships with women including Frieda but these like everything else always focus back on his own presumed responsibility and guilt. Kafka the author had numerous romantic affairs but never married. In this story all the human interaction K develops in the village for me strangely lack warmth, seeming in his mind to consist in how he can benefit in his quest for addressing the Castle, which maybe doesn’t sound so bad if we are really thinking about succeeding or failing in some sort of struggle for self-respect. But his erotic motivation doesn’t show much real feeling either and focuses on preoccupation with social class. This also feels like another ironic reference by the author to that personal pessimistic darkness. One step forward and two steps sliding back because something is wrong, and what’s the matter is usually the matter with you.

The Barnabas family catastrophe is about otherwise potentially decent, kindly, and honourable people who inadvertently but unavoidably create their own horror:

Father … wasn’t actually complaining because of his impoverishment, everything he had lost here, he would easily make up for again, all this would be beside the point if they would only forgive him. But what should he be forgiven, they said, no complaint had been filed, at least there was no mention of it in the depositions, or at least not in the depositions open to the legal community, and consequently, insofar as could be determined, no action had been taken against him nor was there one under way.

. . . the father created the family’s disaster himself, apparently out of nothing the Castle would recognize.

And with a similar disastrous self-directed error, in the course of trying to further his interests K gets into an apparently important back hallway in the Gentleman’s Inn populated by Castle officials or at least messengers. Chaos erupts early in the morning with alarm bells ringing and everyone in a panic. As he leaves he confronts the innkeepers:

K. didn’t even turn around since the landlord and, even more so, on the other side, the landlady, were scolding him — the doors now opened fully, the corridor sprang to life, there was an increase in traffic as in a lively narrow alley, the doors before them were evidently waiting impatiently for K. to pass so that they could let out the gentlemen, and amidst all this pealed the bells, which were repeatedly rung as if in celebration of a victory.

. . . the victory is that K has left: the chaos was caused by him. Guilty even though he was just trying to find out what was going on.

In the Castle’s village you don’t have to be overtly at fault (even if you have no idea what you did wrong) to experience failure and misunderstanding. You can just innocently miss the boat for trivial but unavoidable reasons. During the night in that inn hallway, K is sequestered in a room with an important official (actually merely a messenger but someone who might get him close to an important official) and it looks like this could be his only chance to make his case. But he is too tired to have a meaningful conversation and actually falls asleep. I was reminded of one of Kafka’s Zurau Aphorisms where he suggests that Alexander the great

in spite of his youthful triumphs in warfare, in spite of the superb army he built up, in spite of the energies he felt in himself that were directed toward transforming the world, might have halted at the Hellespont and not have crossed it, and this not from fear, not from irresolution, not from weakness of will, but from the force of gravity.

It’s wildly absurd but terribly true that important success or failure can hinge on apparently trivial things like the weight of your body or a need to fall asleep. In the world of the Castle your actions or thoughts don’t have to amount to evil or even ignorant innocent mistakes for things to fall apart. Of course this kind of profound pessimism is Kafka, who captured with his brutal and fearless sincerity the cultural imagination of the early 20th century after World War I. The human condition is dark and frankly awful, and so is each of us who unavoidably participate in it just by trying to admit and face reality. This terrible situation was real for uniquely creative, socially ambitious, brilliant, perceptive, strangely arrogant but also self-loathing, frightened, and eventually fatally ill Jew Franz Kafka in 1926.

I was taught in 1960s university English that we see and create for ourselves works of art from the past as though they existed in our particular moment. 55 years after identifying with Kafka’s vision, with a new translation and a different life than I was living then, I see The Castle through a reverse telescope and in a variety of mirrors. Kafka today wouldn’t fire interest in a curious 20-year-old wondering what somebody their age was reading in a café or on the subway. I don’t think his paranoid vision anymore populates most people’s personal inner world. Except maybe if we are schizophrenic or on a really bad drug trip. The doom that was looming in Kafka’s imagination as he wrote came and went as another terrible war that started 15 years after he died.

Here in my semi-retired comfort I can imagine climate catastrophe, superintelligence disaster, nuclear or other mass-destruction as unlikely in my lifetime. And although I very personally live Kafka’s disorienting paranoid hopelessly blamed and responsible nightmares, it’s only when I’m asleep. Maybe a certain kind of ignorance is a certain kind of bliss but The Castle doesn’t strike me now (as I think it would have if I had read it in the 1960s) as quite as terrifyingly real.

For me, now: 7.9/8.2 with this translation.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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