When I first read Kafka’s The Trial I was fascinated. 40 years on I find it still as fascinating, the more so in fact, because I have had many years in the meantime to confirm how, despite its nightmarish qualities, it is a very realistic work. That is to say, it reflects very accurately the real world and the real hopes and fears we humans entertain every day.
You’ll say that I speak for myself! and that not everyone is a neurotic, or is delusional or paranoid. True. But elements of The Trial apply to most people, although I suppose there may be some who never in their whole lives have been beset by a worry that has stayed with them a considerable time, and which has grown stronger and more insidious over that time. If there are people like that, I haven’t met them. And I’m not one of them!
The novel is an almost clinical case study of the way an individual can be destroyed by circumstances beyond his control, especially when he begins by thinking that he CAN control events. One of the most affecting parts of the book is K’s early confidence that HE can take charge and wrap things up quickly. Hence his arrogance in addressing the ‘court, which is held in a very bizarre location: ‘He was given the number of the house where he had to go, it was a house in an outlying suburban street where he had never been before’.
As regards the ‘court’ itself, all its musty, pedantic and beaurocratic nature comes through strongly and reminds one of the ‘circumlocution office’ in Dickens’s Little Dorrit. I am not aware that Kafka (1883-1924) knew anything of Dickens (1812-1870) and so this aspect of their work would seem to be an example of two extraordinary writers ‘zooming in’ on aspect of social organisation’ with equal extraordinary effect ( though maybe Kafka has a slight edge in ‘nightmarishness’?). Both have contributed their names to the language in the form of powerful adjectives.
I have to say that this book has been a personal favorite with me over the years and when I said above that I find it ‘fascinating’ I am using the word its strict sense of ‘attract or influence irresistibly’ Like everyone else, I have had some personal experience of situations in which one feels an overpowering sense of helplessness. Kafka’s device of having his character overcome by weakness and a sense of suffocation is extremely effective, not least because it reflects the actual psychosomatic symptoms that one often experiences in situation like this. There is too the feeling that anything one does will only make the situation worse, so the best idea would be to sit still and wait out events. But this is very hard to do because things may be getting worse anyway, and just BECAUSE one is doing nothing. And so perhaps one should intervene…
And so on. A really fine novel, tightly written and extraordinarily perceptive of the human condition, and one which can never be ‘outdated’. The only true parallel in my reading that I can think of is Orwell’s 1984. Humour too, though of the dark kind.
To use a word that is considerably overused and abused: The Trial is a work of genius. One of my all-time favourite novels. [Translated from the German – Der Prozess (published posthumously 1925) – by Willa and Edwin Muir (1936)].