Put briefly, I did not like the book. The character were unrealistic and uninteresting, the main character especially did not invite any sympathy whatsoever, and the story does not seem to have any direction worth mentioning. This was my first time reading Kafka in 8 years, having previously read “A Hunger Artist” and “The Metamorphosis”. It might have been my age when reading them, but I remember liking them more, if only because they seemed more true to reality. “A Hunger Artist” displayed the foolishness of priding oneself on some external characteristic or skill—something which may dazzle others one moment, but is just as easily forgotten the next. The “Metamorphosis” uses a mythical plot device to explore awkwardness of a difficult living situation. Both of these stories had a fable-like quality that made them enjoyable, despite their otherwise unpleasant themes. This quality is almost entirely absent in the The Trial.
I say “almost” because [and here a bit of a spoiler follows] a parable is introduced in the penultimate chapter, “In the Cathedral”. I had already made up my mind by this point that this book lacked all appeal, and so I was pleasantly surprised upon reaching this chapter. The chapter begins with the main character (K.) interacting with an Italian business associate. The manner of the Italian as well as K.’s frantic attempt to relearn and understand the Italian language struck me as true to my own experience of these very things, and in this way stood out from the rest of the book which is either surreal or dull (or both if you can believe it). Then came the next part of the chapter, where a priest tells a parable taken from the law books themselves. (It reminded me a bit of “The Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov, but that is too generous a comparison.) The story is itself interesting and sheds light on the rest of the book. What follows is then a dialogue between the priest and K. about the meaning of the parable, who is guilty or innocent, deceptive or knowledge, powerful for subjected. Unlike many of the dialogues in the book which are hard to follow or non-sensical, this one reminded me of something out of Plato (the Parmenides in particular), not allowing any conclusion to be taken for granted, and not conceding any conclusions to be contradictory unless they were certainly so. I am not the only to have found some consolation in this chapter, as the book ends in the following chapter with K. apparently at peace with where things are taking him.
When I was most of the way through the book, and was despairing of gleaning any enjoyment from it, I turned to the introduction by Idris Parry (Penguin Modern Classics), to see if there was anything I was missing or that might be helpful. What I found was an account of the relationship between Franz Kafka and a woman named Felice, who was at some point his fiancé. The story and the exchanges by letter are quite interesting, and Kafka seems as ridiculous as one of his characters. One line, however, confirmed my doubts that I would find anything uplifting in his work: “Felice, beware of thinking of life as commonplace, if by commonplace you mean monotonous, simple petty. Life is merely terrible; I feel it as few others do. Often – and in my inmost self perhaps all the time – I doubt whether I am a human being.”
Afterthought: Has anyone watched all four seasons of Arrested Development? Did you enjoy the first three seasons much more than the fourth? I certainly did. Even though everyone on the show is terrible in one way or another, there is often enough some attempt at doing the right thing. This attempt seems absent in the fourth season, and so there is something darker about all the humor, or so it seems to me. So also in Kafka: Although there was enough absurdity in the book to make it quite funny, the lack of any honest goodness seemed to remove the possibility of humor.