The Trial by Franz Kafka

TrialKafkaAnother reading blog announced a book club for The Trial by Franz Kafka, and since this book was on my list (and not too long), I decided to pick it up.

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.


The Last Judgment, from St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague

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.”

[This book is #8 on my list of classics that I am reading over the course of 5 years.]

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.

11 thoughts on “The Trial by Franz Kafka

  1. Hi, Maximiliam, I read up to your spoiler. I’ll come back to the post once I finish reading it myself. So far I am unimpressed with it too. I thought it was more like Nabokov. Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading puts a spell on you. This book is too plain too for my taste, a bit farcical, it lacks the strength of the one I’m comparing it too, and it does lack that fable quality that The Metamorphosis has. It’s making me think a bit, though. It reminds me so far of the communist regimes’ atmosphere. Not that I’ve lived that firsthand, but that’s what I figure one goes through when things are happening, and you don’t know very well what it is. That paranoia of conspiracy, yes, that’s how I’d describe it.

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    • Early on it did remind a bit of The Man Who Was Thursday by Chesterton, where you have an obscure organization seeming to run in circles, only much less funny. The tone at other times reminded me of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, where a character is at the mercy of an inhumane system for the most basic things (so, communist regime, as you said). I look forward to hearing your thoughts as you continue!

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    • Were you in Schroeder’s AP Lit class? That’s where I read “A Hunger Artist”, but I think it was one of a few options for that assignment. It was not longer after that I found “The Metamorphosis” and read that. Honestly, I think the short stories are the way to go–perhaps there’s a reason his novels weren’t published in his life time (he also ordered them to be destroyed after his death).

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  2. I read this in full now that I have finished the book. I share your opinions, from your comment on the book being both surreal and dull, to the exceptional story in the cathedral chapter, to the failure to be humorous. (I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t until you said that it lacks the honest background that makes the irony stand up.
    I too did a bit of research, and found information and comments that coincided with my impression of the book.
    I enjoyed your comparison to Plato’s Parmenides. I felt some of the same attitude in K. than in The Stranger.
    My book had additional notes and chapters not in the final edition of the book.
    I have a first post scheduled for Sunday afternoon. Can’t wait to talk more about it.

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  3. Pingback: The Trial, by Kafka, #1 | Silvia Cachia

  4. ‘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’ Che? What? Noooooo

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