I don’t remember when I first read The Trial; so many years have passed since I discovered that marvellous novel. But since then I’ve dipped in and out of Franz Kafka’s oeuvre without rhyme or reason: there was an old aborted attempt at reading Amerika, still under the spell of The Trial, which left me thinking perhaps Kafka wasn’t as brilliant as I first presumed; then followed The Metamorphosis, the best novella I’ve ever read, and one of the few books to genuinely scare and disturb me (the descriptions of Gregor Samsa’s legs twitching in the air gave me chills). Years later I launched into The Complete Stories, and I preferred some of the fragments and one-paragraph short stories to the longer ones, which, I thought, dragged on a bit. That said, “In The Penal Colony” is incredible! Letter to his Father left me in a state of emotional fragility. A writer of extremes: he either bored the hell out of me or turned my soul inside out.
But in April I took the time to read The Castle and The Man Who Disappeared (a title not as seductive as Amerika), and it’s been great fun! I didn’t just feel a great sense of accomplishment, but a fuller picture of Kafka the writer emerged before my eyes. Reading these two novels almost back to back reminded me of the benefits of reading writers extensively. Readers tend to stick to the best known novels, and I think that’s a mistake. A couple of years ago I was excitedly telling a friend – and to understand why this is tragic, I must stress he’s also a book lover – about how I was devouring Milan Kundera’s novels, and he casually asked, “But what else is there to read besides The Unbearable Lightness of Being?” Oh, there is so much more! It’s not even his best novel; that would be either Life Is Elsewhere or The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. But his books of literary criticism are equally important. His essay “The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes” is a key to explain the role humour plays in his oeuvre and, according to his reading of history, in the whole of Western literature. Without them, the reader will never appreciate the purpose of his fiction. Not to mention they’re a loving survey of literature: without Kundera egging me on, I wouldn’t have read Carlos Fuentes’ monumental novel Terra Nostra, I wouldn’t have discovered Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers.
When you’ve really read José Saramago, Milan Kundera, Jorge Luis Borges, Philip Roth, Mario Vargas Llosa, G. K. Chesterton, Eça de Queiroz, Italo Calvino, Gabriel García Márquez, their popular but distorted images melt away and reveal new facets. If you’ve only read one Roth novel, you’ve probably heard that he’s a misogynist who always writes the same book. I presume the first ignorant claim comes from people not bothering to read the excellent early novels When She Was Good and Letting Go, which contain vivid female characters; but also failing to notice that his male characters are loathsome people. Rest assured, what they say about Roth’s women is true: they are emasculating, needy, hysterical bitches. But misogyny presupposes bias in favour of men, and I never found Alexander Portnoy, with his self-centeredness and sexual obsessions, or Nathan Zuckerman and his inexhaustible ability to fuck up situations and alienate family, or Mickey Sabbath with his racism, or even the suicidal Philip Roth of Operation Shylock, to be role models for men. Roth, like many great novelists, has a tinge of misanthropy that transcends gender. The second claim is countered by the diversity of his oeuvre, which contains a novel about baseball (one of his best, coming from someone who doesn’t even understand the rules of the sport), a prescient political satire about Nixon, incursions into erotica, comic and tragic novels, an alternate history novel, a Künstlerroman, a memoir, and even a Kafkaesque fantasy.
Now Kafka is a writer you can say always wrote the same novel. Once you’ve read Kafka’s three novels (and the novella), you start noticing similarities, connections and patterns. For instance, I find it amusing that the names of his three protagonists chronologically shrink: Karl Rossman (The Man Who Disappeared, 1913), Joseph K (The Trial, 1914-1915), and finally just K (The Castle, 1922). Why? I don’t know. Is there any deeper meaning to it? K is no less human than Karl just because he’s a consonant; indeed I would have called him the most human of his characters were it not for Gregor Samsa, the man who turns into an insect, whose growing alienation from his family is heartbreakingly described. When I think of this paring down, I’m reminded of Borges: he was also fond of refining his fiction; after all, what is “The Book of Sand” but a more elegant and concise version of “The Library of Babel?” Why design a cumbersome library that contains all books when you can simply create a portable book with infinite pages that contains all possible variations of the alphabet? Perhaps Kafka just wanted to show that a man’s personality is not in his name; that he could imbue a consonant with a soul and make you care about it.
The novels also tend to revolve around similar situations: the characters struggle against someone or something trying to deprive them of their freedom, or they face abstract antagonists in the form of bureaucratic institutions, or are victims of things they’re not in control of. Once again there’s a progression here: Karl, for instance, is accused of a crime he doesn’t commit, but at least he knows what he’s being accused of and who his accuser is: he’s charged with stealing money from a hotel where he works as a lift-boy; and in this case he’s simply fired, after a humiliating cross-examination with the virulent Head Porter. But in The Trial Joseph K is ignorant of the crime he’s accused of, and he can’t even talk to the authorities handling the case. When we get to The Castle, K is trying to enter a place that is simultaneously physical but also a symbol of a vast administration that extends itself not just to the judicial sphere, but that controls every aspect of a village’s life. K isn’t just facing one department but an entire self-contained world.
(Regarding the absence of abstract forces in The Man Who Disappeared, one of the fragments included in my edition describes the immense Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, where Karl finally finds a job and meets friends that weren’t even introduced in the actual novel. Guessing from the fragment, it was a place with supernatural powers, in a magical realist kind of way. One can only imagine what Kafka could have done with its premise.)
Kafka’s protagonists also share many traits: patience and nonchalance, first and foremost, but also transparency: they’re not characters who hold back their thoughts from others. This is probably to their disadvantage. The other characters tend to have double natures, they’re always scheming. But Kafka’s protagonists refuse to engage in subterfuges or to exert any type of manipulation over others. In fact one could say that they’re too passive, too nice, that they simply accept their destiny. This makes them look weak and dependent on others: after his metamorphosis, Samsa becomes a burden on his family; Karl, freshly arrived from Europe, lives on the grace of others: first his rich uncle, then Robinson and Delamarche, two scoundrels who take him on the road with them. K, after discovering that his land surveying job was a bureaucratic mistake, is made a school janitor by the castle authorities by way of compensation.
Now when I read The Trial, many years ago, I confess Joseph K left me exasperated: “Why doesn’t this guy just run away?” I kept thinking to myself. “Wouldn’t that just solve his problems?” Because he does have the opportunity to run away, in the same way that K has the chance to just leave the village. But they stubbornly endure. And this to me exemplifies non-passivity.
(Gregor Samsa is a curious case: he’s trapped in his own body. Although you can say that the others could simply run away from their problems, Samsa has nowhere to go. More cruelly, he’s a prisoner in his own home. Whereas K reminisces about his childhood and Karl tries to make a new life in a foreign country, Samsa is forced to watch his family life turn into hell exactly because he can’t leave home: bizarrely, one of his first thoughts when he finds himself transformed is that he could still catch the train to work. His family really needed his salary.)
The more I think about it, the more I think Kafka was writing about dignity. His protagonists are not ostentatious symbols of resistance, they don’t pontificate. They are, for better or for worse, characters with an acute sense of common decency. They’re honest, they’re hard-working, they’re prone to helping others and sacrificing themselves. Admittedly, their goodness does them no favours. But I don’t think they are good because they’re role models to a rotten mankind; they’re good because that’s their nature. They endure a soulless, unjust, loveless world with a suicidal serenity and constancy that defuses any pretension to heroism. Their only victory is remaining themselves throughout the novel. They may not change the world they were thrown into, but they prevent the world from changing them, if that's any consolation.