Kafka’s Trials

June 3 – we recall Franz’s Death Day (1924) and mark his enormous posthumous legacy.  Though a Czech, he wrote in German; Thus Nabokov called him the ‘greatest German writer of our time.’

You have to read Kafka’s situation tragedies as black comedy; jet-black comedy.

Kafka developed an obsessive awareness of the opaqueness of language. His work can be construed as a continuous parable on the impossibility of genuine human communication, or, as he put it…the impossibility of writing…In Kafka speech is the paradoxical circumstance of man’s incomprehension. He moves in it as in an inner labyrinth.” (George Steiner, After Babel (1975) pp. 65, 67).

Although he worshipped Flaubert, Kafka possessed a much gentler sensibility than that of the creator of Emma Bovary. And yet his narratives, short or long, are almost invariably harsh in their events, tonalities, and predicaments. The dreadful is going to happen.” (Harold Bloom, The Western Canon (1994), p 451).

We do owe a debt to Max Brod.  Kafka asked him to burn everything, unread, and Brod decided to disobey that order, completely.  We therefore have a superior clutch of books, from which we only have to quote snippets to demonstrate why Kafka’s uncanny voice continues to emblematize our Age:

The Trial:

Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.

Then you might come home some day and find on your table all the countless pleas relating to the case, which you had drawn up with such pains and such flattering hopes; they had been returned to you because in the new stage of the process they were not admitted as relevant; they were mere waste paper. It did not follow that the case was lost, by no means, at least there was no evidence for such an assumption; you simply knew nothing more about the case and would never know anything more about it.

‘Like a dog!’ he said: it was as if he meant the shame of it to outlive him

The Castle:

‘I mean, what kind of people are you!’

…the school. A long low building, oddly blending characteristics of the temporary and of the very old, it lay beyond a fenced garden that was now an expanse of snow.

‘And yet we’re happy. How suicidal happiness can be!’

The Blue Octavo Notebooks:

The indestructible is one: it is each individual human being and, at the same time, it is common to all, hence the incomparably indivisible union that exists between human beings.


As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

The Great Wall of China:

So eager are our people to obliterate the present.

Almost every educated man of our time was a mason by profession and infallible in the matter of laying foundations. That, however, was not what our scholar was concerned to prove; for he maintained that the Great Wall alone would provide for the first time in the history of mankind a secure foundation for a new Tower of Babel.

In the Penal Settlement:

‘If I had first called the man before me and interrogated him, things would have got into a confused tangle. He would have told lies, and had I exposed these lies he would have backed them up with more lies, and so on and so forth.’

‘Dilapidarian Tower’ By Richard Hawkins

The Burrow:

I kept very quiet, nothing could be more quiet than my return to the burrow; afterwards, when I dug the experimental trenches, perhaps it could have heard me, though my style of digging makes very little noise; but if it had heard me I must have noticed some sign of it, the beast must at least have stopped its work every now and then to listen. But all remained unchanged.

Investigations of a Dog:

There was blood under me, at first I took it for food; but I recognized it immediately as blood that I had vomited. I turned my eyes from it to the strange hound.  He was lean, long-legged, brown with a patch of white here and there, and had a fine, strong, piercing glance. ‘What are you doing here?’ he asked. ‘You must leave this place.’ ‘I can’t leave just now…I can’t go even if I wanted to.’ ‘You need have no fear of that,’ he said, smiling.

(Metamorphosis photographed by Nick Hobgood)

(Metamorphosis photographed by Nick Hobgood)





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