A review of what is perhaps Kafka's best known novel
'Kafka may be the most important writer of the twentieth century, far more important than James Joyce. He describes the fate of the isolated man who is surrounded by a vast and impenetrable bureaucracy, and begins to accept himself on the terms the bureaucracy imposes. Human beings today are in a very similar position. We are surrounded by huge institutions we an never penetrate: the City, the banking system, political and advertising conglomerates, vast entertainment empires. They've made themselves more use-friendly, but they define the tastes to which we conform. They're rather subtle, subservient tyrannies, but no less sinister for that.'J. G. Ballard, 'Kafka in the Present Day'
'Now K. suddenly realized that he had been hoping all the time that either the painter or himself would suddenly go over to the window and fling it open. He was prepared to gulp down even mouthfuls of fog if he could only get air. The feeling of being desperate cut off from the fresh air made his head swim.'
Franz Kafka, The Trial
I've spent the last week or so reading The Trial. Franz Kafka's most prominent novel, it's written as a kind of modern parable, detailing the experiences of a young and respectable Bank functionary who is arrested by a mysterious law Court without explanation. His guilt is assured by all, and the protagonist begins to loose his footing in an endless series of official procedures and judicial processes. It's like a depiction of Dante's hell re-imagined as modern bureaucracy; a hell from which there is no possible end, and no escape.
A few things about the novel strike me in particular. First of all, the prose is tightly-knit and extensive. The Trial is a slim volume in itself, but the paragraphs that structure the book are long and arduous; this is not helped by the small typeface that many publishers insist upon for their editions, through budget concerns or mere spite. Kafka himself once said that he wished for his prose to be printed in a large typeface, to prevent eye-fatigue on the part of his readers, but I suppose he wished for a lot of things that were never granted.
At first, the length of the paragraphs can be slightly frustrating for an impatient reader - as I admit I was, at first - constantly attempting to link one sentence with the next under a reading lamp. But as the book progressed, the structure of the prose began to reveal its purpose. Each paragraph is dense, and gives one an impression almost of claustrophobia. There is a tightness and a confinement in Kafka's writing that at times feels almost stifling - and that's not to mention the content itself, but simply the form it takes. By the time I had reached halfway, I had the creeping sensation that I was almost trapped within the book: it was too far to retreat, and too far to reach the end. An amazing feeling.
There are many remarkable things about The Trial. Its representation of modern working life as an alienating and uncanny environment, filled with strange and absurd moments; the supposed anticipation of totalitarian horrors, complete with meaningless arrests and unjust death sentences; the portrait of a protagonist negotiating a meaningless and absurdist existence. But what interested me most this time around was the atmosphere of the prose, and the way paranoia seeped into the text through descriptions of confined and enclosed spaces. This claustrophobia, which permeates The Trial like a perpetual cold sweat, often manifests itself in incidents that much resemble the clawing desperation of an asthma attack.
Visiting the Court, protagonist Joseph K. finds himself struggling for air in the oppressive environment and is reassured by his companion:
'The sun beats on the roof here and the hot roof-beams make the air dull and heavy. This makes this place not particularly suitable for offices, in spite of the other great advantages it has. But the air, well, on days when there's a great number of clients to be attended to, and that's almost every day, it's hardly breathable. When you consider, too, that all sorts of washing are hung up here to dry - you can't wholly prohibit the tenants from washing their dirty linen - you won't find it surprising that you should feel a little faint. But in the end one gets quite used to it. By the time you've come twice or thrice you'll hardly notice how oppressive it is here. Do you feel better now?'
Joseph K. does not feel better now, and neither does the reader for that matter. As the plot progresses, K. visits more and more locations with startlingly similar effects. The nightmare of the mysterious bureaucracy that persecutes him often manifests itself in confined spaces and bad air. And as The Trial moves ever closer towards its chilling climax, the official structures that define K.'s fate tighten just as much around his body as around his name. K.'s suffering is a physical suffering, a manifestation of panic, paranoia and claustrophobia. And it makes for a disquieting and unsettling experience for readers.