Banville: Franz Kafka's other trial

John Banville on Kafka, Felice Bauer and Elias Canetti
Kafka and Felice Bauer. Photograph: © Bettmann/CORBIS
In an article for The Guardian, novelist John Banville revisits Franz Kafka's distinctive novel, The Trial, and, with reference to short stories, letters and diary entries, discusses the themes that have made it a contemporary classic:
The artist, says Kafka, is the one who has nothing to say. By which he means that art, true art, carries no message, has no opinion, does not attempt to coerce or persuade, but simply – simply! – bears witness. Ironically, we find this dictum particularly hard to accept in the case of his own work, which comes to us with all the numinous weight and opacity of a secret testament, the codes of which we seem required to decrypt. The Trial, we feel, cannot be merely the simple story of a man, Josef K, who gets caught up in a judicial process – the book's German title is Der Prozeß – that will lead with nightmarish inevitability to his execution. Surely it is at least an allegory of fallen man's predicament, of his state of enduring and irredeemable guilt in a world from which all hope has been expunged. Yet the book has its direct sources in the mundane though extreme circumstances of Kafka's own life, and specifically in what Elias Canetti calls Kafka's "other trial".

It is surprising at first to learn that Flaubert was Kafka's favourite writer, yet Kafka, as a moment's reflection will show, was every bit as strong a realist as the author of Madame Bovary or (the master's work that Kafka most admired) L'Éducation sentimentale. Poor Max Brod, the friend whom Kafka on his deathbed enjoined to burn his unpublished manuscripts, has been scoffed at for his determination to present Kafka as a religious writer, but the misapprehension is understandable. The Trial, The Castle and especially the stories, feel like religious parables – the chapter in The Trial called "In the Cathedral" might be a passage from one of the more obscure books of the Bible, or a gnomic exercise out of the Talmud. [Read more]

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