Kafka, Franz: The Trial and Metamorphosis

Introducing the novella “Metamorphosis” (published in 1915 – one of the few stories to be published in Kafka’s lifetime) and the novel  “The Trial” (published posthumously in 1925), the proposer said that he had only recently developed an interest in Kafka. This had started when he had bought a copy of “Metamorphosis” at the airport in Prague, and had found it fascinating.

Kafka had had an unhappy childhood in Prague, with a domineering father. Indeed a 47 page letter of protest that he had penned to his father could be found on the internet. (“You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you, and partly because an explanation of the grounds for this fear would mean going into far more details than I could even approximately keep in mind while talking…”). He had given the letter to his mother who had never handed it over to his father.

Kafka had suffered from “clinical depression and social anxiety” throughout his life. He had tried chemistry at university, and then switched to law, in which he qualified. He had mainly worked in the insurance industry. He had died of tuberculosis in 1924 at the age of 40.

Amongst his influences he counted Dickens and Knut Hamsun. Kafka in turn is said to have influenced Samuel Beckett, Haruki Murakami and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, all of whom were writers recently discussed by the group.

The discussion that followed addressed both books together, with the bulk of the comments being about “The Trial”.

So what were they all about? One member had started by trying to interpret “The Trial” as a religious allegory, but soon moved to the  “s**t happens” school of interpretation. Both books were about the unpredictable change that could suddenly hit people trying to lead ordered lives in a random world. This was strikingly conveyed by the great opening sentences:

“When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect….” and

“Somebody must have made a false accusation against Joseph K., for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong…”.

The issue then posed was how the characters managed to deal with these climactic changes – not too successfully in either case. Some of his other short stories had a similar structure.

Another reader felt that the “court” in “The Trial” was really that of the community. Joseph K was notably high-handed and arrogant in his dealings with the rest of society, and never managed to change this style of behaviour despite his trial. Yet the other accused he met were notably much more humble and submissive in their response to their trial, and perhaps that was why they lasted longer. And if society judges you unacceptably arrogant, the most you could hope for was indeed a suspension of sentence, not an acquittal.

Some members were surprised to revisit “The Trial” and find it not really the prophetic denunciation of totalitarianism and overweening state power that they thought they remembered, and that the book is commonly held to be. It seemed to be more about the individual psyche and private neuroses than about the state of society.

Anxiety and uneasy guilt permeated “The Trial”. It had a dream-like (or perhaps nightmare) logic, as witnessed by the implausibility of Joseph finding the whippers in a room in the bank, and them still being there the next day when he opened the door again. Equally dreamlike was how he would go through a door in someone’s apartment suddenly to find a court meeting. Only the sudden violent ending seemed, inconsistently, to break out of this dream-like mode. In this vein one reader had detected early on suggestions that the court and its apparatus were a product of Joseph’s own imagination. And was it not common to find delusion linked to depression?

For another the story was not a dream – it was a metaphor for being alienated from society. Being rejected by a father generated a sense of others criticising or attacking us. It was a parable. But, hold on, didn’t his colleagues respect K. and get on well with him?

The animal world played a role in the books – obviously with the giant insect (in German literally “unclean animal not suitable for sacrifice”) in “Metamorphosis” – but also in the last lines of “The Trial” as K. is killed:

“ ‘Like a dog!’ he said. It was as if the shame would outlive him.”

Did this identification with animals reflect another neurosis – a sense of low self-esteem and self-abasement?

At least K. – despite his inner turmoil, and his mental anguish– did not commit suicide at the end as his killers tried to encourage him to do him. That was an achievement of a sort.

Our resident Freudian noted that a marked trait of Joseph K. was his sexually aggressive behaviour, for example in relation to Fraulein Burstner and Leni. (Together with his arrogance, this made him the opposite of what we understand Kafka was like in real life). The priest upbraids him for looking too much to women for help. Was one of the private neuroses the sense that sexual activity would be punished, the myth that sex would lead to death? Was this the nameless crime? (We know that Kafka started work on “The Trial” just after his engagement with Felice had been broken off by what he felt was a “court” of friends and relations).

Even Gregor Samsa seems troubled by sex, trying desperately to hold on to the picture of the pin-up on the wall. The ending of “Metamorphosis” (and the ending lines of the books seem as carefully crafted as the openings) is “And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions when at the end of their journey their daughter was the first to rise and stretch her young body.” Gregor’s family have prospered as he has declined, and his sister, unlike him, is successfully moving into sexual maturity.

Or is it Kafka’s role as an author that leads him into a sense of alienation, of difference, from the rest of society? His role as an artist was clearly in conflict with his role as a son and insurance employee. Was K. not on trial for failing to conform? And didn’t Gregor also fail to conform in spectacular fashion? But then there was little to suggest that either Gregor or Joseph K. were conceived of as authors (at most, Joseph K. is said to have a little knowledge of art history).

Or perhaps it was Kafka’s Jewishness that underlies his characters’ alienation from society? Again, there was nothing in either book to suggest that the characters were conceived as specifically Jewish.

But hold on – tempting as it was – in going into Kafka’s biography to “explain” the books, were we not lapsing into the old fallacy of confusing the author and the book?

What then about going into the “parable” told by the priest in “The Trial” to explain the book? What was the point of that? At one level the lengthy (and boring) discussion of the meaning of the parable between K. and the priest was satire – satire of nit-picking scriptural exegesis, and further “Bleak House” style satire of the legal system.  But what of the central idea of the parable – that everyone had their own door into salvation, but failed to get past their own gatekeeper? Was it that our internal self blocked us from a full life? By guilt and anxiety, by the superego?

The door was clearly an important symbol for Kafka (and our resident Freudian of course found it easy to suggest a symbolic meaning). As well as the door in the parable, “The Trial” had several other scenes where there were unexpected results of going through doors, including the scene in the artist’s room where Kafka went out of his way to stress there were two doors! In “The Castle” K. fails to get through the door into the castle, and in “Metamorphosis” Gregor finds it very difficult to get through the door of his room once transformed.

(Cor blimey! All very perplexing, at least to this correspondent, who was already perspiring at the thought of having to make some sense of this bizarre discussion).

An additional problem in trying to elucidate the meaning of the books – if there were any meaning other than what was on the tin – was that we found we were using four or five different translations of the original German, and a few textual comparisons left us in doubt of ever pinning down subtle word connotations in any translated text.

We also looked at the historic and cultural context of the books, which might help to elucidate their meaning. Prague was at that time in the benevolent Hapsburg Empire. There was little in the way of anti-semitism or state brutality to protest about. The outbreak of the First World War More seemed to be more relevant factor in the historical context for Kafka.

A relatively short distance away in Vienna, there was a remarkable grouping of mainly Jewish intellectuals and artists. Freud, for example, had published six major works by 1913, and it might therefore not be unreasonable to detect his influence in Kafka’s work.

Surrealism (and both of Kafka’s works had a surreal quality) did not emerge as a movement until the twenties. However, its predecessor Dadaism, which rejected conventional art forms, began with the First World War, and it might be reasonable to see Kafka as loosely associated with it. However, if one needed to pigeon-hole Kakfa, it was simplest to see him as part of the modernist movement in literature which reached its height between 1900 and the mid 1920s.

“But isn’t this typical of modernism – everyone who reads the book has a quite different interpretation of it? Isn’t that a fatal weakness of such literature?” “Well, yes, it was a weakness, but also a strength: a strength in that it allowed every significant twentieth century ‘ism’ – from Marxism to Magic Realism – to claim Kafka as their own!”

Leaving aside the still unresolved question of their meaning, how did we rate the books? “Metamorphosis” was beautifully constructed, and a classic of its kind. But “The Trial” had proved more of a trial for some. “Went on and on – hate to think how long it would have been if he had ever finished it. And I’m not sure he could ever have finished it.” “It didn’t stand up as well as I hoped to a re-reading – didn’t really engage me intellectually or emotionally”. “These paragraphs that went on for pages were very irritating – a bad habit picked up from Hamsun and passed on to Beckett”.

On the other hand, many of the weaknesses of The Trial might simply reflect the problems Max Brod faced in trying to edit an unfinished manuscript. And it was certainly a very intriguing novel for a Book Group to discuss.

So was Kafka really worth his place in the canon? One reader saw “The Trial” as one of the first novels to deal not with conventional plot but with an individual facing an absurd world, as in Sartre’s “La Nausée” or Camus’ “L’Étranger”. And both books were remarkable products of the imagination.

But perhaps he owned his popularity partly to timing. He had been published at a time when he could be seen to embody the avant-garde. And now he was seen retrospectively – rightly or wrongly – as the author who had predicted the arbitrary abuses of state power; as the artist who, like the canary in the coal-mine, was the first to sense what was developing around him.

All a bit too complicated for your correspondent, and I put down my pen in mute protest. After all we could have been reading Katie Price instead. I was just nodding off, when I caught the following snippet:

“I know what it’s like to be a K. and have everyone disapproving of you” sallied forth one member, relaxing on his descent from the dizzying intellectual heights. “I’m always being disapproved of, what I do, what I say, what I wear…. and I don’t know why. I’m sensitive, and I pick up others’ negative reactions…

“And I’m also a member of a persecuted minority, because I’m left-handed…”

“Err, a persecuted minority….” your reporter woke up and rashly interjected…. “were there ever pogroms of the left-handed?”

“Not quite” responded another Mollydooker, “but all the bullying by teachers, all this stuff about “right” for the right and “sinister” for the left…..”

Well, only one word for this discussion: … Kafkaesque.

But don’t ask me what that means.

                                                            * * *

Later that evening, a hunch took me to Googling, and a few seconds later an amazing fact was revealed:

……………………………..Kafka was left-handed!!!

So there you have it.

A brand new literary theory, which with a modicum of development will I am sure explain the whole corpus of Kafka’s work.

You read it here first.