Monday, June 8, 2015

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 
“THE TRIAL” by Franz Kafka (DER PROZESS written in 1914-15; first published, posthumously, in German in 1925; Willa and Edwin Muir’s English translation first published in 1935; many other translations since)

Some time ago on this blog I made a “Something Old” out of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis [look it up on the index at right]. I made the case then that the novella Metamorphosis, the longest of Kafka’s works to be published in his lifetime [1883-1924] was the most perfect of his works. After all, said I, it was a work of incredible concision and concentrated meaning, which he had given to the publisher in a finished state; whereas the three full-length novels for which he is as well known (The Trial, The Castle, America) were left unfinished and unrevised at his death. The possibility is that, had he lived, he might have polished them up somewhat. They are, all three of them, open to the charge that they repeat things in a way they might not have done had Kafka trimmed and edited them. As is well known, Kafka’s instructions to his friend Max Brod were that his unpublished works be destroyed when he died. Fortunately for us, Max Brod ignored Kafka’s request.
I stand by this view. I still regard Metamorphosis as his best work. But when I re-read The Trial recently, I had to admit that its repetitions are part of its nightmarish power. I also re-read the “Epilogue” that Max Brod contributed to the edition of Willa and Edwin Muir’s translation [the first translation into English] that sits on my shelf. Brod boasted that “nearly everything of Kafka’s that was published in his lifetime was rescued from him by dint of persuasion and guile on my part.” This implies that even Metamorphosis may not have been as “finished” as Kafka wanted, though I find this hard to believe. As a non-specialist, I am also aware that some of the very many biographies of Kafka that have now been published cast aspersions on Brod’s truthfulness about some matters and his suppression of some details of Kafka’s life.
A literary executor is not always the most reliable witness.
Anyway, as I say, I recently gave The Trial another go. I did so after having seen three adaptations of it. There was Orson Welles’ [modernised] 1962 film version of the novel, starring Anthony Perkins as Josef K. and Jeanne Moreau as Fraulein Burstner. There is, in my DVD collection, the solid and very literal 1993 film rendition of the story, scripted by Harold Pinter and starring Kyle MacLachlan as Josef K., Anthony Hopkins as The Priest and Juliet Stevenson as Fraulein Burstner. And – seen by me back in 2008 – there was a very good stage adaptation by the Auckland playwright Dean Parker, performed by an Auckland theatre company. I can forego my usual bitchings about adaptations by noting that all were very worthwhile, though Welles’ film now seems very dated.
I will not try my usual dodge of synopsising this well-known tale. Josef K., for no clear reason, is arrested and put through the fear of being suspected by the state. Or, as the opening sentence warns, “Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K. for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning”. But I will note that as I re-read it, I feared my mind might be overwhelmed by images from all the adaptations I had seen. This proved not to be the case. The novel itself has very many details that no adaptation has touched, and its style is the very opposite of the type of ominous gothic or film noir stylings that the film renditions give.  Despite the bizarre and irrational nature of the story, the tone (like that of Metamorphosis) is doggedly matter-of-fact.
I have to see it as a dream novel. There are all those intensely visualised settings in improbable places – the court room or the Advocate’s home in a slummy setting; the transformation from Titorelli’s studio to the Palace of Justice. As in a dream, things converge and coalesce in ways that defy waking reality.
I attach much significance to the fact that it is Josef K’s. 30th birthday when he is arrested, and the eve of his 31st when he is taken off to be killed. It also seems significant that Josef K. at first thinks that those who have come to arrest him are practical jokers and, one year later, that those who have come to kill him look like cheap actors.  This is a story spun from inside Josef K’s psyche and sparked by the existential fact of his age. Is not 30 (the age Kafka was when he wrote The Trial) when people first begin to wonder anxiously what they have done with their lives or what they should be doing? I believe that, decoded, we are getting the story of a man who is self-accused and aware that others are merely playing a role in the theatre of his mind. Practical jokers. Cheap actors.
I will not go here into John Banville’s theory that the story is really a psycho-drama about Kafka’s on-again off-again relationship with his fiancée. That would reduce it to no more than psychiatrist’s notes.
Of course there is some validity to seeing the story as a premonition of totalitarianism. (Don’t we tend to use the term “Kafkaesque” to mean the terrible, anonymous power of the state bearing down upon the individual?) We are encouraged in this interpretation by the fact of Kafka’s Jewishness, and by our knowledge that, twenty years after his death, members of his family died in Nazi death camps. But I am not sure that totalitarianism, as we now understand it, was Kafka’s intended target. The law which he depicts is daunting and irrational, never laying a clear criminal charge against Josef K. and never offering any clear path to a resolution. But compared with later totalitarianism, it is relatively benign. After his “arrest”, Josef K. is free to go about his business. Though there are the torturers-in-the-cupboard, and Josef K’s eventual murder, the satire that is offered could be valid even for an open society. It has most to do with the “law’s delay”, as satirised by Dickens in Bleak House.
Continuing in the vein of finding satire, it is possible to neatly divide The Trial into satire on police (the arresters), the law (the Advocate and Examining Magistrate), art (Titorelli) and religion (The Priest) as inadequate in explaining the human condition. Titorelli’s explanation that one can never be acquitted of a charge is the directest attack on the law as a human institution. I also wonder if the Priest’s complex glossing of his own enigmatic parable isn’t intended to ridicule over-ingenious biblical commentaries, midrash etc.
Yet, as I say, this is largely a tale from inside the head of the self-accused Josef K. who, even though he does not know what he is charged with, finds himself burdened with a sense of guilt anyway. Of course one can get lost in the badlands of Kafka biography and wonder whether the tale expresses fear of anti-Semitism, even if there is no reference to Jewishness in the book, or whether it expresses the isolation of German-speaking Kafka in Czech Prague. But I think the sexual element is more essential, with the landlady Frau Grubach and the tenant Fraulein Burstner and the Advocate’s mistress Leni and all the girls crowding Titorelli’s door. Josef K. rages silently with unfulfilled desire. (Of Fraulein Burstner, he “rushed out, seized her, and kissed her first on the lips, then all over the face, like some thirsty animal lapping greedily at a spring of long-sought fresh water” – end of Chapter One).
 This is one of those waking dreams in which we have to justify our most private life in front of a court of law – except that there is no real trial and death is arbitrary. In this respect, maybe it is about God after all.
Let us not forget Kafka’s deadpan humour, as when Joseph K’s landlady worries about her house being respectable and Josef K. retorts Groucho-esquely “Respectable! If you want to keep your house respectable you’d have to begin by giving me notice.” (Chapter One). Let us not forget the foretaste of “I was only obeying orders!” when the one of the arresters who wields a whip says to Joseph K’s objections “What you say sounds reasonable enough, but I refuse to be bribed. I am here to whip people, and whip them I shall.” (Chapter Five). And, in case we forget the scary and louring element, let us not forget Josef K’s suggestion that Titorelli’s painting of Justice “no longer suggested the goddess of Justice, or even the Goddess of Victory, but looked exactly a Goddess of the Hunt in full cry.” (Chapter Seven)
Like all good art, it is complex, resists a simple formula and, at least on a second reading, is not as flawed by its inconsistencies as I thought it was the first time I read it.

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