Kafka’s The Castle: Boring book, exciting cover?
I am reading Kafka’s The Castle while visiting my family in the Czech Republic. Can you imagine a more appropriately meta setting than that? Admittedly, this is my first experience with Kafka. I’ve explored my cultural heritage more through film and drama as provided by courses taught by Professor Veronika Ambros at the University of Toronto than I have through “the classics” of literature. Whether or not my having omitted him from my reading makes me a bad patriot, I am glad that this novel is my premier attempt at embracing the Kafkaesque, for it left much to be desired and spurned me to find more inspiring material. My book club democratically selected this work for our reading list; however, even before anyone could have finished the novel, I received a text from a good friend lamenting the book’s tedium. Indeed, The Castle is very boring.
The novel centres around K., who arrives at a rural town after being appointed there as a land surveyor. Try as he might, however, the town’s dogmatic devotion to bureaucratic proceedings bars him from achieving any sort of contact with the people who hired him. Most of the novel focuses on various characters’ explanations of the quixotic ways in which the village is run. Peppered among the verbose appraisals of the authorities are small bursts of action, which include a failed marital engagement, a recounting of a family’s social ostracizing, and a wild goose chase in search of the elusive and powerful Klamm, whose absent-presence is responsible for the plot’s hobbling narrative arc.
Since Kafka never finished the novel, the reader does not find out if K. ever reaches the castle or if he and his lover Frieda make amends. To some, the novel may appear as a total waste of time. But, in what I imagine is typical Kafka fashion, the enigmatic barriers that keep K. from achieving his goals touch the reader on a very subconscious—almost primal—emotional level. There is nothing outwardly “scary” or threatening about the book but the inescapability of K.’s failures lends the text a very creepy and chilling air. Such is the stuff that nightmares are made of: people without faces, problems without solutions.
When my friend expressed her frustration to me, it got me thinking about whether or not there is some value—beyond entertainment—to be found in boring books. I detested Beowulf in middle school. I didn’t understand the point of To the Lighthouse in high school. I was baffled by the hype surrounding “Bartleby, The Scrivener” in university. I am, however, glad to have read these books, if only for their referential value as images and phrases that have been borrowed and put into more enjoyable texts. Some books are notorious for fending off those less stubborn than me (I am stalwart in my refusal not to finish a book) and War and Peace’s first third can be accurately described as an endurance test whose pay-off arrives only in the latter two-thirds. But, what of Kafka?
I would argue that The Castle functions on a very self-reflexive level. One could venture that Kafka was aware of how boring his book actually was. Could he, in jest, have been putting the reader through the same kind of circumlocuitous tests of patience that K. is constantly faced with? The novel’s third person point-of-view consistently keeps the reader at arm’s length from the action. Neither are we afforded free direct discourse nor are we able to penetrate the townspeople’s inner psyches. We are limited to hearsay, rumour, and speeches spouted to maintain the status quo. We are as estranged from the novel as K. is from the town that he wishes so desperately to become a part of. The introduction in Anthea Bell’s translation points to community building as one of the dominant narrative themes. As a reader, I found that I was siding with certain people’s version of events over others’. Like K., I was building alliances where I could find them.
In an interview I conducted with Nora Gold (which will appear in Issue XXVI of The Puritan) we discussed contemporary authors’ tendency to position readerly engagement as entertainment. Vivid characters, plot twists, and—for lack of a better word—mind-fucks have taken the place of philosophical inquiry, spiritual exploration, moral challenging, and political engagement. Of course, I am generalizing and perhaps being unfair to many writers of today, but I am sure many would agree that the typical twenty-first century individual has a short attention span, and books such as The Castle wouldn’t stand a chance in a competitive market.
Since I cannot honestly admit to being entertained by Kafka’s book, I must venture that enjoyment was not his aim and should not be sought when reading the text. The work functions on a far more Barthesian level and evades cheap thrills to activate the reader’s political mind. There is sex in the novel, but it is of an exploitative, unromantic kind. There is violence, pain, and misery, but even one with morbid tastes cannot say it’s action-packed or stimulating. Instead, Kafka’s scathing portrayal of bureaucracy is inflammatory even if K.’s social blunders are not. The Castle and its arrogant agents of authority are, as Bell suggests, a representation of society in a secular world where a community’s subconscious desire to be ruled supersedes the logic of that ruling. In the Kafkaesque imaginary, one would rather suffer in poverty under the thumbs of invisible masters than believe he/she is alone in the world.
While devout Kafka fans might have preferred a good edit and a conclusion to the novel, I am somewhat pacified by the text’s narrative ambiguity. This way I can imagine that K. does what I prayed he would do the entire time I was reading The Castle: fed up, he turns on his heels and marches right out of that desolate, self-deluding town to wherever it is he came from.