Franz Kafka is regarded as one of the best and most influential authors of the 20th Century, and is a major figure in existentialism and magic realism. Like all of his novels, The Trial was left unfinished, but to me, it still read like a complete story. This might be because Kafka blends the surreal and mundane, and you need to relax your logic to be carried along with it. Or it might just be because, by the time I was three quarters of the way through the book, I was sick of it.
Like a lot of classics, once it’s stripped of its historical context and cultural significance, it doesn’t make for an enjoyable read. Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t have merit – the atmosphere, lampooning of social conventions and central concept are all interesting. But its seems like a short story ridden to exhaustion, a joke taken too far.
In The Trial, Joseph K. is woken on the day of his thirtieth birthday by two warders, who inform him that he is being charged with a crime. What the nature of the crime is, and whether K. is guilty, is never revealed. All that is certain is that he is now subject to the indecipherable bureaucratic tyranny of the Court. Once a successful and well regarded bank official, his life and thoughts are consumed by hearings and submissions, and he becomes entangled with advocates, painters and priests who all claim to have some insight into how the Court works, but who seem to do nothing to advance his case.
Many critics laud Kafka for prefiguring the “banality of evil” in the 20th century, especially Nazism, a particularly cruel irony considering his three sisters and true love likely perished in the concentration camps. In the Court, he captures how large bureaucratic systems dehumanise both those who enforce and suffer injustice.
But the impact of his prescience is lessened by something that is in no way the author’s fault – no human mind could, thankfully, imagine the scope of the horrors that occurred in the 20th century. Only someone who had already heard of the industrialisation of murder that occurred under the Nazis, such as George Orwell in 1984, could write fiction that could match the terrible reality.
This makes a political reading of The Trial less compelling than a psychological one – that Joseph K.’s trial is a metaphor for the arbitrary, cruel nature of life.
The Court, with its unfathomable practices, inaccessible hierarchy and mundane cruelty, stands for an indifferent universe in which people are designed to suffer. In this interpretation, K.’s ignorance of the charges against him, and his illogical compulsion to prove his innocence, is analogous to an existential search for worth. The eventual judgement, and his compliance with it, suggest that both the world and himself are ultimately found wanting.
This is not to say that the events of the novel are some kind of psychosis on K.’s part. Instead, like other magic realist novels, the fictional world of The Trial doesn’t seek to capture how life is, but how life feels, and uses surreal concepts to do it. For example, the Court can use a room in K.’s office to exact (German stereotype-confirming kinky) punishment against the two warders because the trial is invading his life, and because the Court is omnipresent.
The psychological reading maintained my interest for a while, but after about fifty pages it all started to wear thin. And while fifty pages might not sound like a lot, someone needs to hope in the DeLorean, get it up to 88 mp/h and tell Kafka that he has some formatting issues. He has an unholy love for page spanning paragraphs, with no line breaks to differentiate different speakers. Not only that, but my Penguin Classics version has tiny text, so if you look away from the page, you need to spend thirty seconds searching for your place. Maybe it was the convention at the time to write in this way, but I’m sure I’ve read older texts which are more reader friendly in this regard. Formatting gripe over.
There are also huge tracts of the novel that are dedicated to explaining the Court’s bureaucracy, which, while relevant to the theme, had my eyes glazing over. In addition, as a protagonist, K. isn’t particularly compelling or sympathetic. He is arrogant and haughty, and none of his personal relationships make him more likeable. None of the other characters are particularly engaging, either, being more vehicles for exploring the theme than fully developed and relatable people.
I’m not sorry that I read The Trial. It’s good for literature nerds to have an understanding of influential writers. But I don’t think I’d willingly subject myself to Kafka again, except maybe the short stories.