Expectations are almost impossible to avoid where the major classics are concerned. Having heard about The Trial all my adult life and already having seen the Orson Welles film adaptation, I finally went into the 1925 novel (written in 1914-15, my copy Schocken’s Definitive Edition translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir; a really lovely volume with Kafka’s drawings, diary excerpts and all unfinished and deleted work translated by E.M. Butler) with predictions firmly in place. I anticipated the story of Joseph K., accused without having done anything wrong, would follow the struggles of an unassuming everyman heroically defying the faceless state. I also figured that Orson Welles must have inserted a lot of the sexualized female characters because, well, it was the sixties and all. Amazingly (or not; I mean what’s a classic if it can’t surprise you?) I was wrong on both counts.
Welles’ film faithfully recreated all of the strange events in The Trial but reinterpreted their meaning. His vision of Joseph K. was a chaste man, offering only meek response to the femme fatales all around him. Kafka’s Joseph K. is callous and misogynistic, leveraging his plight to gain the sympathy and favors of women and feeling fury when they refuse him. Meeting a married woman seemingly trapped into servicing the court officials his response to her predicament is this charming fantasy: …probably there could be no more fitting revenge on the Examining Magistrate and his henchmen than to wrest this woman from them and take her himself. Then some night the Examining Magistrate, after long and arduous labor on his lying reports about K., might come to the woman’s bed and find it empty. Empty because she had gone off with K., because the woman now standing in the window, that supple, voluptuous warm body under the coarse, heavy, dark dress, belonged to K. and to K. alone.
This remarkably unsympathetic and even odious little man is what gives The Trial its kick. I can’t imagine an American writer of the same period doing this and certainly it’s not what Welles chose to do. He made K. into an unobjectionable hero. The Trial is more of a two-way street requiring re-assessment at every turn. I was often torn by my satisfaction to see this arrogant, bullying functionary get chewed up by the machinery of Law as – in spite of his personal behaviour – it is hard not to admire the man for attempting to defy so loathsome and monstrous an organization. So you see I was pulled scene by scene from one side of the battle to the other and this gave the novel a deep fascination even in the scenes Welles faithfully recreated and whose outcome I already knew.
As the case grinds along without development K.’s responses gradually evolve from aristocratic disdain of the proceedings to obsession and paranoia. Even though he’s never truly arrested or prevented from leading his daily life the trial consumes him and his job at the bank suffers for it. Kafka does a brilliant job depicting this subsequent paranoia in its most insidious, slow-burning form:
Every hour that he spent away from the Bank was a trial to him; true, he was by no means able to make the best use of his office hours as once he had done, he wasted much time in the merest pretense of doing real work, but that only made him worry the more when he was not at his desk. In his mind he saw the Assistant Manager, who had always spied upon him, prowling every now and then into his office, sitting down at his desk, running through his papers, receiving clients who had become almost old friends of K.’s in the course of many years, and luring them away from him, perhaps even discovering mistakes that he had made, for K. now saw himself continuously threatened by mistakes intruding into his work from all sides which he was no longer able to circumvent. Consequently, if he were charged with a mission, however honorable, which involved his leaving the office on business or even taking a short journey – and missions of that kind by some chance had recently come his way fairly often – then he could not help suspecting that there was a plot to get him out of the way while his work was investigated, or at least that he was considered far from indispensable in the office. Most of these missions he could easily have refused. Yet he did not dare do so, since, if there were even the smallest ground for his suspicions, a refusal to go would only have been taken as an admission of fear.
Counteracting such heavy material are subtle moments of humour (naturally, of the dark variety). In particular, the unfinished chapter ‘Conflict with the Assistant Manager’ notably lightens the mood, as does the bushy Nietzschean mustache of the Italian K. is called upon to entertain, which prevents him from lip-reading and was obviously perfumed; one was almost tempted to go close up and have a sniff at it. The black comedy leads to direct switchbacks as in the horrific sequence with the Whipper: upon fleeing the scene of punishment, Joseph K. is left alone with his thoughts and immediately attempts to weasel out of any responsibility to interfere on behalf of the wardens involved, with excuses ranging from the fear of witnesses catching him in such sordid company to blaming one of the warders for screaming – it must have been very painful certainly, but in a crisis one must control oneself. One might think of this as satire until the nightmarish conclusion of the chapter leaves you searching for explanations that will not be found.
The Trial is famous for being unfinished. The chapters come in fragments, an indeterminate amount of time passing between each one but there is a clear Kafka-labelled chapter called ‘The End,’ so although you won’t receive a single answer over the course of The Trial you can rest assured that you aren’t signing up only to be left hanging. What you’ll miss is what would have been the second half of the novel, some of whose ideas are conveyed in the series of unfinished chapters, including K.’s friendship with the prosecutor Hasterer and some information on his mother’s health and whereabouts – small things which would have filled out The Trial and perhaps added cohesion or at least allowed some characters to make more than one appearance in the book.
The question everybody loves to tackle is what The Trial actually means and it is indeed fun to speculate. Some take a literal view and say it’s a prediction of 20th Century totalitarianism and bureaucratic control. Kafka does quite brilliantly convey not only the crushing power of the law machine but also its shambling, rotting insanity where even those who work within it have no idea of the big picture. The system in The Trial is really in its death throes, sucking everything into the Court until it seems all-powerful yet is at the same time monstrously inefficient.
Another alternative is to take The Trial as a parable. None of it is meant to evoke a sustainable structure; it is only a larger version of the scripture told to K. by the prison chaplain. For that matter what is the meaning of the story the chaplain tells and which is K.’s own struggle in miniature? That no one who looks for the Law will find it? That going to the Law seeking Justice is futile? That Law can disrupt, change or even end one’s life but cannot resolve it? You could go on all day with such suppositions and every one of them could fuel ten papers.
The element which I latched onto concerns guilt and its absence. Joseph K. is a man who despises his social inferiors and is even impulsively violent toward them (unfinished chapter ‘Journey to His Mother’ makes this abundantly clear), who seems to maintain no strong affection for his family and is only civil to those he feels can help him with his case. He recruits women as tools and puts all blame on others when his case seems to be going badly. K. never questions his actions or feels any guilt for this behaviour. The novel is third person limited, with every event given from his point of view, including the famous opening line: Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning. It becomes a very unreliable statement when looked at from this angle…
“Crime” and “guilt” are never defined in the course of the story; the accusation against K. is never revealed and this allows them to take a more open-ended and universal meaning than if Kafka had revealed the circumstances. When Leni, his lawyer’s maid and mistress, tells K. that his mistake lies in being too unyielding, she urgently advises him that “you can’t fight against this court, you must confess to guilt.” He rejects the idea: Above all, if he were to achieve anything, it was essential that he should banish from his mind once and for all the idea of possible guilt. There was no such guilt. This legal action was nothing more than a business deal such as he had often concluded to the advantage of the Bank, a deal within which, as always happened, lurked various dangers which must simply be obviated. The right tactics were to avoid letting one’s thoughts stray to one’s own possible shortcomings, and to cling as firmly as one could to the thought of one’s advantage.
This fascinates me. It’s possible the German word “guilt” stands for means something more specific; I have to take the Muir translation on its own at present and it creates a metaphorical atmosphere where Joseph K. is on trial because of his own considerable personal failings. A man who feels no guilt is rather a dangerous person and this interpretation gives The Trial the semblance of a morality play.
Only the semblance, of course. This is all conjecture of the most delightful and exciting sort, as I suspect a re-read in five or ten years would give way to a cascade of new thoughts on the matter. Reading The Trial at long last was a happy experience for me, a thorough surprise that shows how Kafka earned his reputation, and I’m exceedingly glad I made time for it this year. What’s most impressive is how an incomplete work such as this could have become the widely read household name in literature that it is today – “surprise” is definitely the word of choice for The Trial. If you’re avoiding it for any reason, be it hype backlash or imagined redundancy, cease your mistake. It’s a classic for a reason.