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the castle

1 june 2022

The most Kafkaesque part of The Castle and perhaps in all of Kafka's work, may come in Chapter 5 where "the chairman," of something or other, attempts to explain to K., the newly summoned surveyor, how it was that the Castle's bureaucracy decided long ago that they would never need a surveyor, a decision that nobody quite remembers and proves impossible to document, even though somewhere, somehow, it may actually still be under review.

Even if you are well-alerted that K. will never get near the Castle, in fact never be able to meet any of the sub-sub-emissaries of the Castle bureaucracy, it is hard to read the opening chapters of the novel without frustration, without expecting K. to make the same progress that any novel hero, arrived on a new scene, sooner or later makes. It's not that K. achieves nothing at all, of course. Several women fall in love with him; one of them, Frieda, becomes his fiancée, and they set up housekeeping together, though somehow not in an actual house or apartment but in a schoolroom where they serve as janitors, a room that they must share with the school furnishings and with two "assistants" who know nothing about janitoring or surveying either but keep annoying K. intensely with their officiousness. Though when it comes down to it, he never gets to do any janitoring either, since he is fired before he starts work, and has to move out and then shuttle from various houses to various taverns and back until the whole book ends abruptly in mid-sentence.

The Castle, to put it mildly, is a very difficult book to read, despite (in Mark Harman's English anyway) having no very high "reading level": the vocabulary is simple and repetitive, the action of the novel limited and easy to follow. One problem is simply the title, the Castle – one expects novels about castles eventually to include some scenes set in said castle. The Castle of Otranto is obliging in this respect, for instance (I found the two novels side-by-side in the Guardian's list of a thousand that I am expected to read in this lifetime). But K., of course, never gets to the Castle. He sort of sees it from a distance; he describes it (it is rather un-castly looking), but he never comes near entering it. Every attempt he makes founders on his inability to gain an audience with even the clerk of a sub-director of a department head of a subsidiary office of anybody who might actually theoretically be authorized to vet entries to the Castle.

So what do you do, if you are summoned to a Castle which has no intention of ever giving you an audience? You wait. Chapter 8:

… it seemed to K. that they had broken off all contact with him, but as if he were freer than ever and could wait as long as he wanted here in this place where he was generally not allowed, and as if he had fought for this freedom for himself in a manner nobody else could have done and as if nobody could touch him or drive him away, or even speak to him, yet—and this conviction was at least equally strong—as if there were nothing more senseless, nothing more desperate, than this freedom, this waiting, this invulnerability. (106)
The texture of direct contradictions, folding back on itself multiple times through only part of this long complex sentence, is also quintessentially Kafkaesque. It is a verbal pattern that seems to arrest and erase itself, but in the process captures some of the paradoxical quality of existence in general and modernity in particular.

Too much of the sheer impossibility of getting anywhere at times slows The Castle to a crawl. It is an uneven and irritating book. But one part, the "Amalia" sequence in chapters 15-20, humanizes and redeems the paradoxical texture – as if, briefly, the bizarre mechanism of Kafka's novel had opened up and engulfed a real family.

The Amalia story is told by her sister Olga. They are the daughters of a cobbler, who is also the father of Barnabas, the only messenger who has ever brought K. an actual communication from the Castle. Amalia had once gotten a proposition from a Castle official – inevitably, not from him directly, but via letter, carried by another messenger – and had torn it up in disdain. Her refusal leads everyone to ostracize the family, though they cannot complain about their situation because they haven't had any direct insult, haven't formally offended, and can't point to anything to redress or pardon. They aren't even locked into the situation, as Olga explains:

If only we had gone and presented ourselves of our own accord, taken up our old connections again without wasting a word about the letter affair, that would have been enough, everyone would have gladly stopped talking about the matter. (208)
But the ostracism has no less a savaging, even starving effect for being a product of mutual paranoid imaginations.

The Amalia chapters are to me the most effective in The Castle because they bring the absurdity of the premise into sharply psychological terms. The Castle can be read as an allegory of many things, and I'm sure it is in endless term papers. But the gift Kafka shows intermittently, of taking ominous abstractions and setting crystalline quasi-realistic stories within them, comes to the fore in those six chapters.

Kafka, Franz. The Castle. [Das Schloss, 1926.] Translated by Mark Harman. New York: Schocken [Random House], 1998. PT 2621 .A26S33