Books: Brian Arsenault Takes on Kafka’s “The Castle” and Writes To Son Brent About It

By Brian Arsenault

Hey Brent,

You asked me to tell you more about the class I’m taking on Franz Kafka’s The Castle. I’ll start with Ed. who’s teaching, or rather leading, the class.

I’ve taken literature courses with Ed before: Kerouac’s The Road, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio so I knew the course would be worth it.

Like Kafka, Ed’s a Jew and he started us off with what he self consciously acknowledged would be a Jewish interpretation of the novel, if indeed it is a novel (more about that later). Ed said that an essential aspect of Jewish life since Biblical times was the lack of “a place to stand,” a place to belong, a place of permanence.  Suddenly main character K’s relentless attempts to belong in a community that does not seem to want him took on a new meaning.

It also seemed to me that, agree or disagree with him, Netanyahu’s ferocious attempts to secure Israel’s continued existence made greater sense than ever. He will battle to hold on to a homeland, a place to stand, a place to be, against all enemies and one in particular. Iran, with its avowed intention to remove Israel from the earth.

Not being a Jew, though, I had to seek my own meaning, not in contradiction but in my own frame of reference. And what I found was the world turned upside down, with conventional reality no sure barometer of truth.

In Voltaire’s Candide, passengers on a ship without food calmly discuss cutting off one buttock of an attractive young lady to roast. The discussion seems reasonable enough; the collected crew and passengers are basically agreeing on a course of action that will save all. Yet they never seem to consider that their meat will involve the horrible mutilation and almost certain death of a young woman.

In The Castle, a family’s fortune is ruined and they become despised outcasts because one of two sisters, Amelia, declines the salacious written advances of an elderly member of The Castle‘s officialdom. What becomes the focus of the community’s ire, seemingly irrationally, is Amalia’s rudeness to the messenger by tearing up the note and throwing it in his face.

Somehow, in a single long monologue, the other sister, Olga, shows K that, looked at a certain way, the whole incident was Amelia’s fault and the family’s fortunes would have been saved, even advanced, had she gone to the offending official. It’s all very reasonable except Amelia would have had to accept thorough degradation. That never comes up.

We also learn throughout the novel, and particularly later on when our assumptions are all challenged, is that what was clear from K’s perspective was not at all the viewpoint of others in the village. A point Ed wonderfully illustrated when, after a particularly vigorous class discussion, he pointed out that we were all coming at the same information from the different slants of our backgrounds and perceptions of reality.

Kafka might have chuckled at that though I don’t think he chuckled often. What he did, though, was have a successful career in business where he was thought effective, efficient and kind but he considered himself a terrible failure.  Regarding his writings, Kafka asked that after his death everything should be burned.  He was only 42, long suffering from tuberculosis. A friend, fortunately, preserved Kafka’s writings and sought their wide publication.

The Castle is not an easy read, far from it. It is dense, repetitive, frustratingly vague, full of subtle twists and turns. The young grow old, the angelic turn soiled, even doorways are lowered as people pass through (Lewis Carroll anyone?)

High art is often difficult. If one considers Vince Guaraldi, say, as compared to Thelonious Monk it’s easy to like, and I do, those cheerful, youthful, Peanutsful melodies of Guaraldi. Monk on the other hand can be a difficult listen, with all that dissonance and melodic shifts. Yet there is little doubt which is the greater artist.

A friend of mine who has also taught me a great deal about literature says he thinks in 50 years no one will read Joyce or other challenging writers. Our devices will hand us ongoing easy entertainment and we just won’t make the effort for the hard stuff. I think he’s a bit pessimistic but I worry about how right he might be.

Finally, is The Castle a novel? That same question has been asked of Joyce’s Ulysses. Neither conform to our notion of a linear storyline which is a basic tenet of what we think of as a novel. Neither provides full resolution of the conflicts and issues within. Neither writer may think there is a resolution.

I think Ed said it best. One reads The Castle for the details, for the differing perception on what is real and what is illusion. The person K seeks most in the book is the elusive Klamm. I read one critic who said Klamm is a Czech word, or close to it, for illusion.

And in Chapter XX we find:  “illusions are more common than changes in fortune-”

* * * * * * * *

To read more reviews, essays and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

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