The drawing is by Franz Kafka.
The very name Kafka brings to mind images of bottomless despair.
There are even T-shirts with the legend "Kafka didn't have
much fun either". And it is true that he had a difficult
life, which is reflected in his novels and diaries. For instance,
there is the story about how "Gregor Samsa" woke up one
morning to find himself turned into a beetle. Yet it is not the
whole picture. Many of his works are filled with a wonderful humor.
- Once when my mother was riding the subway to work, she shook uncontrollably
with laughter as she was reading Das Schloss (The Castle),
much to the puzzlement of those passengers who could see what she
Probably his best-known work is "The Trial" (the German
original is here).
Just as the first few
bars of Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" set the mood
for the whole opera, "The Trial" starts with this gripping
sentence: "Someone must have been telling lies about Josef
K., for without him having done anything bad, one morning he was
arrested." I found myself spellbound when I first read
this opening in my twenties. Today, forty years on, it triggers
even stronger emotions.
The rest of the novel describes Josef K.'s efforts to clear himself
of the false accusations. In the process of doing so he encounters
a never-ending series of obstacles. The mindless judicial system
forces him to work his way through a labyrinth of appeals, uninterested
civil servants (including his defense lawyer), and dusty documents.
His struggle is summed up in a parable near the end :
"You are very friendly to me," said K. [to the
prison chaplain]. "You are an exception among all those who
belong to the Court. I have more trust in you than in any of the
others I know. I can speak openly with you." "Don't delude yourself,"
said the chaplain. "How would I be deluding myself?" asked K. "You
delude yourself in the Court," said the chaplain, "in the opening
paragraphs to the Law, it says about this delusion: In front of
the Law there is a doorkeeper. A man from the countryside comes
to this doorkeeper and asks to be admitted to the Law. But the doorkeeper
says that he cannot let him in now. The man ponders this, and then
asks if he will thus be permitted to enter later. 'Possibly', says
the doorkeeper, 'but not now'. As the door to the Law is open, as
always, and the doorkeeper has stepped to one side, the man stoops
to try to peer in. When the doorkeeper notices this he laughs and
says, 'If you find it so tempting, just try to enter even though
I will not allow it. But note: I am powerful. And I am only
the lowest of all the doormen. But from hall to hall there are doorkeepers,
each one more powerful than the last. Not even I can stand to look
at the third one.' The man from the country had not expected such
difficulties, the Law should be accessible to anyone anytime, he
thinks, but as he now looks more closely at the doorkeeper in his
fur coat, sees his big pointed nose, the long, thin, black Tartar
beard, he decides to wait until he gets permission to enter. The
doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down by the door.
There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be let
in and tires the doorkeeper with his pleas. From time to time the
doorkeeper interrogates him, asking where he comes from and many
other things, but these are disinterested questions such as great
men ask, and he always ends up telling him that he still cannot
let him in. The man, who had come well equipped for his journey,
uses everything, however valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. He accepts
everything, but as he does so he says, 'I am only accepting this
so that you will not think that there is anything you have neglected
to do'. Throughout the many years, the man watches the doorkeeper
almost without interruption. He forgets about the other doormen,
and it seems to him that this first one is the only obstacle to
gaining access to the Law. Over the first years he curses his misfortune
loudly, but later, as he becomes old, he just grumbles to himself.
He becomes infantile, and as over the years of study of the doorkeeper,
he also has come to know the fleas in the doorkeeper's fur collar,
he even asks them to help him and to change the doorkeeper's mind.
Finally his eyes grow dim, and he no longer knows whether it is
really getting darker or just his eyes that are deceiving him. But
in the darkness he now discerns an inextinguishable brightness emerging
from the darkness behind the door. He does not have long to live
now. Just before he dies, he collects all his experiences from all
this time into one question which he has still never put to the
doorkeeper. He beckons to him, as he is no longer able to raise
his stiff body. The doorkeeper has to bend over deeply, as the difference
in their sizes has changed very much to the disadvantage of the
man. 'What is it you still want to know?' asks the doorkeeper, 'you
are insatiable.' 'Everyone strives to reach the Law,' says the man,
'why is it that, over all these years, no one but me has asked to
be let in?' The doorkeeper sees that the man has reached his end,
and to overcome his fading hearing, he shouts to him: 'Nobody else
could have gained admission here, as this entrance was meant only
for you. Now I will go and close it'."
Franz Kafka 1883 - 1924
The text then goes on to dissect this parable, in a dialog between
Josef K. and the chaplain, much as, I imagine, Talmud scholars would
analyze a "holy writ".
What is it that makes this little story so fascinating? Well, first
there is its dreamlike, almost hypnotic, quality. Then there is
the enigma it raises. The most obvious interpretation is that it
describes a search for God or despair at His absence in a cold and
uncaring world, but it could equally well be read as an allegory
over unrequited parental or romantic love.
Many read "The Trial" as a premonition of nazism and
the holocaust, but surely there was enough anguish in Kafka's environment
to explain his "angst", without turning his work into
a prophecy. There was his Jewish background in a Prague filled with
ethnic animosities, there was the horror of World War I with its
senseless butchering of millions of young men. "The Trial"
was written in 1914-15. I am sure that the dying days of the Austrian
Empire were very different from the idyll of the Strauss waltzes.
("Austria's genius was to make the world believe that Beethoven
was Austrian, and Hitler was German.") After the war ended,
the Spanish flu claimed many victims among those weakened by war
rations and the Allied hunger
The byzantine bureaucracy fostered by the Austrian Empire probably
formed part of the inspiration for "The Trial", "The
Castle" and other works. By the way, it is an amazing fact
that the Emperor Franz Josef had reigned for 68 years when he died
in 1916. When war broke out in 1914, his proclamation of war started
"An meine Völker" (to my peoples).
And "Der König von Italien hat mir den Krieg erklärt."
(The king of Italy has declared war on me.)
Kafka himself was a very sensitive person. His biographer and friend
Max Brod describes how Kafka sometimes was in tears over some hard-luck
story among his clients. He worked as an insurance claims agent
during daytime, and labored with his writing at night. Sleep deprivation
was a constant problem for him.
Kafka ordered that all his manuscripts should be destroyed after
his death. Fortunately, Max Brod, as custodian of his manuscripts,
failed to obey his order. Today Kafka seems to have become more
of an icon than a "must-read" author. This is unfortunate,
for his stories are highly readable, and the world he describes
is not that different from our own.