This is a guest post written by Hannah Gillow Kloster.
Franz Kafka’s The Trial is one of those perennial works that everyone has heard of, and “read”. Well, I bought the book four years ago (I wrote my name and the year in the copy, thinking to impress my future self by remembering I was “only” 19 when I read it for the first time. How embarrassing). Now I have finally read it. And it was surprising.
When I settled down on the tube with my copy to start reading, I immediately felt the serene glow of intellectual smugness wash over me, as I straightened out the first page in a self-congratulatory manner, emitting a sense of awesomeness (dickishness) to my fellow passengers. However, I soon was actually captivated by this book (which I had fully expected to be a bit of an effort to read). What gripped me the most, apart from the very surprisingly interesting character of Josef K., to whom I will return, was the incredible realistic surrealism. Now, I know that sounds like a self-contradiction. Let me clarify. There are no supernatural beings in this book. No one turns into a beetle. Every single sentence uttered by a character would be completely normal in at least one given situation. What is so exceptional about this book is the way two completely commonplace things – a garret, and a court, for example, are combined to make something utterly bizarre. Now, I know that the same could be said to apply to a hippogriff (after all, there is nothing unusual about a horse. Or a lion) but nonetheless, I am sure I am making myself clear.
Two police officers appearing at a boarding house – not so strange. The accused claiming to be innocent – not so strange. The policemen agreeing that there is no reason he should know for what he is being accused, as they themselves do not even know – things are getting weird. And Josef K.’s reaction to it all is so strikingly human. He is confused. He doesn’t understand. He feels like an outsider. In fact, merely as a portrait of “The Outsider”, this book is terrific. But it is Josef K.’s development that truly takes this novel to another level.
In the beginning, as any of us would be, Josef is confused. He thinks it is a joke. He gets angry. He is scared. He feels unfairly treated. But then, slowly but surely, he begins to accept the situation. He tries to deal with it. He enters into the system, so to speak. And is that not the way any of us would cope? When surprising things happen, we try to keep it strange, distant, unnatural. But sooner or later, even the shocking becomes normal, and the jarring becomes smooth. When I realized this, I realized why this book is so important. (warning: deep thoughts and generalizing ahead). In a world that is constantly changing, and more rapidly than ever, humans are in constant need of adapting. And they do. Things that seemed bizarre, and out-of-this-world-ish only a few years, or even months ago, are now completely regularized part of our daily lives. Even war, as we have seen, becomes the normal state of affairs. My grandmother, who grew up in the 1940s, thinks nothing of chatting to her grandchild on Skype. Levitating trains, once the stuff of science fiction, raise not a single eyebrow. And it is this adaptability that makes Josef K. a poster-child for the modern civilization, and makes The Trial itself a symbol of change, as it adapts to any reader, any situation, any epoch.
It is not a musty classic.
I cannot promise you it will not cause you an embarrassing moment of wiping drool from your chin as you have fallen asleep on the tube, face in book, but more likely the embarrassing moments will arise from finishing it, and simply staring at the opposite passenger’s crotch for way longer than is acceptable, simply because you cannot tear your mind from the shocking comprehension of the modern society that has just blown your mind.
The Trial was originally published by Die Schmiede in Berlin in 1925, and reprinted by Penguin Modern Classics in 2000.