As you may know (and in some circles it’s been hard to miss) 2015 is the 100th anniversary of the publication of ‘Metamorphosis’. It’s also the 100th anniversary of the writing of ‘The Trial’, which is great because in 2025 we’ll be able to have another Kafka celebration year commemorating the delayed publication of this modern classic. This year, everyone’s been outdoing each other in remembering why they love existential angst. The BBC went Kafka crazy back in May and I finally caught up with them this week when I listened to Margaret Atwood’s excellent essay, ‘In the Shadow of Kafka‘, which is still available on iplayer Radio.
The reason I’m thinking about Kafka now (rather than in May) was that I recently went to see a play of ‘The Trial’, written by Nick Gill, at the Young Vic theatre in London. ‘The Trial’ is Kafka’s most famous (and most complete) novel; if you’re not familiar with it, the story is basically summarised in its fantastic opening sentence: ‘Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested.’
Staring the wonderful Rory Kinnear, the play did interesting things with setting, staging and interior monologues, but ultimately it was one of those occasions when an adaptation mainly succeeds in reminding you of how much you loved the original text. This means that, after a long preamble, I’m going to get to the main point of this post which is to set out, subjectively, why I love ‘The Trial’ and why I may never find a dramatisation that really manages to distill the evocative and elusive magic of the novel.
1. The mixture of the vague and the precise. The thing about ‘The Trial’ is that the story is so simple and K is such an ‘everyman’ that his arrest can feel real and yet can mean different things to nearly every reader. I ran a book club a few years ago in which we read ‘The Trial’ and the discussion showed that the story spoke personally to readers from from all over the world (South Africa, UK, America, Israel…) and from a huge age range. One woman had encountered it after visiting Soviet Russia, another man discovered it after leaving apartheid South Africa; the message of ‘The Trial’ was powerful, resonant and completely different for the two readers.
2. The existentialism. This is far too big a topic to go into in detail here (and I’m certainly not expert enough to try) but I am going to attempt a partial explanation of one idea in the novel that I find utterly intriguing. In ‘The Trial’ K is arrested and so he is faced with two choices – deny the charge and the whole system behind it, or work within the system to assert his innocence. At first K considers laughing at the situation, because it must be a joke, but he soon decides ‘if they were play-acting he would act along with them.’ The problem is that as soon as he starts to ‘act along’ he becomes sucked into the system. The more aware K is of the world of the court, the more of a victim he becomes; going along to hearings forces him into the position of a supplicant, trying to understand the nature of his charge leads to an obsession with making sense of his circumstances. This is a futile, philosophical interpretation however because even though K always has an intellectual or emotional choice in how he responds to his trial, he does not live in a vacuum. Even protesting his innocence means acknowledging that others think he’s guilty and, as K finds, there is something compelling and insidiously attractive about falling in with others’ conception of you. I think that K acts more and more guilty as the novel progresses, not because he has done anything wrong, but because each time he assumes his tormentors are correct they treat him that little bit worse. It becomes a vicious downwards spiral because K’s sense of self is constantly realigned to fit in with the way he is perceived. The end of the book is an existential triumph as K finally fully accepts the identity that has been thrust upon him. The more I read and re-read the novel the more I wonder how much of a choice he ever really had.
It is ironic that Kafka, that most lucid of prose-writers, manages to make everyone else nearly incoherent when they try to unpick his work. Still, I’ve got a few more months to come up with some good existential insights and I’m certainly going to enjoy the rest of this centenary year.