|Author Franz Kafka|
The Castle (1926)
by Franz Kafka
There are certain authors I have convinced myself I have actually read, when in fact I have not actually read them. I know I read The Metamorphosis and The Hunger Artist in high school. I know I bought a used copy of Amerika (and never read it.) I've also convinced myself that I've read The Castle and The Trial at some indeterminate point in the past, but, that it is not true. Before last month, I'd never read either book, but I'd gone so far as to write down that I had read The Castle "in high school" in my copy of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die. Because I had falsely tricked myself into thinking I'd previously read The Castle, it is one of the last fifteen or so titles from the 1920s that remain in the 1001 Books Project.
Among those 15 titles are the 3000 pages of Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust and 900 pages of Ulysses by James Joyce. The rest are equally divided by titles that seem too obvious to actually read (The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis) and books that are hard to track down (The Green Hat by Michael Arlen) and/or foreign (The Artamonov Business by Maxim Gorky, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin.)
The Castle is a true classic, with Kafka expertly evoking the sense of nameless fear and dread that gave rise to the term "Kafkaesque." You can call Kafka expressionist, surreal, existentialist- all of those. Describing the plot points of The Castle: A land surveyor journeys to a small village in the mountains of an unnamed European country, his attempts to do his job are thwarted by a series of vague, unseen castle bound bureaucrats; simply do not do the material justice.
On the hand, The Castle can be read as a straight-forward parody of bureaucracy and the vagaries of life in late 19th century Europe. On the other hand, The Castle also works as a religious allegory, with the unseen castle higher ups standing in for an absent God. In this way, there is some thematic consistency between Kafka's fiction and philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Soren Kierkegaard. Kafka, like those philosophers, question the existence of God, but his fiction poeticizes the coming existentialist crisis of the 20th century.
His departure from the canons of 19th century of European Realism represent a radical departure from the mainstream of traditionalist and experimental modernists alike. Even more remarkable is the biographical details of his early death and subsequent request to have all this unpublished books burned afterwards. Max Brod, his executor, essentially published unfinished manuscripts, meaning that The Castle is not only unfinished, it also has 80 pages that were added by Brod at the end by fiat, and 50 additional pages of deletions and fragments.
Regardless of the manuscript issues, The Castle is a compelling read.