All you need to know about the books you meant to read

This week: THE TRIAL (1925) by Franz Kafka

Plot: As a German-speaking Jew living in the Prague of the fading Austrian Empire, Kafka understood and explored alienation. This short, unrevised novel juggles socio-political protest, paranoid (sometimes erotic) fantasy and quasi-religious parable in a way which is simultaneously gratingly neurotic and icily detached.

"Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning". The core of the story is exposed in the off-beam wit of the casual opening sentence. Joseph K is a thirty-year-old bank clerk with a touch of Hamlet and more than a dash of Buster Keaton. After interrogation, he is allowed to resume work providing that he promises to attend the Court-house. His visits prove barren. In the second half of the novel, it becomes increasingly difficult to disentangle K's warped perceptions from outward reality. However, he seeks a solution - and absolution - in Love, Art and Religion.

Leni, an excitable nurse, informs K that guilty men are often sexier than innocent ones. Titorelli, a painter of judges, offers the cheery opinion that nobody is ever acquitted and that the Court's pronouncements are just devious techniques for deferring sentence. Finally, the priest tells the parable of the man from the country who waited outside the door of the Law. The doorkeeper refuses to let him in and the man's life drifts away. Near death, he asks the doorkeeper why, if all seek the Law, no one else ever turned up. The doorkeeper explains that this particular door is intended only for the countryman; he then promptly slams it shut in the supplicant's face. K and the priest puzzle over this one.

The book ends with K murdered "like a dog". As he loses consciousness he sees a distant human figure who may be a friend or a tormentor. K never meets the Judge nor sees the High Court.

Theme: Kafka sees mankind caught between guilt and the Law. Guilt is a constant prickly heat; the Law is distant, vindictive, arbitrary and merciless. Throughout his experience, K struggles to assert some form of dignity. Although the struggle ends in tragedy it usually collapses into grim farce. The moment that K picks up the rules of the game, the rules are altered.

Style: The prose is luminously uncluttered. Devoid of metaphor, the deadpan directness is often at odds with the bizarre events described. Humour and horror are woven into a cruel, seamless synthesis. The narrative is a labyrinth of parable which both invites and mocks interpretation.

Chief strengths: "He over whom Kafka's wheels have passed has lost forever any peace with the world" (T.W. Adorno). Kafka fuses his metaphysical vision to his boredom and his crazy personality to reproduce a nightmare where senseless incidents, words and gestures are rationalised without being remotely understood.

Chief weakness: Indirectly, Kafka can be preachy. Walter Benjamin argued that Kafka was like Confucius, but a Confucius bereft of a cultured audience to instruct: therefore Kafka's didacticism was illegitimately turned into "art".

What they thought of it then: Kafka believed the book a failure and asked his friend Max Brod to burn the manuscript. In the Thirties the Nazis were delighted to comply with his wishes, throwing all the writer's works on the bonfire.

What we think of it now: Critics cannot leave the book alone. Like a wall of highly polished marble, The Trial cannot be scaled and tends to reflect the preoccupations of the onlooker. W.H. Auden suggested that Kafka stands in relation to our own age as Dante and Goethe stood in relation to theirs.

Responsible for: Borges's elliptical ficciones, Beckett's boring tramps and Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled. Also the word "Kafkaesque" which, according to George Steiner, exists in over a hundred languages.

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