17 February 2012

The castle of metaphoric destinies

The Castle by Franz Kafka, translated and with a preface by Mark Harman (Schocken Books, 1998)


   The Castle, whose contours were already beginning to dissolve, lay still as ever, K. had never seen the slightest sign of life up there, perhaps it wasn't even possible to distinguish anything from this distance, and yet his eyes demanded it and refused to tolerate the stillness. When K. looked at the Castle, it was at times as if he were watching someone who sat there calmly, gazing into space, not lost in thought and therefore cut off from everything, but free and untroubled; as if he were alone, unobserved; and yet it could not have escaped him that someone was observing him, but this didn't disturb his composure and indeed—one could not tell whether through cause or effect—the observer's gaze could not remain fixed there, and slid off. Today this impression was further reinforced by the early darkness, the longer he looked, the less he could make out, and the deeper everything sank into the twilight. (98-99)

The obvious mystery of Franz Kafka's unfinished novel was whether the Castle is a symbol for something and whether the novel is a kind of allegory. Many interpretations were put forward. Max Brod and the Muirs (its first translators), according to Mark Harman (the translator in my edition), favored a theological/spiritual interpretation of the Castle as a source of "salvation" or "divine grace" that K. desperately seeks. Harman tended to dismiss or at least downplay this interpretation, calling it "simplistic." I tended to agree with him. A theological interpretation can only get you so far. I think that an atheistic interpretation of the Castle can say more about the whimsical and inconsistent attitudes of the characters, the unpredictable plot, and the dense "bureaucratic" prose stye.

If anything, the Castle, perched high up on a hill, at least represents the seat of political power. At the basic level, K. wanted to practice his profession of surveying and earn his worth, but people get in the way of his desire to work. The governmental system in place wouldn't let him be a productive individual. Thus, The Castle is basically a story about unemployment. But the prose of Kafka, which is closely tied to his politics, and which is also his poetics, obscures some things through a potent combination of hysteria and boredom. In the process of reading the novel, it gains excessive meaning through various interpretations and eidetic associations.


   He speaks to Klamm, but is it Klamm? Isn’t it rather someone who merely resembles Klamm? Perhaps at the very most a secretary who is a little like Klamm and goes to great lengths to be even more like him and tries to seem important by affecting Klamm’s drowsy, dreamlike manner. That part of his being is easiest to imitate, many try to do so; as for the rest of his being, though, they wisely steer clear of it. And a man such as Klamm, who is so often the object of yearning and yet so rarely attained, easily takes on a variety of shapes in the imagination of people. For instance, Klamm has a village secretary here called Momus. Really? You know him? He too keeps to himself but I have seen him a couple of times. A powerful young gentleman, isn’t he? And so he probably doesn’t look at all like Klamm? And yet you can find people in the village who would swear that Momus is Klamm and none other than he. That’s how people create confusion for themselves. And why should it be any different at the Castle? (181)

The deliberate objective of the people around K. seems to be to confuse him, to speak to him in circumlocutions. Why shouldn't it be any different from what the Castle stands for? Why shouldn't the entire novel be a novel about duplicity, misunderstanding, miscommunication, and fraud? What's interesting is that K. himself seems to be aware that he is being had from the beginning. He's playing the game even if he's acting naïve about it the whole time. At some point K. admitted, "It amuses me ... only because it gives me some insight into the ridiculous tangle that may under certain circumstances determine a person's life" (63).

Of course to think of The Castle as the odyssey of the unemployed is also a simplistic reading. The scenes are just too rich with meanings and innuendos. Nothing is as it seems. The man called Klamm may not be Klamm at all. Klamm's name has to be mentioned nine times above to drive home the feeling of suspicion and uncertainty. The surface appearance of things is deceitful. Anything uncalled for can happen and it does happen. Time collapses. And snow, bad weather, will fall on a beautiful day.

“How much longer is it till spring?” asked K. “Till spring?” repeated Pepi, “the winter here is long, a very long winter, and monotonous. But we don’t complain about that down there, we’re safe from the winter. Of course at some point spring does come and summer too, and they certainly have their day, but in one’s memory spring and summer seem so short, as if they didn’t last much longer than the two days, and sometimes even on these days, throughout the most beautiful day, snow falls.” (311-312)


In reality Hans was looking for K.'s help against his father, it was as if he had deceived himself, for he had thought that he wanted to help K. whereas what he had truly wanted, since nobody in their old circle could help them, was to determine whether this stranger, whose sudden appearance even Mother had noted, might perhaps be able to help them. (147)

Yet another interpretation of K's struggles around the Castle was messianism, the belief in a savior or redeemer. K. was ostracized by some Castle villagers and not given a chance to practice as a surveyor, but he was also embraced by others as someone who could be the answer to their problems. The Landlady, the Chairman, and the Teacher were the ones who wanted to drive K. out. Hans, Barnabas, Frieda, and Olga, all seemed to need something from him.

With his unannounced arrival, the deep rifts among the villagers, their insecurities and tragic histories were brought back to the surface. He was seen as a kind of mediator in their behalf, one who could patch up their personal and family difficulties or who could straighten their falling out with the Castle employees. Consulting with K., the characters appeared to carry the very burden of their existence. In the the same way K. wanted to establish himself in the village, they desperately wanted something from him. While speaking to him, they were either solicitous and extremely cautious of the Castle's power over them, or they were prone to badmouthing and backstabbing others. K.'s presence seemed to embolden them.

This K.-type messianism was exaggerated and used more overtly in Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Unconsoled, wherein a pianist named Ryder was assaulted by requests from different personages left and right prior to his performance. A similarity with Ishiguro's novel is the inclination of the two protagonists, K. and the pianist Ryder, to be generally apathetic with people around them.


“Surveyor, in your thoughts you may be reproaching Sordini for not having been prompted by my claim to make inquiries about the matter in other departments. But that would have been wrong, and I want this man cleared of all blame in your thoughts. One of the operating principles of authorities is that the possibility of error is simply not taken into account. This principle is justified by the excellence of the entire organization and is also necessary if matters are to be discharged with the utmost rapidity. So Sordini couldn’t inquire in other departments, besides those departments wouldn’t have answered, since they would have noticed right away that he was investigating the possibility of an error.”
   “Chairman, allow me to interrupt you with a question,” said K., “didn’t you mention a control agency? As you describe it, the organization is such that the very thought that the control agency might fail to materialize is enough to make one ill.”
   “You’re very severe,” said the chairman, “but multiply your severity by a thousand and it will still be as nothing compared with the severity that the authorities show toward themselves. Only a total stranger could ask such a question. Are there control agencies? There are only control agencies. Of course they aren’t meant to find errors, in the vulgar sense of that term, since no errors occur, and even if an error does occur, as in your case, who can finally say that it is an error.” (64-65)

K. is a "total stranger". His arrival at the Castle has upset some kind of balance in the Castle's domain. He is like a brand new idea that is stubbornly rejected by tradition, an outsider who dares to ask questions and so must be put in his proper place. His very presence is attributed to a clerical error. He is reproached for questioning about control agencies when such agencies seem to function under a totalitarian organization.

The Castle is necessarily an unattainable goal. Based on the characters' description of its internal workings, even if K. is granted audience by the Castle authorities, the layers of bureaucracy and the red tape will not take him further afield. His dealings with officials and their emissaries are presented as Sisyphean. Hence, his desired destination (the Castle), as well as his starting point, does not matter; only his journey is important. This worldview is one shared by Javier Marías who said in an interview, "Conclusions and final explanations are often the most irrelevant—and disappointing—parts of a novel. What counts the most—and what we remember the most—is the atmosphere, the style, the path, the journey, and the world in which we have immersed ourselves ... What matters, then, is the journey along the horizon—in other words, the journey that never ends." Another modernist, the Brazilian novelist par excellence João Guimarães Rosa, put it another way: The truth is not in the setting out nor in the arriving: it comes to us in the middle of the journey. The novel being an unfinished novel already implies that Kafka didn't care in the least how the story proceeds. He has already written the meat of his vision through K.'s eternal struggle to settle down in the village despite being prevented from doing so. The officials could just as easily pay K. for the trouble of journeying into the village. But then we wouldn't have a story.


  From the mouthpiece came a humming, the likes of which K. had never heard on the telephone before. It was as though the humming of countless childlike voices—but it wasn’t humming either, it was singing, the singing of the most distant, of the most utterly distant, voices—as though a single, high-pitched yet strong voice had emerged out of this humming in some quite impossible way and now drummed against one’s ears as if demanding to penetrate more deeply into something other than one’s wretched hearing. K. listened without telephoning, with his left arm propped on the telephone stand he listened thus.
   He had no idea how long, not until the landlord tugged at his coat, saying that a messenger had come for him. “Go,” shouted K., beside himself, perhaps into the telephone, for now someone answered. (20, emphases added)

Someone answered the phone even though K. did not dial a number in the first place. What principle was operating here? Dream logic? The unconscious? Magical realism? Science fiction? Or was it simply a well calculated joke? From a never-heard-before humming to singing, from children’s voices to distant singing, from listening to waiting, from static to a definite reply: there’s an apparent breach of the fundamental laws of nature. Or was the error confined only in the observable dimensions? A warping of spacetime, “in some quite impossible way”? As suggested in one of the previous quoted passages, no errors ever occur; if one does occur, who can say that it is an error?

The Castle is a palpable example of spontaneous realism, a tendency in fiction writing characterized by shifts in narrative direction. The shifts may be dreamlike or not, they may be logical or not, and magical or not. Whatever the case, a spontaneous realist novel is a record of transformations: of characters, scenes, and details. The changes in the appearance and attitudes of the characters may be gradual or sudden—without due warning, without being prefigured—and irrevocable.

Frieda’s disposition changes from a resolute lover to a wronged woman. Jeremias, one of the assistants, suddenly changes appearance from a youthful person to an old, infirm man “whose flesh sometimes gave one the impression that it wasn’t quite alive” (237). Some major changes are explained in flashback stories of the villagers, where a family’s economic standing suddenly plummets, their vigor turning into wretchedness, and their health deteriorating to a most pitiful state. The witness to all these instabilities is our tenacious K., the surveyor whose search for work and recognition is rebuffed by the Count’s authorities. For someone who was meant to validate the location and measure the size of plots of land (i.e., someone who ascertains that things are right in their proper place), his failure to initiate the first step tells on a really confused state of affairs.


“We are not your guardian angels and don’t have to follow you every single byway. Well, all right. The chairman thinks differently. Of course the actual decision, which is handled by the Count’s authorities, is not something he can speed up. But within his sphere of influence he seems to want to arrive at a truly generous temporary settlement, which you are free to accept or to reject, he is offering you temporarily the post of school janitor.” (90-91) 

To be more precise, K. was faced with underemployment, a temporary reprieve from unemployment. He was offered a job as a school janitor. For someone trained in a technical job as a land surveyor, this was an absurd proposition. K. refused the offer. But consistent with the novel’s spontaneous absurdity, he was later made to accept the job. By the end of the book, the landlady fancied another job for him, a plausible job but utterly incompatible to his skills as surveyor. Given the serious comedy of what came before, his new job offer adds laughter to injury.


For all the ludicrous tangles K. found himself in, his uncompleted journey to the Castle can be read as a heroic effort. He elected to go through the motions even if there’s a stronger and stronger indication that all his efforts are doomed.

Certainly, I am ignorant, that at least is true, sadly enough for me, but the advantage here is that those who are ignorant take greater risks, and so I’ll gladly put up with my deficient knowledge and its undoubtedly serious consequences for a little while, for as long as my energy holds out. (55)

The irony is that K.’s journey also represents a missed opportunity. At the moment when he stumbled on an influential man from the Castle, someone who could assist him in his troubles, he was not able (Kafka will not let him) to seize the day. At the precise moment when a light is proferred K., he collapsed in exhaustion. Whatever K. (a person, a cog in the wheel) does is answerable to the built (fictional) system in place. And the system has decided that K. must fail, in a magnanimous and spontaneous and riveting way.

The means justify the means. As a work of spontaneous realism, The Castle is destined to be an open metaphor, concerned as it is with the perpetual collapse of meaning and representation. The cathartic encounters and transformations only emphasize the tragic comedy of existence. It can be a deeply religious text in a hermeneutic sense as it takes for its object a naked individual facing machinations by an inscrutable power structure (read: shit happens). Fulfilling destiny is facing the manipulations of a capricious god/s (the Count, the Count's men, the author, randomness, evolution, intelligent design, someone, something). But considered as a secular text, the novel is more open to inquiry, more robust in its possibilities. The Castle as a metaphor for metaphors, as a projection of man's yearnings and desires. As metaphors are worth pursuing, interpreting (or head-scratching) then becomes an exercise of freedom. Which is to say: an exercise of happiness, in spite of the dark and the fog enclosing the hulking metaphoric structure. "How suicidal happiness can be!" (269), exclaimed one Castle employee, in a tone that was perhaps half-serious, half-mocking.

“It isn’t easy to understand exactly what she is saying, for one doesn’t know whether she is speaking ironically or seriously, it’s mostly serious, but sounds ironic.” “Stop interpreting everything!” said K. (205)

I hear you, K.

(Note: First posted in Project Dog-eared. This post is benefited by an online group discussion.)


  1. I think spiritual allegory is a big part of Kafka's allegory, along with satire on bureaucracy. But its such a dense novel, what with a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-like assistants and a lover with webbed hands. Kafka's 'America' is lighter, but also unfinished novel, well worth reading too.

  2. So I mentioned / linked to this on Twitter & David Auerbach thought you might like - or he mentioned and I thought you might like - a piece he wrote on The Trial.

  3. As I mentioned in one of my pieces on this book, anyone who says that he knows exactly what Kafka was getting at here is telling porky pies - it's allegorical alright, but of what exactly...

    Interesting to hear of parallels with 'The Unconsoled'. That book has been sitting on my shelves for far too long now - time to crack it open :)

    Of course, I decided to take a more light-hearted look at this back in November for the G-Lit month with my three-act play. Lots of familiar faces, both from the book and the blogging world!





  4. The link Tom posted (on the importance of doors in Kafka) is very intriguing. You really could spend a lifetime analysing his work - and many people do...

    I like Tom's new avatar too ;)

  5. The image of the boy in danger of being eaten by the sun is from a collection of Brothers Grimm illustrations, German circa 1900, courtesy of 50 Watts. Several other images were most tempting.

  6. Tom, it's like a reworking of the Icarus myth. Either way, the boy is toast.

    Great piece from waggish. The door as a fabric of K.-space. Thanks for linking and the link.

    Kevin, Amerika is on my visiting list. I was just wondering which translation to read, Harman's or Hofmann's.

  7. Tony, now I'm anticipating the theatrical piece you'll come up with for The Unconsoled. :p

    You really could spend a lifetime analysing his work.

    True. I'm thinking about students repeatedly defending their Kafka dissertations in front of a Castle-ish panel of academics. Scary.

  8. Tom - Grimm by name...

    Rise - "I'm thinking about students repeatedly defending their Kafka dissertations in front of a Castle-ish panel of academics. Scary.

    Funnily enough, I think you may enjoy my review(!) of 'The Trial'...


  9. A short film riffing off Kafka that might interest some of you - lots of doors http://www.imdb.com/video/wab/vi2772239129/

  10. Great! I'm about to watch it. Thanks for the film. And for this post's title, inspired by your previous mention of the Calvino book.