To Write or to Love, to Be or to Fail

kafka schloss.jpg

Franz Kafka: Das Schloss (English title: The Castle) ISBN 978-3-596-90456-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ ⭐️ A surveyor comes to a village and tries to gain access to a castle and the clerks who seem to work there. His name is K. He fails. K. is confronted with the hostility of the local population. He is an alien, and aliens are not welcome. Aliens disturb the established order, by not knowing the rules, by not fitting in, by not having a defined place in society. At the same time K. becomes a victim of auto-suggestion in a way people fall victim today to conspiracy theories. The population of the village stands in awe before the clerks, though it is not known whether they have any leverage over people’s destiny. The surveyor imagines a battle with the invisible clerks and interprets events only within this mental framework.

The unfinished novel deals with social isolation, loss of control, the feeling of being manipulated by an opaque system, elements that today trigger fear among the vulnerable parts of Western populations and contribute to the success of populists and extremists. Kafka started to work on this novel in 1922 after he had suffered a collapse, triggered by a worsening lung tuberculosis. At the same time he felt the constant need to assess whether he had made the right choices in his life. He wrote the first two chapters from his own perspective: I, Franz Kafka. While he was working on the third chapter, he switched to the third person singular: K. Why? His biographer Reiner Stach hints at the fact he was about to describe an erotic scene.

The novel deals with another issue: the essence of social relations. In Kafka’s novel, the surveyor tries to get to know people who may help him gain access to the castle. Some of the people in the village switch sides for the same reason. They try to manipulate K. for their own personal goals. The utilitarian aspect eclipses the emotional content of human relationships. Kafka had difficulties with people. With almost all people. His family, especially his father, his friend Max Brod, for whom he felt at times deep friendship and at other the need to distance himself. His relations with women were rides on a psychological roller-coaster and marked more by fantasies than by an acknowledgment of the facts.

Kafka’s novel “Das Schloss” certainly is the most mysterious one. Many interpretations have been advanced, most of them focus on what the castle may stand for. Kafka had told Brod the broad lines of the end – K. dies of exhaustion and solitude – and he interpreted the castle as a symbol for the mercy of God. Kafka identified himself with his Jewish origin and was sympathetic to the Zionist cause, but he had no substantial religious feelings. Psychologists, linguists and sociologist have came forth with different ideas about the novel’s meaning.

I have come up with an idea of my own and you are at liberty to reject it. The castle could stand for something that Kafka longed for and failed to achieve: a true, symbiotic relationship with a woman he could respect, venerate and live with. Love, actually. Kafka’s relationships with women were permenantly interfered with: He was thrown off course by his own dilemma of having to chose between writing and marrying his fiancée Felice Bauer, by his desire to be alone and to be with someone, by the moral codex of his and Felice’s parents, by historical events like World War I, a deteriorating health and his at times excentric way of life and sexual anxiety. The sheer number of obstacles on the way to happiness is a central element to understand Kafka’s life and a key idea of “Das Schloss”. And Kafka enjoyed a few happy moments with Felice in a Czech hotel of the name of “Schloss Balmoral”.

I think one of the great strengths of Kafka’s novel is the fact that a number of different interpretations are possible. Modern art makes the audience, the spectator, the reader part of a piece of art, and as such any reader can find his own truth in “Das Schloss”. Kafka could not stop thinking about himself; if his novel made readers think about themselves, their place in society, the essence of their existence, I think he would have been pleased.

Another strength is the language. Towards the end of his career, Kafka had developed a way of writing that not only became his hallmark, but also defined a new style as such, the language of modernity. He focused on the essence of words like some composers focuse on the essence of single notes, omitting any ornament, writing in a totally unadorned, almost bureaucratic style. At the same time, his style is never boring, Kafka develops momentum, tension, beauty even, and keeps the reader under the spell of his words, without distracting or manipulating his perception.

Kafka’s technique has two effects: First, he gives the reader a frame and a canvas with a few silhouettes, the reader’s fantasy is supposed to fill in the rest. Second, his style also confers the oppressive emotions that penetrate the story, emotions originating in the modern industrial and bureaucratic age, where life is governed by forces that the individual can not control or understand. Both effects taken together make thecreading of “Das Schloss” fascinating. It is a mysterious work, but a masterwork nonetheless.

Music that leads me to reflect my life, my past, my possible future, the meaning I give my existence – there are quite a few pieces that come to my mind. I will settle today for a little known and little played composer: Nikolai Medtner and his Sonatina in G major:

Exploring parallel universes

2 thoughts on “To Write or to Love, to Be or to Fail”

  1. Aaargh! It’s the second time I’m trying to leave a comment! Let’s see if the system allows it this time.

    You’ve inspired me to read Kafka. I confess I have never read him properly. School put me off many authors. I hated teachers telling us what to think/how to feel about a book before I’d even read it.

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