What are Kafka’s fictions about? Are they dreams? Allegories? Symbols? Countless answers have been offered, but the essential mystery remains intact. Setting out on his own exploration, Roberto Calasso enters the flow, the tortuous movement, the physiology of Kafka’s work to discover why K. and Josef K.–the protagonists of The Castle and The Trial–are so radically different from any other character in the history of the novel, and to determine who, in the end, is K. The culmination of Calasso’s lifelong fascination with Kafka’s work, K. is also an unprecedented consideration of the mystery of Kafka himself.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I. The Saturnine Sovereign
At the beginning there's a wooden bridge covered with snow. Thick snow. K. lifts his eyes "toward what seemed to be emptiness," in die scheinbare Leere. Literally: "toward the seeming emptiness." He knows there's something out in that emptiness: the Castle. He's never seen it before. He might never set foot in it.
Kafka sensed that by then only the minimum number of elements of the surrounding world ought to be named. He plunged the sharpest Ockham's razor into the substance of the novel. To name the bare minimum, and in its pure literality. And why so? Because the world was turning back into a primeval forest, too fraught with strange noises and apparitions. Everything had too much power. Thus it became necessary to limit oneself to what lay closest at hand, to circumscribe the zone of the nameable. Then all that power, otherwise diffuse, would be channeled there, and whatever was namedan inn, a file, an office, a roomwould fill with unprecedented energy.
Kafka speaks of a world that precedes every division, every naming. It's not a sacred or divine world, nor a world abandoned by the sacred or the divine. It's a world that has yet to recognize such categories, to distinguish them from everything else. Or that no longer knows how to recognize them or distinguish them from everything else. All is a single unity, and it is simply power. Both the greatest good and the greatest evil are saturated with it. Kafka's subject is that mass of power, not yet differentiated, broken down into its elements. It is the shapeless body of Vritra, which contains the waters, before Indra runs it through with a thunderbolt.
The invisible has a mocking tendency to present itself as the visible, as if it might be distinguished from everything else, but only under certain circumstances, such as the clearing away of mist. Thus one is persuaded to treat it as the visibleand is immediately punished. But the illusion remains.
The Trial and The Castle are stories about attempts to deal with a case: to extricate oneself from prosecution, to have one's nomination confirmed. The point around which everything revolves is always election, the mystery of election, its impenetrable obscurity. In The Castle, K. desires electionand this thoroughly complicates every act. In The Trial, Josef K. wants to escape electionand this thoroughly complicates every act. To be chosen, to be condemned: two possible outcomes of the same process. Kafka's relationship to Judaism, every recess of which has been doggedly (often fruitlessly) examined, emerges most clearly on this point, which marks the essential difference between Judaism and what surrounded it. Much more so than monotheism or law or higher morality. For each of these, one can look to Egypt, Mesopotamia, or Greece for precedents and counterbalances. But the emphasis on electionthat's unique, and founded on a theology of the unique.
The court has the power to punish, the Castle, to elect. These two powers are perilously close, at times identical. More than anyone else, Kafka, thanks to atavism and inclination, had antennae to recognize them. No one else was so aware of their proximity, their overlap. But this wasn't only a matter of Jewish heritage. It had to do with everyone, and all times.
The Trial and The Castle share a premise: that election and condemnation are almost indistinguishable. That almost is why we have two novels rather than one. The elect and the condemned are the chosen, those who are singled out among the many, among everyone. Their isolation lies at the root of the anguish that engulfs them, whatever their fate.
The main difference is this: condemnation is always certain, election always uncertain. Unknown persons show up in Josef K.'s bedroom, devour his breakfast, and inform him that he's being prosecuted on criminal charges. The prosecution is itself already the sentence. And nothing could be as undeniable as that intrusion in front of witnesses. For K., on the other hand, doubt remains: had he really been named land surveyor? Was K. called, or did he only wish to be called? Is he the legitimate holder of an of ce, however modestor a braggart who claims a title that isn't his? On this point K., who is nimble and tenacious in his analyses, proves evasive. His history, prior to the "long, difficult voyage" that brought him to the Castle, remains murky. Had he received a summonsor did he set out on his voyage in order to obtain one? There's no way to know for certain. But there are many ways to aggravate and exacerbate the uncertainty.
The village superintendent tells K.: "You've been taken on as a land surveyor, as you say, but unfortunately we have no need for a surveyor." The cruelty is not in the final phrase but in the piercing "as you say." Nor do Castle authorities ever admit anything else, leaving open until the end the possibility that K.'s belief is delusory or simply feigned.
One fact only is certain, according to the superintendent, who likes to make clear that he is "not enough of an of cial"and therefore not of sufficient stature to handle such questionssince he is "a peasant and nothing more." And the fact is this: one day long ago a decree was issued ordering the appointment of a land surveyor. But that remote decree, which the superintendent would no doubt have forgotten had his illness not offered him the chance to "think back on the silliest matters," couldn't have had anything at all to do with K. Like all decrees, it hovered above everyone and everything, without specifying when and to whom it would be applied. And it has languished ever since among the papers crammed in the cabinet in the superintendent's bedroom. Though buried in that intimate, unsuitable place, it has maintained its irradiant energy.
But uncertainty's torment never ends. On one hand the superintendent continues to converse with K., implying that K. has good reasons for questioning him. On the other, he never goes so far as to recognize the legitimacy of K.'s claimand we've known at least since Hegel that the human animal requires only recognition. The superintendent continues: "Even your summoning was carefully considered; it was just a few incidental details that caused confusion." K.'s summoning, then, was in fact the object of reection on the part of the authoritiesbut what of their conclusion? Was K. ever called? It's a question the superintendent is careful not to answer.
A further stage of torment emerges when the superintendentwhile reconstructing the complex history of the decree to appoint a land surveyor and of the village's misdirected reply, issued by the superintendent himself, to that decree (a misdirected reply evidenced, according to the reconstruction, by an "empty envelope," now misplaced)lets it be understood that sometimes, especially "when a matter has been considered at great length," it may resolve itself "with lightning speed," "as if the official apparatus could no longer tolerate the tension," the prolonged irritation of the unresolved question, and so proceeded to eliminate it by reaching a decision "without the help of the officials." Such a possibility, therefore, does exist, as the superintendent himself admits. But could this be what has happened in K.'s case? Here again the superintendent retreats, offering no guarantees: "I don't know whether such a decision was reached in your casesome elements speak for it, others against."
K. appeals to two other pieces of evidence to support his appointment: the letter from the official Klamm, addressed to him, and the phone call from the Castle the night he first arrived at the Bridge Inn, and these alsoindeed these above allare cast into doubt. The letter from Klamm is (as the salutation alone makes plain) a personal letter, and thus worthless as an official declaration, even if it might be invaluable for other reasons. And the telephone communication can't be anything other than misleading, since "there is no definite telephone connection to the Castle." The murmur, the song that issues audibly from the phone as soon as any receiver is lifted in the village, is the Castle's only acoustic manifestation. It is indistinct and, moreover, nonlinguistic, a music composed of words gone back to their source in pure sonic matter, prior to and stripped of all meaning. The Castle communicates with the outside world through a continuous, indecipherable sound. "All the rest is misleading," says the superintendent. Starting, then, with the clear and limpid word. At this point, like a great academic who ends a seminar by sending the students off to other places and classes to continue their debates, the superintendent tells K.: "You should know by now that the question of your being called here is too diffcult for us to answer for you in the course of one little conversation." But all of life is no more than a "little conversation." And so the principle of the irrepressible uncertainty of election is once again affirmed.
The worlds of The Trial and The Castle run parallel to all other worlds but not to each other. Each is, rather, the extension of the other. Josef K. becomes K. Between them, a sentence and an execution. But the story is the sameand it keeps going. Now it's not someone else who comes looking for Josef K., but K. who goes looking for something. The terms are reversed. The climate changes but remains familiar. Women, officials, clothes. Long conversations, often terribly intimate, with strangers. A nagging feeling of estrangement. "I don't yet know a great deal about your legal system," says Josef K.despite the fact that at that moment he's in a suburb of his own city, whose legal system he, as chief officer of a bank, is used to dealing with every day. It's as if two incompatible laws hold sway simultaneously. This is strange, but for Josef K. it will quickly cease to seem so, and not just for him, but for the reader toowhich is stranger still. Nothing is further from The Trial than the sense of the fantastic, the visionary, the "extraordinary" that we might associate with Poe. Indeed for the reader the ever present suspicion is that it's a kind of verism. The reading catches the reader by surprise, just as the guard Franz, wearing his "travel clothes," catches Josef K. by surprise in the "riskiest moment of all": that of waking. The moment when one can be easily "dragged off," if one isn't prepared. And no one, on waking, is prepared. To be so, one would need to find oneself already in an office. As K. says to Mrs. Grubach, "For example, in the bank I'm prepared; something like this could never happen to me there."
The Trial and The Castle take place within the same psychic life. After the execution of his sentence, Josef K. reappears under the name K. and distances himself from the large city. The Castle is Josef K.'s bardo.
The world of the bardothat "intermediate state" that the Tibetan Book of the Dead teaches how to traversedoesn't look drastically different from the world of the living. But it doesn't easily permit return. Frieda's fantasy of running away with K.maybe "to the south of France or to Spain"seems as far-fetched and unattainable as a longing to live in the Egypt of the pharaohs. Entering the bardo, like entering a dream, requires only a slight twist of what is, but it's irreversible and skews all relations. The procedures of the court in Josef K.'s city bear an obvious kinship to those of the Castle administration, but nothing assures us that their objectives coincide. The only sure things are certain differences of style: at the Castle there is no need to expel or to kill, practices that The Trial's court, perhaps more primitive, still engages in. At the Castle, it's enough that life goes on. The simple passing of time is the judgment.
What distinguishes both The Trial and The Castle is that, from the first line to the last, they unfold on the threshold of a hidden world that one suspects is implicit in this world. Never had that threshold been such a thin line or so ubiquitous. Never had those two worlds been brought so terrifyingly close as to seem to touch. We can't say for sure whether that hidden world is good or evil, heavenly or hellish. The only evidence is something that overwhelms and envelops us. Like K., we alternate between ashes of lucidity and bouts of torpor, sometimes mistaking one for the other, with no one having the authority to correct us.
Compared with all other fictional characters, K. is potentiality itself. That's why his physical appearance can never be described, directly or indirectly. We don't even know whether he has "dark eyes" like his precursor, Josef K. And it isn't because K. undergoes, as Klamm does, continuous metamorphoses, but rather because K. is the shape of what happens.
December 1910a barren, sullen time. Kafka uses his diary now mainly to record observations on his own inability to write. "With what can I justify the fact that so far today I've written nothing? With nothing," we read in a fragment. And immediately after: "I hear in my head a continuous incantation: 'O were you to come, invisible tribunal!'"
With these words, as if he'd resorted to a powerful left-handed spell, Kafka crosses the threshold into the enclosed space of The Trial and The Castleand indeed of all the rest of his work. This is the site of his writing, where one awaits one's sentence, endures the delays of a never-ending case. It's an agonizing place, but the only one where Kafka knows he belongs. Newly arrived in the village beneath the Castle, having already been rebuffed and harassed, K. knows only that he has "come here to stay," as if any other kind of life were already closed to him. And he repeats: "I will stay here." Then, as if "talking to himself," he adds: "What could have drawn me to this wasteland, if not the desire to stay here." The "wasteland" is the Promised Land. And the Promised Land is the only land about which one can say, as K. does: "I cannot emigrate."
To be put on trial or to have dealings with the Castle is to enter into that hidden, dangerous, elusive life from which every other life issuesand of which every other life is only a poor counterfeit. The operation of a great bank, like the one where Josef K. works, with its bright offices, its spacious lobbies, and its corridors, imitates the sordid attic that houses the court officesnot the other way around. And one needs only to open the door to a junk room, in the bank's own offices, to find the court at work, as represented by a persecutor ("the flogger") and two victims. It is the court that encompasses daily lifenot daily life that accommodates the court.