The Trial by Franz Kafka, 1925

A few weeks ago, I realised that since I arrived in Australia, I barely read anything in my native language (which is French). I was so preoccupied by learning English that I was starting to forget my own language ( you know, that awkward moment when you’re talking to your sister and a word stays stuck in your head, you know it’s somewhere there but it refuses to get out). So I started, last week, with two short stories by Victor Hugo and then, while browsing through book clubs and blogs, I realised I had a big hole in my literature culture : no German or Russian authors. Since I don’t speak any of those languages and, a translation is a translation, I decided to read the German and Russian authors in French.

Like everybody else (at least in my high school), I read The Metamorphosis in high school and I remembered having a lot of fun with it. Therefore my first German or Russian author would be Kafka.

First, the usual enlightening facts about our author and his works. Franz Kafka was a German-speaking Austrian writer from the beginning of the 20th century. He was an avid reader and admitted to have been influenced by Dostoyevsky and Flaubert (pssssst go grab Madame Bovary, it’s an order!). He influenced the French literature from the middle of the 20th century (Sartre, Camus (go grab The Plague and The Stranger, it’s also an order ! ) and the American literature (Nabokov and Salinger (you know which one to grab this time). One of his specificities is to put the main character in an absurd situation that he accepts as being normal (Gregor Samsa isn’t surprised when he wakes up as a cockroach, Joseph K. isn’t surprised to find inspectors in his apartment when he wakes up). As it did in French, the word kafkaesque entered the English language to describe surreal situations.

His works have been praised by many critics and fellow authors. Nabokov considered him as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Gabriel Garcia Marquez said that reading Kafka’s The Metamorphosis showed him that it was possible to write in a different way.

Kafka started to write The Trial in 1914 but never finished it. Because of that, there are some inconsistencies (disparities in timing, discontinuities in the narration), but he wrote the final chapter, so the reader isn’t left hanging.

On the morning of his 30th birthday, Joseph K. wakes up in his room as usual. Though he notices two agents from an unspecified agency who arrest him for an unspecified crime. He is though authorized to go to work and to pursue his daily activities. He is summoned to a hearing in a very modest apartment (the apartment of one of the court employee) once. K makes a long speech about the inadequacy of the justice system but he isn’t asked anything about his case.

His uncle visits him and, trying to help him with his case, introduces to a lawyer. Everyone seems to know about his case. One of his clients even sends him to a painter who’s supposed to help him. The justice system, as the painter explains it to K., seems to be an absurd machine which doesn’t follow any logic.

One year later, he’s arrested by two agents and taken to a house outside the city. They stab him twice in the heart.

It was, once again, an unusual read. Kafka is a genre by himself. He starts with an absurd situation and lets the hero evolve in it as if it was completely normal. He leaves the reader with two choices, either he accepts, like the character, that the situation is normal and that he is placed in an alternative world, a world that doesn’t obey the same laws than ours; either the reader starts questioning the character’s sanity.

Either way, Kafka always leaves you with a feeling of insecurity, of discomfort.

I’d give it a 9/10 !

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2 thoughts on “The Trial by Franz Kafka, 1925

  1. The Trial is one of the highlights from high-school reading plan for me. I think that was when I started realising that good book is not a comfortable book – in fact, quite the opposite. And I think The Trial especially applies to the nowadays world – at least I quite often feel like I’m in some kind of kafkaesque corridors, where much of the world doesn’t seem to have rhyme nor reason. I especially enjoyed this little story inside the story – the one with all that talk and riddle at the gates. So glad you enjoyed it too!

    • That parable that the priest tries to explain to K is quite interesting and would worth a discussion with students… I often notice that innocent eyes (or younger eyes lol) were prompt to see what older, more experimented eyes miss.

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