Bookstore Dreams and Nightmarescapes: The Trial, by Franz Kafka

A couple weeks ago, I had a bookstore dream. (It happened in Seattle, a place with its own reason for bookstore dreams.) In my dream, I was a little upset, see, because I was growing tired of a long-standing arrangement which had a bookstore being set up in my apartment living room every weekend. Who knows how long this had been going on, but I was tired of it. Why? Because their merchandise was getting mixed up with my own personal book collection, such that I was coming home to find books missing from my bookshelf, having been sold accidentally to my living-room bookstore’s clientele (which, apparently, I had no shares, rent, or financial stake in). Most annoyingly, I was missing single books from trilogy collections: The Golden Compass, The Rosy Crucifixion, The Lord of the Rings. Just one or two from each. I was working up the nerve to tell the living-room bookstore staff to please keep their books separate from mine, before the dream melted back into unconsciousness or some other dream, and was thus never resolved.

As a dream, this was less a nightmare than it was simply absurd. The fact that I so willingly accepted the premise that my living room was a bookstore, in retrospect, revealed the total unreality of the memory. But were that absurdity to be transposed onto real life—if such things happened, if there was such a lack of respect for reality that a retail business could be set up, sans permission, in my personal space—it would be a nightmare, wouldn’t it?

Like, Kafka-esque.

Purchased at Half Price Books (Berkeley). Vintage Books, 1964.

Purchased at Half Price Books (Berkeley). Vintage Books, 1964.

I’d never read Franz Kafka. I knew him as the waking-up-as-a-bug guy. I knew him as an overused adjective (Kafka-esque, successfully skewed in an episode of the now-defunct animated show “Mission Hill”). I knew him from Jorge Luis Borges’ essay “Kafka and His Precursors,” in which Borges argues, intriguingly, that an artist creates his own predecessors, who previously have no reason to be thought of as part of a continuous tradition. Most of all, I knew that his shit was supposed to be weird.

The Trial is like one long nightmare. It’s very similar to Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, which together seem to form a tradition of early 20th-century European surrealist imprisonment literature. Except that unlike Nabokov’s Cincinnatus C., Joseph K., Kafka’s protagonist, is never actually imprisoned, in the literal sense.

Instead, at the beginning of The Trial, Joseph K. comes home to find that he has been accused of a crime by the Court and will, at some undefined point in the future, face trial for it. He is not imprisoned. He is not told the nature of his crime or its punishment. He is simply allowed to go on living his life, knowing that someday, he will have a trial.

The rest of the book follows K. through his tribulations as he goes about his normal life working in a bank downtown while also trying to work out his legal defense and learn the ins and outs of the courts. K. learns that the Court is basically a horrifying, immovable bureaucracy:

“For although the pettiest lawyer might be to some extent capable of analyzing the state of things in the Court, it never occurred to the lawyers that they should suggest or insist on any improvements in the system, while—and this was very characteristic—almost every accused man, even quite simple people among them, discovered from the earliest stages a passion for suggesting reforms which often wasted time and energy that could have been better employed in other directions. The only sensible thing was to adapt oneself to existing conditions. Even if it were possible to alter a detail for the better here or there—but it was simple madness to think of it—any benefit arising from that would profit clients in the future only, while one’s own interests would be immeasurably injured by attracting the attention of the ever-vengeful officials. Anything rather than that!” (151)

K.’s reality often becomes surreal—absurd—and this is unsettling, to say the least. His visits to Court buildings and his dealings with those who work for the Courts—and, increasingly, those who don’t but end up having weird connections to them anyway—have a disorienting effect. The buildings themselves are labyrinthine and oppressively stuffy. All of the people K. meets seem less like subjective figures with their own thoughts, feelings, and ambitions than they do simulated humans who exist only to play a part—or a conspiracy—in K.’s life: dream-people. (Shuddery.) And everything, ultimately, seems to lead back to the Courts.

This is how I picture dream-people.

This is how I picture dream-people.

The most absurd, and hence the most nightmarish, part for me was when K. visits a painter who might have some inside connections that will help him navigate the Court. He drives way out to an obscure part of town, climbs a winding, claustrophobic staircase followed by a trio of silly whispering teenage girls, then enters the painter’s strange apartment, where the painter is working on a portrait of a judge that “strikingly resembled the portrait hanging in the lawyer’s office.”

The apartment is very stuffy, and at one point during their conversation the painter offers to open a door; the door he indicates is, oddly, in the wall behind his bed, partway blocked, and K. hadn’t even noticed it until that point. (Like in dreams when things are one way, then they abruptly change, but you have to accept that they’d been that second way the whole time and it’s maybe your cognizance and not the reality that is flawed.)

After a long conversation with the painter, K. finally decides he must leave, and this is where it gets really freaky. The painter for the first time opens the door behind his bed, saying, “Don’t be afraid to step on the bed”:

“K. would not have hesitated to do it even without his invitation, he had actually set one foot plump in the middle of the feather bed, but when he looked out through the open door he drew his foot back again. ‘What’s this?’ he asked the painter. ‘What are you surprised at?’ returned the painter, surprised in his turn. ‘These are the Law Court offices. Didn’t you know that there were Law Court offices here? There are Law Court offices in almost every attic, why should this be an exception? My studio really belongs to the Law Court offices, but the Court has put it at my disposal.’ It was not so much the discovery of the Law Court offices that startled K.; he was much more startled at himself, at his complete ignorance of all things concerning the Court.” (205)

What a twist!

I guess it freaked me out because not only did this turn of events have a haunting, conspiratorial effect—that K. cannot go anywhere without being within the Court’s grasp—it also represented a lack of respect for reality, giving all of K.’s movements through the narrative a surreal, absurdist, practically Escher-ist (maybe Charlie Kaufman-ian?) bent. How could there be law offices in this tall, unwieldy apartment slum, in this forgotten part of town? What kind of architecture would support this unexpected addition just outside the painter’s high-floor studio, which K. had come upon by a different entrance altogether?

Spoilers ahead.

The story ends with the inevitable: K. is executed for his unnamed crime. He never learns how to appropriately pass through the Court system—and it’s just as well, because along the way he met several other accused men who had been facing trial for years and were, while still alive/free, virtual prisoners to the system, at the complete mercy of the lawyers and judges and officials of the Court.

The last passage, in which K. is led by his two executioners to a quarry to face his punishment, is striking. K. looks up and sees a human figure lean out of a distant window with arms outstretched:

“Who was it? A friend? A good man? Someone who sympathized? Someone who wanted to help? Was it one person only? Or was it mankind?… Where was the Judge whom he had never seen? Where was the High Court, to which he had never penetrated? He raised his hands and spread out all his fingers.

“But the hands of one of the partners were already at K.’s throat, while the other thrust the knife deep into his heart and turned it there twice. With failing eyes K. could still see the two of them immediately before him, cheek leaning against cheek, watching the final act. ‘Like a dog!’ he said; it was as if the shame of it must outlive him.” (285-286)

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One response

  1. I liked the Trial. In my quest to read the top 100 fiction books of the last century, I picked up what is probably Kafka’s seminal work. (this was listed at number 92) I found this book to be a somewhat poignant discussion of how our society judges people, how perception is reality, and how in life, you rarely get a fair trial. I also saw Kafka’s work as unique and unlike any of the other books I’ve read on the top 100 list. Kafka’s style is straight-forward and concise and his sentences are packed with meaning. There really isn’t a lot of superfluous verbiage or flowery, overly-descriptive prose. As with most of the classics, this book is worthwhile if you’re looking to get something out of it beyond the storyline.

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