“Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!”–Samuel Beckett sums up a reader’s experience of Kafka’s “The Castle”

A few weeks ago (and it was longer ago than it should have been, because I had a real difficulty forcing myself back to Franz Kafka’s The Castle every time I put it down), I decided that since Kafka is so very important to existentialism and existentialism is not only so monumental in 20th century thought but is also still healthy and well in portions of some contemporary novels, books, and plays, I should read him.  The only Kafka I’d read before was “The Metamorphosis,” and I quite enjoyed it, so I expected equally well to enjoy The Castle.  Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for my finally getting the point of the book), it was no such thing!

After the first few chapters, I found the book painful to pick up (in the attention-span sense), excruciating to make my way through, and delightful to put down.  I read it at long intervals interspersed with other things of more interest and apparent moment, and took it as in the old days people took their castor oil in the spring, as a sort of needful and necessary tonic.  Definitely I appreciated all the variety and color of the other works I was reading much, much more by contast with The Castle.  Not making it any easier was the fact that there were insertions which had to be made periodically and read with the understanding that they had been in one version of the book and not in another, and the book’s tangled history of revision and translation was against me, was, in fact, truly Kafkaesque (now I really, really know what that word means whereas before I merely threw it around as a synonym for “existential”; there is a difference, because “Kafkaesque” means something more like “existential” plus “evilly absurd and apparently pointless, though endlessly involved”).

The basic situation is even too complicated to explain at length, though I’ll make a start at it:  “K.,” the main character, is travelling at night and comes to an inn where he is allowed to stay on a bag of straw in the parlor.  But in the middle of the night, a castellan from a previously unmentioned castle which dominates village protocol wakes him and insists that he does not have the right to stay without permission from the castle itself.  Though there has been no previous statement that K. is a land-surveyor on the way to a job, and in fact he doesn’t at first even seem to know where he is, he says that he has been called to do work, and they take him at his word!  The castle, when contacted over the phone, even acknowledges that he has been called.  From there on, the absurdities rapidly proliferate, with different bureaucrats from the castle and village endlessly complicating the affair by the good or bad ways in which they receive K., and the manner in which they quickly change the tenor of their remarks to him from favorable to unfavorable at the drop of a hat.  Each man and woman, it seems, has a vision of his or her own importance to the castle, and though they seem always to understand amongst themselves how the game of changing places and importances is played, K. himself remains on the outside, always at the mercy of whomever he happens to be speaking to at the moment and their quick-change artists’ psychologies, even when he is talking to Frieda, a woman to whom (for once acting as quickly as the rest) he has become affianced.  Nor does this connection avail him of anything much but a momentary peace, however, for his relationship with Frieda unravels nearly as easily as the rest, and he goes on trying to find other routes than Frieda to Klamm, an important bureaucrat whose previous involvement with Frieda he’d hoped to capitalize on in order to get ahead.

I did read the book until the end, and read the revisions, and deleted passages, and continuations.  One of the more intriguing bits of information which has accumulated about the book is that Kafka said (to his friend and executor Max Brod) before he himself died that he was planning to have K. the land-surveyor be told on his deathbed that though he himself had not technically acquired a legal place in the village, because of “‘certain auxiliary circumstances'” it is going to be allowed for him to stay there.  It’s been a long time since I’ve been so glad to see the end of any book I’ve read.  And I have to recognize that so many people before me can’t be wrong:  the book is a monumental work of art (and is monumentally boring as well).  It’s one of those works of art that once done, cannot be done again in a like manner by anyone else, though I’ve run across lots of books now which have been called “Kafkaesque.”

Then, my mind was jogged by Thomas Mann’s tribute to Kafka, in which he called The Castle one of Kafka’s “warmhearted fantasies” and suggested that like The Trial it might cause people to break into open laughter if they heard it read aloud.  I remembered my frustration with the book: was I really so off-target?  After all, when I thought of Samuel Beckett’s remark from “Waiting for Godot,” (“Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!”), isn’t that the reaction I was actually having?  And the fact is that even though people are constantly coming and going in Kafka’s book, nothing really happens!  The awfulness I was so in angst over was what was making others capable of laughter in Mann’s view!  The only end that is really suitable to the whole experience is the one Kafka confided to Brod before his own death, and later recanted about, also to Brod, telling him that he planned to leave the work unfinished!  Now, finally, I understood.

There is, however, another darker side to the book, and it’s one which I would give myself credit for having apprehended from the start.  It’s the notion which I’ve seen articulated in several places, that evil is not really a derring-do procedure of demons and imps and ghosts and horrible hallows; evil can, in fact, have something boring and procedural about it.  The lack of moral imagination and dullness of mind which endless days and nights of bureaucratically following an unscrupulous leader bring about, for example, might be mentioned.  Hannah Arendt has mentioned them, in reference to Eichmann, in Eichmann in Jerusalem:  A Report on the Banality of Evil.  There, she says, “It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lessons that this long course in human wickedness had taught us–the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”  How many people in concentration camps must’ve been affected by the way in which, when they appealed to human empathy, to their Gods, even, it might have seemed that “nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes” (except Death), until the final devastating end of the war, when the great insults and affronteries that human life had borne became so evident that no one could deny or ignore them anymore?  And it’s still much the same today:  the same calculations of number of bullets and guns needed, number of missiles at the ready, the same mind-numbing statistics about casualties to one side’s or the other’s blame, the same helplessness of refugees and starving peoples, and the recurrent mutilations of the weak and innocent, and we continue the evil pattern.  Even Kafka, though he and his friends apparently laughed until tears came when he read them his other great work, The Trial, which Thomas Mann tells us “deals explicitly with the problem of divine justice,” might have been stricken to silence and have been unable to laugh.


Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

2 responses to ““Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!”–Samuel Beckett sums up a reader’s experience of Kafka’s “The Castle”

  1. Well… here’s one book I can bump down on my reading list. Thanks for the review! And I wonder what Beckett thought about Kafka… certainly some of Beckett’s prose is just as excruciating as you say that Kafka’s is here…!


    • Kafka’s suffers from some problems that Beckett doesn’t, however. Kafka was mid-translation when something came up with the translators, I believe they died, or didn’t have all of the manuscript, or something (sorry to be so vague, I read the preface and intro weeks ago). Then a new translator or two took over. And some of the terminology has been changed a few times. Thomas Mann wrote an appreciation of the book which appears in some editions and not in others which might help spur your enthusiasm, except of course that an appreciation is by definition praise. I guess my disappointment stems from the fact that so many things that are by contemporary definition absurdist and existential have been referred to as “Kafkaesque” that I thought he was the fount of wisdom, when he was just the trickle that got it all started.


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