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Defector Reads A Book

This Blog May Or May Not Be A Place To Talk About Franz Kafka’s ‘The Castle’

Cover image: Schocken

Welcome back to Defector Reads A Book! Our June DRAB selection was Franz Kafka’s novel The Castle, which the Defector book sickos have read and discussed. We’ll be down in the comments to chat with you as soon as you’re done reading

Maitreyi Anantharaman: I think it was very prescient of Kafka to write a novel all about my ongoing battle to get my tax refund from the IRS. 

Giri Nathan: It was definitely also the mindset I needed to get into as I sweated in my apartment for several consecutive 100 degree days. Just the go-getter mentality I needed. Really makes you feel that daily tasks are possible.

Kelsey McKinney: This is interesting because I read this on the 100 degree days and it made me feel like I too should “dream of a grave, deep and narrow, where we could clasp each other in our arms as with clamps, and I would hide my face in you and you would hide your face in me, and nobody would ever see us any more.” The fight is not worth it! Let’s sleep.

MA: I’m excited to talk with you both about The Castle. I think this is the first DRAB selection I hadn’t read before—for that matter, it was also the first Kafka I’d read, which is a kind of embarrassing gap in my reading history. (Now I want to read all of it!) Anyway, I was hoping you two could explain this book and Kafka’s deal to me. 

GN: Cool brag. But it is definitely a weird one to start with! 

KM: Wow, huge brag. This was the first Kafka I’ve read with a fully formed prefrontal cortex, but I went into it thinking about The Metamorphosis and how surreal and weird it was. I guess I expected this book not to turn the main character into a bug exactly but to have the same kind of science fiction additives. It did kind of but the spooky stuff is more about LIVING IN A SOCIETY.

GN: Yeah. There are a lot of surface similarities with his other novel The Trial, which is also about a guy wandering through a hopeless bureaucracy, but this one is even more governed by dream logic and offers even fewer footholds for both the protagonist and reader to make sense of the world he’s building. It’s like the DMV on DMT.

KM: Can we talk about the bureaucracy a little bit more? Something I found very interesting about this book is that I feel like emotionally it’s doing something a little more complicated than anything I’ve ever felt at the DMV. At the DMV I feel only frustrated. But here there is an initial frustration that left me feeling I guess destabilized? Emotional? Like I had woken up from a dream I was certain was real and only in retrospect realized was terrible.

MA: It felt to me like a devastating novelized Monty Python sketch. 

GN: Reading him I’m often teetering between laughing and wanting to puke. I did laugh out loud several times in this one. I can’t think of another writer who straddles that very strange emotional border quite like he does. And this time it’s less with the pure body horror (like throwing an apple so hard at your bug-shaped family member that it embeds in his shell) and more about the social misery of trying to advance your standing in a community.

MA: Right. It’s very funny, end to end. There’s that bit with the landlady forbidding him to talk about her clothes in the final few pages that had me wheezing. But the story’s also quite affecting. Our protagonist, K., arrives in this village, no one is especially helpful to him, though it becomes less and less clear how anyone could actually be helpful to him or what he’s really looking for, and along the way (in the span of what, a week?), he forms these bizarrely close, intense relationships. “I came here in order to stay here,” he tells Frieda, in what I thought was one of the lovelier chapters. He does badly want to belong to this community, but all his efforts to understand how he might even try to belong just alienate him and upset everyone else. 

KM: Gardena! My favorite part about the landlady is that she’s Klamm’s ex-mistress! What a fun dynamic she and K have where he’s like “I want to meet your ex” and she’s like “NOOOOO! I love him don’ttttttt.” I did not, to be honest, ever understand what exactly K was there to do. Did I just miss this or do we think that’s intentional?

GN: The glancing mentions of the timeframe are extremely trippy. There’s one maybe two-thirds in, and then another one at the very end, that suggest K. has been there for a single week. And the question of what he is trying to do is a good one. At the beginning, he’s there to work what he thinks is a job waiting for him, as a surveyor. And there are a few passages—though not that many—that explain his motivations to stay, that suggest that he doesn’t have much money and traveled quite far, and put a lot at stake to take this job, and has to make something work—but at some point his desire to stay, to infiltrate the Castle, just defies normal plot logic. 

MA: Is he there as a land surveyor? Or is he lying? That’s the funny part; K. sort of plays the straight man to the various village kooks, but how can we be sure we don’t have it the wrong way around?  

KM: What even is a land surveyor? I agree, Maitreyi!  Kafka writes that “now in reality he were freer than he had ever been and at liberty to wait here in this place usually forbidden to him as long as he desired, and had won a freedom such as hardly anybody else had ever succeeded in winning.” When I read this section, which so drastically flips into saying “at the same time there was nothing more senseless, more hopeless, than this freedom, this waiting, this inviolability,” it was like a reminder that maybe K. is the kook! Maybe these people are avoiding him for a reason! 

GN: One of my favorite things about Kafka is that he smothers you with details about work—the clerical parts, the logistical parts, the psychological parts—without ever actually telling you what work anyone is doing, physically. Like what the hell is K. even doing, even if he was nominally working as a surveyor. What are the gentlemen doing with all these papers. Only the barmaid is doing something recognizable as work. I have no idea how he does it.

MA: Yes! It is an incredible writing feat. There is so much dialogue, so much talking, but you come to the end of these gargantuan paragraphs and tortured explanations and are still, like, was anything actually said here? Another thing I found funny is that basically everyone speaks in the same way, too; there’s not really any distinguishing between characters based on their monologues.  

KM: This is maybe a galaxy brain take, but I really loved the descriptions about the work, because this whole quest to the castle is futile, and for some reason early on in reading the book, I got it in my brain that the castle was like, sacred, and that the pursuit of this gothic castle was like some kind of faith journey?? I may be totally off base in this reading into the text but I loved that he was doing all of this to like very questionable success. 

GN: That is definitely a fair reading! Because what else is he doing but making a (bizarre, probably pointless, possibly life-consuming) leap of faith? And yes—everyone talks exactly the same. They all deliver these pages-long exhaustive accounts of their machinations, only to be met with another character’s slightly different and equally laborious account of the same events, and they all think in these profoundly bleak chess-moves-ahead way, and no gesture is ever taken at face value.

KM: oh no what if they aren’t real and the monologues are all by K? Help. 

MA: It’s like a very bad RPG! 

GN: God, now I need the Kafka RPG. 

MA: It’s sidequests all the way down.

KM: I really liked that though! I know that limited and switching perspectives are really common and maybe overdone in modern literature, but I thought it was really interesting that Kafka gave us these little insights into how other people positioned themselves at the center of the story, as the main character of their own sidequest. But of course it’s all in dialogue so like … can you even believe it? Can you believe anything?

GN: I think the comic peak of the novel is when K. is talking to a literal schoolchild, Hans Brunswick, who you think might be below (or above?) all this pathetic maneuvering and jockeying for position, who might genuinely want to help K. out of some sense of innocent generosity, and they have this cute conversation in the schoolroom where K. and Frieda are like stroking his hair and joking around with him, and then at the very end of the chapter it’s like, nah, Hans has exactly the same chessboard perspective on K. as everyone else, one of total condescension and antagonism and perverse curiosity: “What was so especially childish and precocious about this wish was that Hans looked down on K. as though on a younger child whose future extended beyond his own, the future of a small boy.” But, unlike the rest, he does somehow think K. is capable of overcoming his low station: he believed that “K., low and frightening though he was right now, would, if only in the almost inconceivably distant future, outstrip everyone else.” So he’s like … damn this dude is really weird and gross but he’s got some upside, let’s see what happens to him. I’ll sign him to a 10-day.

KM: The whole thing to me is about how fucking alone K. is, how he is just looking for companionship, how he wants this like full relationship with someone who could understand him and respect him, and instead everyone is just like “oh my god this fucking guy.” He’s dismissive of almost everyone he meets and when he does give people a chance there’s so much stress even in the way it’s written. I’m not really adding anything here, I just think you’re right, Giri. 

MA: I think I’m slightly less sympathetic to K.—he’s definitely using other people, but yes, he’s a terribly sad character. You can’t really think about this book for too long without feeling sad, just the centerlessness of this society. What is this! What is any of this?!

GN: One feature I like is that we’re drawn into K.’s perspective without necessarily having to take his side. He, like everyone else, becomes part of this horrible web of schemes, where everyone is building relationships in hopes of leveraging them against some rival, with the broader aim of getting some slightly less dehumanizing job, to lift themselves out of whatever disgrace their family slipped into, and nobody really knows the rules of the game but everyone will die before they stop playing it.

KM: It does feel like half the characters in this book are assistants and all of them have terrible bosses. But it’s also about how work is really futile, that even at that top tier, your job cannot satisfy you. K. says about Klamm that “the bigger the job is, and Klamm’s job is, of course, the biggest, the less strength is left over for protecting oneself against the external world and as a result any unimportant alteration in the most unimportant things can be a serious disturbance.” K. says that people with these important jobs should be protected from any inconvenience because of this sensitivity, but it read to me more as just a different hell you don’t know. 

MA: Giri, I think that’s a perfect way of putting it. You can find the whole Castle apparatus sort of funny and absurd at first, because it is; whenever K. catches some glimpse of it, the glimpse underwhelms him. He meets the supposedly powerful chairman, who is actually like bedridden and in some kind of Woodrow and Edith Wilson arrangement with his wife, and we later find out, not powerful at all. The physical Castle itself is even a letdown. Everything about the Castle seems extremely inefficient and bumbling. But! Then you hear Amalia’s story, of what happened to her family when she rejected the crude advances of a Castle-affiliated official, and you begin to see its real, terrifying power. The Castle can pretty swiftly ruin a family’s life. There’s nothing at the center of it, nobody knows the rules, but you can definitely lose. 

GN: Klamm is an incredible figure. I have to say my brief experiences with “access journalism” are not unlike K. waiting in the snow for hours to see if Klamm will emerge or not. You will arrange your life around the whims of some indecisive rich person. You never know if he’s going to show up or not, but you know he definitely has better stuff to be doing, whereas you could not possibly have anything more important than this one task and the check it brings.

KM: Hahahahhahha. The Castle is a story about Taxing the Rich amiright? But really the part that kills me is that no one even knows what they are doing in there. Like what do billionaires do all day? It can’t be anything that important! It seems easy!

GN: The Castle is a story about working for an Amazon warehouse and trying to meet up with your pal Jeff Bezos.

MA: Yeah, Kelsey! Even Barnabas goes inside the Castle, but then he’s not really sure if he’s actually inside the Castle or what anyone is doing or if Klamm is really Klamm. I wondered on occasion how aware these people are of its fundamental emptiness. We do get K. chuckling at the chairman’s long-winded explanation of the land surveyor summoning mix-up, which K. says “amuses me…only because it gives me some insight into the ridiculous tangle that may under certain circumstances determine a person’s life.” But that doesn’t really stop him from trying to satisfy the Castle’s authority. It’s the same with the Barnabas family; Amalia is clear-headed enough to see that she can opt out of this whole thing, but the rest of her family has gone nuts trying to resolve the irresolvable. 

KM: One of the best burns in the book that made me laugh is when it says that Amalia “keeps her motives locked in her own bosom and no one will ever get at them. Freida, on the other hand, has done nothing at all remarkable.” And then IMMEDIATELY it says “I don’t want to belittle her.” like hmmmmm. But you did. 

GN: I love when they’re sizing each other up for impenetrable paragraphs at a time. A lot of good burns get in. Yeah, Amalia has figured out the best course of action is to just take care of her sickly parents and handle all the household tasks. Meanwhile her sister Olga and Barnabas are hustling every minute of every day, at great psychological cost. Remember when K. noticed how nice Barnabas’s clothes were? Olga made them just so he could resemble the official Castle clothes, and she’s worried she didn’t do a good enough job, because it’s very important that he fakes his way into a real messenger gig! So much of this book is spent thinking about how to look the part, whether the part is delivering messages or assisting K. or serving the gentleman beer. And a lot of that has to do with deception through clothing. It appears to be an entire society arranged around the axiom “fake it ‘til you make it.” And it’s kind of fitting, even though this book ends mid-sentence, that this version ends with the landlady’s bizarre showboating about her wardrobe.

KM: The ending sentence really did something to me. When I was learning to write in school, I feel like we were always being given prompts that were kind of like this to start us off where there were a couple sentences and then one just ended midway through. So I had a kind of anxiety response to the sentence dropping off, but then the more I sat with it, the more fitting it felt. Like we want this completeness. We want everything wrapped up. It is human nature to desire everything explained at the end, and Kafka is just so uninterested in that as a concept. Even though that’s not why the book ends in the middle of a sentence, it just felt really fitting to me that you can’t know. You can’t have certainty. 

MA: We’re left to kind of reverse justify the book being unfinished, I suppose, but I agree that it felt fitting. My thought was that this book could be much shorter, because nothing really happens, and also could be much longer, because nothing really happens. There’s basically no reason it would ever need to end. So I like that the mid-sentence ending gives it this sense of infiniteness. 

GN: I think Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and literary executor, had a note suggesting that Kafka wanted it to end with K. on his deathbed, finally getting permission to live and work in the castle, so, given that we were only a week into K.’s stay here, Kafka probably had like 600 more pages in him. 

MA: Did either of you read the Mark Harman translation? (I know it’s a different spelling, but I liked imagining this dude doing NCIS by day and translating German literature by night.) I was amused by his translator’s note, which began with him saying he had “no desire to malign the translations of the Muirs,” the earliest translators of Kafka’s into English, and then spent the next several pages maligning the translations of the Muirs. 

GN: I read the Harman, yeah, and I did also laugh at his prickly note. What stuck out to me most about his translation was the stringing together of complete sentences with commas, in a technically ungrammatical way in English. Harman talks about Kafka omitting most punctuation in the original text, besides commas and the occasional period. And the note at the end, which went with the German critical edition, relates Kafka’s lightness of punctuation to the “predominantly oral quality of his narrative style.” He cared a lot about how his work sounded when read aloud, less about how it looked on the page.

KM: No! I read the Muir! The despised Muir! But I did like it. I guess I don’t know any better, though. 

MA: Skip, you KNOW I am sensitive to Willa and Edwin Muir. 

GN: BUT! I have only read Muir translations of Kafka before and I really liked all of them. I noticed that Kelsey got the landlady’s actual name, whereas we just knew her as “landlady.” I wonder why that choice was made?

MA: I should go take a look at the Muir translation, because I was curious about Harman’s accusation that they “tone down the modernity” of the novel, which really came through for me in this version. I did, once again, DRAB-brain myself into making an F. Scott Fitzgerald comparison. There’s one description of Olga I jotted down for that reason: “…her voice now seemed to echo not the victories of her life but its infinite disappointments.” 

GN: This sentence, in the middle of Pepi defending the maids from accusations of theft, felt like a tweet: “What interest could girls have in files?” 

KM: Honestly, none! I have 0 interest in files. 

MA: lol

GN: I laughed as I read it. And while I am on the subject of laughing, I want to correct a claim I made earlier, which is that the conversation with the child was the funniest part, because the funniest part came just before that, when the teachers opened the classroom and K., Frieda, and the two assistants were all still sleeping in disarray, kind of all lying on top of each other in a gross way, and then K. and Frieda have to wake up and quickly clean up and “prod the assistants, who seemed dazed by all this, to get dressed, ordering them, pushing them, and to some extent even dressing them themselves,” which did have me lol’ing, as did many of the scenes with the assistants, who are perfect, and useless, my favorite characters in the novel. The revelation that an official sent them to K. purely to make him feel better is even better. They were there for comic relief! K.’s in theory, but in practice, ours. In general I really like the idea of (Samer, don’t read this) subordinates who make your life much harder because of the micro-management they demand. I wonder what Kafka thought of his boss.

KM: I assume he hated his boss! But I also found the idea that all these wonderful assistants are doing these not only completely meaningless jobs but at the same time making everything harder for K. and the others. The assistants are seizing the means of production but simply jamming up the machine at every single opportunity, and I am forced to respect them for this. 

GN: The notion, towards the end, that they are much smarter than they appear, and were working in coordination with their childhood friend Frieda to manipulate K., was also very funny to me. Because they spent the preceding 300 pages bungling basic tasks and creeping around and waiting outside doors that K. has locked them out of, but maybe it really was all in service of their broader agenda. One of them ends up shacking up with K.’s fiancée. Even the apparently dumbest and least conniving people around the Castle still have an agenda. I think even the schoolteacher’s fat old cat had an agenda. 

DRAB will be in the comments for the next couple of days to hear your thoughts and chat with you. If you missed out on this month’s book, don’t worry! July is a new month and we’ll announce our next pick soon.