Critical Essays Composition and Reception of The Trial


Almost simultaneously with "In the Penal Colony," Kafka began to write The Trial in the summer of 1914, a date which has unfortunately convinced many people that the novel is primarily a work foreshadowing political terror. Of course, he was painfully aware of the interconnections between World War I and his own problems, but never in the sense that the novel was supposed to be a deliberate effort to write about the political scene.

From all we know, it is much closer to the facts to view The Trial in connection with the enormous tension under which he lived during his two years with Felice Bauer. It can be shown that especially his first engagement to her in June 1914, and his subsequent separation from her six weeks later found their expression in the novel: the engagement is reflected in K.'s arrest and his separation in K.'s execution. Even certain details fit easily: the initials F.B. are both Felice's and those Kafka used to abbreviate Fräulein Bürstner"; K.' s arrest takes place in Fräulein Bürstner's room, which he knows well, and Kafka's engagement took place in Felice's apartment, which he knew well; K. is asked to dress up for the occasion, strangers are watching, and the bank employees he knows are present; at Kafka's engagement, both friends and strangers were present — an aspect which the reserved Kafka abhorred particularly. Most significantly perhaps for a demonstration of the parallel, K. is permitted to remain at large after his arrest. In Kafka's diary we read that he "was tied like a criminal. If I had been put in chains and shoved in the corner with police guarding me . . . it would not have been worse. And that was my engagement." We can translate K.'s escort to his execution into Kafka's painful separation in Berlin: there Felice presided, their mutual friend Grete Bloch and Kafka's writer-friend Ernst Weiss defended him, but Kafka himself said nothing, only accepted the verdict.

At any rate, Kafka took great pains to record his emotional upheaval during these years, which largely coincides with his composition of The Trial. A selection of a few diary entries will do:

August 21, 1914: "Began with such high hopes, but was thrown back . . . today even more so."

August 29, 1914: "I must not rely on anything. I am alone."

October 10, 1914: "I've written little and poorly . . . that it would get this bad I had no way of knowing."

November 30, 1914: "I cannot go on. I have reached the final limit, in front of which I may well sit for years again — to start all over on a new story which would again remain unfinished. Their destiny haunts me."

January 18, 1915: "Started a new story because I am afraid to ruin the old ones. Now there are 4 or 5 stories standing up around me like horses before a circus director."

The main reasons Brod decided not to abide by his friend's request to burn certain fragments, preferably without reading them, are set forth in his Postscript to the First Edition of 1925, which includes Kafka's original request. Brod took the manuscript in 1920, separated the incomplete from the complete chapters after Kafka's death in 1924, arranged the order of chapters, and gave the piece the title it has, though Kafka himself used only the title to refer to the story without ever calling it The Trial. Brod admitted he had to use his own judgment arranging the chapters because they carried titles rather than numbers. Since Kafka had read most of the story to him, Brod was reasonably certain he proceeded correctly, something which had been doubted for a long time and was finally revised. Brod also recorded that Kafka himself regarded the story as unfinished, that a few scenes were supposed to have been placed before the final chapter to describe the workings of the secretive trial. Since Kafka repeatedly argued, according to Brod, that K.'s trial should never go to the highest level, the novel was really unfinishable or, which is the same, extendable ad infinitum.

When Brod edited The Trial posthumously in 1925, it did not have any repercussions, and, as late as 1928, there was no publisher to be found. It was Schocken, then located in Berlin, that ventured a publication of the complete works in 1935 — but Germany was already under Hitler's authority, and Kafka was Jewish. The whole Schocken Company was shut down by Goebbels's Ministry of Propaganda, and so it is not surprising that Kafka became known outside the German-speaking world first. Schocken Books, Inc., now located in New York, published The Trial in 1946.

There have been many well-known writers to recognize and extol Kafka's genius and his impact. Thomas Mann was among the first:

He was a dreamer and his writings are often conceived and formed in the manner of dreams. Down to comical details they imitate the alogical and breath-taking absurdities of dreams, these wondrous shadow games of life.

Albert Camus gets a little closer to the core of things:

We are here placed at the very limits of human thought. Indeed, in this work everything is essential, literally speaking. It certainly represents the problem of the absurd in its totality. . . . It is the fate and possibly also the greatness of this piece that it offers countless possibilities without affirming a single one.

And Hermann Hesse's exhortation reminds us that we should above all steer clear of modish talk about "Kafkaesque" horror:

Whoever is able to really read a poet, that is, without questions, without expecting intellectual or moral results, to absorb in simple readiness what he offers, will receive any answers he is looking for in Kafka's language. He gives us the dreams and visions of his lonely, difficult life, parables of his experiences, anxieties, and enthrallments.

Since the late forties, interpretations have swamped the "Kafka market." Generalizing a bit, one can say that they have all followed either the view of Kafka the artist, or Kafka the philosopher.

In 1947, André Gide and Jean-Louis Barrault came out with a well-received dramatization. The German version had its debut three years later. Gottfried von Einem composed an opera (libretto by Boris Blacher), which was first performed in Salzburg, Austria, in 1953. The most recent version is the film by Orson Welles (1962), with Anthony Perkins in the lead role. Though critics have held widely differing opinions on Welles' film — many charging it is more Welles than Kafka — its success seems justified because of all absence of symbolic or allegorical representation and its high-quality cinematic language.

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