Saturday, December 31, 2016

Rereading Kafka

I've mentioned before that there are so many books I still feel I need to read that I usually don't make time to reread books.  I make a few exceptions here and there, especially after a long stretch when the new (to me) fiction has largely been a disappointment.

Others have noted that often one finds something different in rereading, particularly if one is at a different stage of life.*  Characters that were simply boring (to a young reader) now may seem to have more wisdom or a prudence that may be somewhat more admirable (or simply sad if they remain overly cautious).  Julian Barnes has written an article about how he has completely re-evaluated E.M. Forster when coming to his novels in his (Barnes's) late middle-age.  (Barnes also parlayed this into a BBC 3 topic on The Essay.)

I wrote just a bit about struggling with new vs. older translations of Kafka, and I decided that I would reread the Muirs' translations of The Trial and The Castle, but the new translation of Amerika.  Down the road, I will probably read the new translation of The Trial, as it is a short work.  I am much less confident I will bother with The Castle, since I didn't like it nearly as much on the second go around.

I also reread a fair number of Kafka's stories in a new translation (this collection only translated the pieces that Kafka actually published in his lifetime, which is a bit limiting).  Generally, they held up quite well: often a bit eerie and almost always unsettling.

The Trial was also still quite compelling.  Having worked in several bureaucracies since having first read The Trial, you did have a sense that some things did appear random, particularly to outsiders.  There were a few things that I hadn't remembered, including the sexual frenzy of K., but also the climbing through a series of rooms/offices that were connected through their upper levels.  In this novel and in some of the parables, the impossibility of clearing one's name when one cannot even learn the charges becomes quite harrowing.  While K. does resist his fate from time to time, most of the time he seems swept up in a nightmare that makes no sense.

The Castle is a bit different.  We hear from K. from time to time that he admits he came to the village with no justification or authorization, and it was only by chance that he was told he was the Land-Surveyor.  I generally view him as voicing all the frustrations that Kafka would have liked to in the face of oppressive bureaucracy.  The bureaucracy is incompetent and mercurial, so why kowtow to it like the villagers did?  Blustering a bit may be the most sensible course of action for K.  That is surely how I saw it as a young man.

This time around, I see K. as unnecessarily argumentative and hard-headed.  He scorns pretty much all the advice he is given by the villagers and assumes he knows better than they, who have been living among the Castle gentlemen, and more specifically their secretaries, for generations.  I think some kind of middle path would have been a far more sensible approach.  At any rate, I had essentially no sympathy for him on this reading, and it seems fairly unlikely I will want to read a different translation to see if I have changed my mind yet again.  Anyway, that was a fairly big surprise to me from my rereading of Kafka.

I'll most likely tackle Amerika in late 2017 and will probably pick and choose from some of the stories in The Complete Stories, and I'll feel like I have done a sufficiently thorough second pass through Kafka and his major works.  Of all his writings, I'd say The Trial is the one that (unfortunately) really speaks to the human condition in modern Western society.

* I have found that I am generally a lot less interested in postmodern games than I was as a younger reader, though I still find Auster's The New York Trilogy a worthy achievement.

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