Trial (Kafka)

The Trial
Franz Kafka, 1925 (posthumous)
Schocken Books - Random House
304 pp.
ISBN: 9780805209990

Written in 1914, The Trial is one of the most important novels of the twentieth century: the terrifying tale of Josef K., a respectable bank officer who is suddenly and inexplicably arrested and must defend himself against a charge about which he can get no information.

Whether read as an existential tale, a parable, or a prophecy of the excesses of modern bureaucracy wedded to the madness of totalitarianism, Kafka's nightmare has resonated with chilling truth for generations of readers. This new edition is based upon the work of an international team of experts who have restored the text, the sequence of chapters, and their division to create a version that is as close as possible to the way the author left it.

In his brilliant translation, Breon Mitchell masterfully reproduces the distinctive poetics of Kafka's prose, revealing a novel that is as full of energy and power as it was when it was first written. (From the Schocken-Random House edition.)

Author Bio
Birth—July 3, 1888
Where—Prague, Austria-Hungary
Death—3 June, 1924
Where—Kierling (near Vienna), Austria
Education—Doctorate of Law, Charles-
   Ferdinand University of Prague

Franz Kafka was an influential German-language author of novels and short stories. Contemporary critics and academics, including Vladimir Nabokov, regard Kafka as one of the best writers of the 20th century. The term "Kafkaesque" has become part of the English language.

Most of Kafka's writing, including the large body of his unfinished work, was published posthumously.

Franz Kafka was born into a middle-class Ashkenazi Jewish family in Prague (now the Czech Republic). His father, Hermann Kafka (1852–1931), was described as a "huge, selfish, overbearing businessman" and by Kafka himself as "a true Kafka in strength, health, appetite, loudness of voice, eloquence, self-satisfaction, worldly dominance, endurance, presence of mind, [and] knowledge of human nature." Hermann was the fourth child of Jacob Kafka, a shochet or ritual slaughterer, and came to Prague from Osek, a Czech-speaking Jewish village near Písek in southern Bohemia. After working as a traveling sales representative, he established himself as an independent retailer of men's and women's fancy goods and accessories, employing up to 15 people and using a jackdaw (kavka in Czech) as his business logo. Kafka's mother, Julie (1856–1934), was the daughter of Jakob Lowy, a prosperous brewer in Podebrady, and was better educated than her husband.

Franz was the eldest of six children. He had two younger brothers: Georg and Heinrich, who died at the ages of fifteen months and seven months, respectively, before Franz was seven; and three younger sisters, Gabriele ("Ellie") (1889–1944), Valerie ("Valli") (1890–1944) and Ottilie ("Ottla") (1892–1943). On business days, both parents were absent from the home. Franz's mother helped to manage her husband's business and worked in it as many as 12 hours a day. The children were largely reared by a series of governesses and servants. Kafka's relationship with his father was troubled, as described in the "Letter to His Father" in which he complained of being profoundly affected by his father's authoritarian and demanding character.

Admitted to the Charles-Ferdinand University of Prague, Kafka first studied chemistry, but switched after two weeks to law. This offered a range of career possibilities, which pleased his father, and required a longer course of study that gave Kafka time to take classes in German studies and art history. At the university, he joined a student club, which organized literary events, readings and other activities. In the end of his first year of studies, he met Max Brod, who would become a close friend of his throughout his life, together with the journalist Felix Weltsch, who also studied law. Kafka obtained the degree of Doctor of Law on 18 June 1906 and performed an obligatory year of unpaid service as law clerk for the Civil and criminal courts.

On 1 November 1907, he was hired at the Assicurazioni Generali, an Italian insurance company, where he worked for nearly a year. His correspondence during that period witnesses that he was unhappy with his working time schedule—from 8 a.m. (8:00) until 6 p.m. (18:00)—as it made it extremely difficult for him to concentrate on his writing.

On 15 July 1908, he resigned, and two weeks later found more congenial employment with the Worker's Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia. The job involved investigating personal injury to industrial workers, such as lost fingers or limbs, and assessing compensation. Industrial accidents of this kind were commonplace at this time. Management professor Peter Drucker credits Kafka with developing the first civilian hard hat while he was employed at the Worker's Accident Insurance Institute, but this is not supported by any document from his employer.

His father often referred to his son's job as insurance officer as a "Brotberuf," literally "bread job", a job done only to pay the bills. While Kafka often claimed that he despised the job, he was a diligent and capable employee. He was also given the task of compiling and composing the annual report and was reportedly quite proud of the results, sending copies to friends and family.

During this time, Kafka was also committed to his literary work. Together with his close friends Max Brod and Felix Weltsch, these three were called "Der enge Prager Kreis", the close-knit Prague circle, which was part of a broader Prague Circle, a loosely knit group of German-Jewish writers who contributed to the culturally fertile soil of Prague from the 1880s till after World War I.

Later years
In 1912, at Max Brod's home, Kafka met Felice Bauer, who lived in Berlin and worked as a representative for a dictaphone company. Over the next five years they corresponded a great deal, met occasionally, and were engaged twice. Their relationship finally ended in 1917.

That same year, Kafka began to suffer from tuberculosis, which required frequent convalescence during which he was supported by his family, most notably his sister Ottla. Despite his fear of being perceived as both physically and mentally repulsive, he impressed others with his boyish, neat and austere good looks, a quiet and cool demeanor, obvious intelligence and dry sense of humor.

From 1920 Kafka developed an intense relationship with Czech journalist and writer Milena Jesenska. In July 1923, throughout a vacation to Graal-Muritz on the Baltic Sea, he met Dora Diamant and briefly moved to Berlin in the hope of distancing himself from his family's influence to concentrate on his writing. In Berlin, he lived with Diamant, a 25-year-old kindergarten teacher from an orthodox Jewish family, who was independent enough to have escaped her past in the ghetto. She became his lover, and influenced Kafka's interest in the Talmud.

Kafka's tuberculosis worsened and he returned to Prague. He went to Dr. Hoffmann's sanatorium in Kierling near Vienna for treatment, where he died on 3 June 1924, apparently from starvation. The condition of Kafka's throat made eating too painful for him, and since parenteral nutrition had not yet been developed, there was no way to feed him. He was one month shy of his 41st birthday.

(Kafka's sisters perished during During World War II. The Nazi Germans deported them with their families to the Lodz Ghetto where they died. Ottla, the oldest, was sent to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt. On 7 October 1943 she was transferred to the death camp at Auschwitz.)

Literary career
Kafka's writing attracted little attention until after his death. During his lifetime, he published only a few short stories. He finished the novella "The Metamorphosis," but never finished any of his full length novels. Kafka left his published and unpublished work to his friend and literary executor Max Brod with explicit instructions that it should be destroyed on his (Kafka's) death; Kafka wrote: "Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me ... in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others'), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread."

Brod decided to ignore this request and went on to publish the novels and collected works between 1925 and 1935. The remaining papers were consigned to suitcases which he carried with him when he fled to Palestine in 1939. (Kafka's lover, Dora Diamant, also ignored his wishes, secretly keeping up to 20 notebooks and 35 letters until they were confiscated by the Gestapo in 1933. An ongoing international search is being conducted for these missing Kafka papers.) Brod, in fact, would oversee the publication of most of Kafka's work in his possession, which soon began to attract attention and high critical regard.

Max Brod encountered significant difficulty in compiling Kafka's notebooks into any chronological order as Kafka was known to start writing in the middle of notebooks, from the last page towards the first, etc.

All of Kafka's published works, except several letters he wrote in Czech to Milena Jesenska, were written in German. (Adapted from Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
The story of The Trial's publication is almost as fascinating as the novel itself. Kafka intended his parable of alienation in a mysterious bureaucracy to be burned, along with the rest of his diaries and manuscripts, after his death in 1924. Yet his friend Max Brod pressed forward to prepare The Trial and the rest of his papers for publication. When the Nazis came to power, publication of Jewish writers such as Kafka was forbidden; Kafka's writings, many of which have distinctively Jewish themes, did not find a broad audience until after World War II. (Hannah Arendt once observed that although "during his lifetime he could not make a decent living, [Kafka] will now keep generations of intellectuals both gainfully employed and well-fed.") Among the current crop of Kafka heirs is Breon Mitchell, the translator of this edition of The Trial. Rather than tidying up Kafka's unconventional grammar and punctuation (as previous translators have done), Mitchell captures the loose, uneasy, even uncomfortable constructions of Kafka's original story. His translation technique is the only way to convey the comedy and confusion of this narrative, in which Josef K., "without having done anything truly wrong," is arrested, tried, convicted and executed—on a charge that is never disclosed to him.
Michael Joseph Gross - Amazon Reviews

Kafka's final work was left unfinished at the time of his 1924 death, and the original 1925 and subsequent editions were edited according to the standards of the day. This edition endeavors to restore the text as closely as possible to the original manuscript. According to the publisher, "This translation makes slight changes in the chapter divisions and sequence of chapter fragments." In addition to the text, this volume includes a bibliography and a chronology of the author's life.b
Library Journal

Breon Mitchell's translation is an accomplishment of the highest order that will honor Kafka far into the twenty-first century.
Walter Abish - Author, How German Is It

Discussion Questions
The following questions are taken from a Random House Teachers Guide. Do take time to read the guide's Note to Teachers found on the Random House website.

1. “Arrest”

Analyze the novel’s first sentence, paying particular attention to the use of the passive voice (“ he was arrested”) and the lack of clear information about the origin of this slander (“someone”) or the nature of his guilt (“anything truly wrong”). In what ways does this sentence establish a pattern for Josef K.’s passivity and for what happens to him in the novel as a whole?

Discuss the significance of Josef K.’s name. Why doesn’t he have a full family name? Is “K.” a symbol for Kafka? But then why isn’t K.’s first name “Franz” (which is actually the name of one of the men who arrest him)? Discuss the other characters’ names, noting the use of family names for some characters (“Titorelli,” “Huld,” “Fraulein Burstner”) and first names for others (“Leni” or “Elsa”). Where does this place Josef K.?

Describe the men who arrest and interrogate Josef K. Are they policemen? What authority do they represent? When K. questions his arrest, he is told: “There’s been no mistake. [Our department] doesn’t seek out guilt among the general population, but, as the Law states, is attracted by guilt and has to send us guards out. That’s the Law” (pp. 8-9). In other words, “guilt” seems to precede an actual criminal act. You may want to discuss the biblical symbolism of Josef K.’s eating an apple for breakfast (p. 10), keeping in mind that the German term in the novel’s opening sentence (translated as “wrong”) can also mean “bad” or “evil.”

Why does Josef K. decide to “play along” with his arrest, even though the men who arrest him never show him any proof of their authority and he thinks it might be a “farce”? Does he behave as if he had a guilty conscience? What do we know about his past life and his family?

One of the unsettling aspects of K.’s arrest is its public nature. Strange men enter his bedroom, neighbors watch through the window while he is arrested, even his colleagues from the bank turn out to be present. Have students comment on this situation of constant surveillance. How does it influence the way K. reacts? Does he become “paranoid”?

2. Conversation with Frau Grubach / Then Fraulein Burstner

K.’s landlady, Frau Grubach, seems to know quite a bit about his arrest. Whose side do you think she’s on? What does K. think? What do we learn about K.’s private life in this chapter? about his neighbors in the boarding house? When Frau Grubach calls into question Frauelein Burstner’s morality, K. exclaims “if you want to run a clean house, you’ll have to start by giving me notice.” Why? And why does he “assault” Fraulein Burstner, a woman he hardly knows, lapping at her face like a “thirsty animal” and planting a long “vampire” kiss on her throat?

3. Initial Inquiry

How is K. summoned to his first inquiry? By whom? Describe the part of the city and the strange building in which it takes place. What are the social conditions of the people living here? Describe the meeting that takes place in the large hall and what K. gradually learns about the Court. K. accuses the examining magistrate of giving secret signals to someone in the audience; is this true? What happens to the washerwoman? How would you characterize K.’s frame of mind when he leaves the assembly?

4. In the Empty Courtroom/ The Student / The Offices

Why does K. decide to return to the courtroom the following Sunday even though he hasn’t been summoned? Contrary to his expectations, the assembly room is empty. Describe the strange, uncanny impression made by an empty room that was full of people in the preceding chapter. Discuss the significance of the room’s physical dirtiness and the lascivious books he finds there. What conclusions does K. draw concerning the nature of the Court? What does he learn from the washerwoman? K. almost passes out from the hot, stuffy air in the narrow corridors of the court? Discuss.

5. The Flogger

Describe the strange clothing worn by the flogger and the two guards that K. finds in the “junk room” of his bank. Why are they being punished? Does K. want to help the guards? How does the flogger describe their actions? Is this a sado-masochistic scene of punishment and humiliation? Does it reflect on the cruelty and submissiveness of other characters in the novel?

The day after this encounter, K. returns to the junk room and opens the door “as if by habit”; but instead of the expected darkness, he finds everything as before, with the flogger ready to beat the guards. Bring out the strangeness of this fact. How can we account for it realistically? Is it a dream?

6. The Uncle / Leni

What do we learn about K.’s family based on his discussions with his uncle? Why is his uncle worried about K.’s trial? K. and his uncle visit the lawyer Huld in the evening; the maid Leni greets them with a candle and takes them into Huld’s dark bedroom, where he is sick in bed. How do these physical details set the scene for K.’s legal defense? Why is K. disturbed to learn that Huld seems to be informed about his trial? Comment on the swiftness with which K. and Leni develop an intimate relationship. What do you make of her webbed hand and of K.’s description of it as “a pretty claw”? What does the uncle think of K.’s liaison with Leni and its effect on his trial?

7. Lawyer/ Manufacturer / Painter

The second paragraph of this chapter describing K.’s conversations with his lawyer lasts for ten full pages (pp. 110-122) and is summed up by the words “In such and similar speeches the lawyer was inexhaustible.” What is the effect on K. and the reader of this interminable paragraph? Does K.’s trial seem endless? How do K.’s worries about his trial affect his work at the bank?

What relations does Titorelli the painter have to the Court and K.’s trial? Is this his real name? Describe the section of town where Titorelli resides, his neighbors, and the building he lives in. What role do the girls play in their meeting? Does their physical deformity say anything about their moral character?

Titorelli is working on a portrait of a Court judge that has a dark figure in the background; he explains that the figure has been commissioned to represent “Justice and the goddess of Victory in one” (p. 145). What does this combination say about the nature of K.’s trial? What does Titorelli explain to K. about the possibility of winning a case?

8. Block, the Merchant / Dismissal of the Lawyer

At the beginning of this chapter K. seems ready to dismiss his lawyer. What does he discover in Huld’s house that makes him doubt his decision? How does K. behave toward the merchant Block? How do Leni and Huld treat him? What distinguishes K. from Block? Will he look and act like Block at a later stage in his trial? Can K. count on Leni’s support?

9. In the Cathedral

Discuss the importance of the cathedral setting for this chapter. What elements suggest a relationship between Josef K.’s trial and the crucifixion of Christ? The priest identifies himself as the “prison chaplain”; comment on this combination of the Church and the Court. Why does the priest describe K.’s tourist guidebook as full of “irrelevancies” and tell him to put it aside? What does he think about K.’s relations with women?

Discuss the parable “Before the Law” (pp. 215-17). Who is the “man from the country”? Describe the doorkeeper and his relationship to the Law. Why doesn’t the man from the country go in? Has he made a mistake? What does Josef K. learn about his own trial from this story? Note the complexity of the discussion between K. and the priest following the parable, which some critics have compared to rabbinical commentary of the Bible. Comment on K.’s final statement that “Lies are made into a universal system” (p. 223), and on the priest’s parting words to K. that “The court wants nothing from you. It receives you when you come and dismisses you when you go.” (p. 224) Does this mean that K.’s “trial” is self-inflicted?

10. The End

Describe K.’s clothing in the opening of the chapter; how does it relate to the clothing he put on at the beginning of his trial? Describe the men who take K. away, noting K.’s description of them as “supporting actors” and its relation to his initial decision to “play along” with the “farce” or “comedy.” Do you find it odd that he seems to expect them and know what they will do to him? Describe the fleeting appearance of the woman that K. takes to be Fraulein Burstner. Discuss K.’s final questions upon noticing a human figure in the distance: “Who was it? A friend? A good person? Someone who cared? Someone who wanted to help? [...] Where was the judge he’d never seen? Where was the high court he’d never reached?” (pp. 230-31).

What makes K.’s execution so horrific? K. thinks he dies “like a dog!” Why? Discuss the importance of shame, reputation, and one’s “good name” in the novel in light of this scene. Does the execution reflect badly on K. or on the Court? Whose side are you on? Does Kafka make it clear which side we should be on?
(Questions issued by Random House.)

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