The Author: Franz Kafka (with help from Max Brod)
The Title: The Castle.
Here is Kafka’s last text, written in 1922. He asked his good friend, Max Brod, to burn it upon his death. Mr. Brod, an ever-loyal friend, didn’t do that; he published it instead. A good friend. Or I guess–more appropriately–a good friend? (With a question mark.)
Some say that Mr. Kafka knew that that would happen, that Mr. Brod had told him that he would publish it before. Some don’t say that.
Either way, here it is. That text.
So what of that text?
I don’t know much of Kafka, aside from the obvious; but it seems to me safe to think he was in love with the absurd. Something about a man waking up as a bug.
But then there’s this. It’s strange to say that this story, his final work—and not the story of bugs or that guy who was a starving artist in that he literally starved himself—is the one where Kafka takes absurdity to another level. Ok, fine, maybe such a statement is… wait for it… absurd, but hear me out. From the moment the protagonist, yes, absurdly named “K.”, arrives in town and is told that he cannot sleep in the village without permission from the king but that he cannot get permission because everyone, including the king, is asleep, we see it. Without man-bugs, this book still somehow manages to be absurd. Let’s be more precise, my English teachers have always told me. Ok, fine. Here, in this book (probably not all that different from Kafka’s Metamorphosis) it’s the absurdity of authority; that’s the focus here. Precisely. Everything here, in this book, is a power struggle. There are officials and servants and barmaids and landlords and everyone jockeys for position and no one can rest from it. No one—not even K., the one outsider—is immune from authority in this book just as no one is immune from the absurdity in this book, either.
So what’s it all mean?
It seems hard not to see this all–as with much of Mr. Kafka’s writing–as some sort of social commentary, offered up by our good friend (not in the Max Brod sense of good friend), Mr. Kafka. A critique on authority? Perhaps.
Everything authoritative seems absurd. A-ha! All of his writing seems to point toward that. Read it. His stories. It kind of makes sense.
But hold on, if this story–his final story–is one on the absurdity of authority, then the text is one on the absurdity of convention. The entire text, so obsessed with authority, subverts it entirely. You can see it in the pages. The paragraphs run on; the sentences run on; the story runs on. There are commas where there should be periods, the main character’s name is nothing more than an initial (K.), and a new character is introduced in the last paragraph. And in that famous final sentence (or, more accurately, sentence fragment), Mr. Kafka offers one final homage to disrespecting convention. And so the story ends mid sentence. A sentence forever unended.
It is all almost enough to makes us, dare I say, miss rules… and conventions… and order… and commas in the right places and periods and paragraph breaks, and etc.–all of which are forms of, yup, you got it, authority.
So there really are two stories here.
In one, we see a world where rules dominate. You cannot enter the Castle unless you’re invited. You must wait for meetings. You cannot enter a hall unless that is your role in society. In the other, we read of a world where there are no rules, just a breathless text, perforated with commas but not paragraphs.
Then there are the assistants, Jeremais and Arthur. The childlike assistants who are so over-the-top obedient while being simultaneously over-the-top subversive. They are the story of the Castle, obsessed with rules and authority and doing what they are told. But they are also the text, always seeming to be about authority but subverting it at the same time.
Perhaps, therein lies the rub. So maybe Mr. Kafka thinks authority’s pretty silly. But maybe, just maybe, despite how extreme everything seems, what Mr. Kafka finally decided about authority–and absurdity–is that there must a happy medium somewhere in between the two—a place in between the village and the Castle. And so his final answer in his final book in a career that spent a lot of time trying to figure all that stuff out: A happy medium.
After all, any other conclusion would just be absurd.