and Charles Dickens:
NOVELS of Charles Dickens were translated into German shortly
after their English publication. They were very popular. Franz
Kafka in the main admired Dickens writing. This admiration
shows through in Kafkas own novels, themselves written
in German. On reading The Trial or The Castle one
is struck by parallels with Charles Dickens novels, particularly
Bleak House. Bleak House was apparently written
fairly quickly, the construction coming to Dickens easily. I
know of no book where there is such a separation between a conscious
surface (with its winding and improbable plot and its characterization
based often upon living people) and its vast unconscious depth,
into which it is possible to submerge oneself endlessly, and
about which it is possible to say very little. The great engine
of the book is the Court of Chancery, to which all the characters
and events are in some way connected. The Court has become something
more more vast and cohesive than a human institution; it has
become ageless, even immortal: its immortality is thrown into
a stony relief by the longevity of the cases which pass before
it: some commenced before living memory. In the eyes of many
of the characterspoor, mad Miss Flite, for exampleit
has become nothing less than a sentient being in its own right.
This woman has no apparent connection with the Court (except
that she attends it) but she anticipates (and expects) that it
will intercede on her behalf. If the reader finds something of
the covertly religious in this, then how much more so in the
case of Gridley, the man from Shropshire, who, as the court rises
and its officials depart, cries out to the departing Chancellor:
'My Lord!' He is unanswered: his frantic beseeching is
only mocked by lawyers laughter.
It is not difficult to distinguish between the conscious surface and the unconscious depth (with its store of credible but unmeant metaphor) in Dickens Court of Chancery. How superficially similar but how deeply different is the Court in Kafkas The Trial. The surface structure of the novel is inseparable from the depth which supports it. In many ways surface and depth are interchangeable: on gazing at surface one is feeling in deep. (I am drawn to ponder the wit of Oscar Wildes assertion that only the superficial look beneath the surface.) In this world the surface is only a slicearbitrarily cut by the limiting phenomenon of personhoodthrough the substance of the deep. The surface is but a section through the deep which would otherwise be unseen. But all worlds are, it seems, like that.
A case falls silent in Dickens Chancery when the estate is eaten up in costs: thus all victories won through Chancery are hollow. The protagonist (and the accused) of The Trial is told that the Court is in session when he comes before it, and the Court is out of session when he leaves it. This has two meanings, each depending on the nature of the Court and the relationship between the Court and the accused. The surface meaning is that the accused decides the sitting of the Court. The deeper is that the Court is in session throughout the life of the accused: it begins its sessions before the accused knows of its existence: it finishes its business at the carrying out of the sentence. The deeper meaning, at the end of the book, becomes the surface, which, we now know, it always was, from the beginning.
David Wheldon, Bedford, Oct 2001
A first encounter with Franz Kafka
ONE EVENING in Oxford at about 10pm in the autumn of 1978 having taken the final samples from my bacterial cultures, I hung my white coat on the back of the door and put my treble recorder in the pocket. I left the Gibson Laboratories and walked across the Woodstock Road to The Royal Oak for a glass of beer.
Over the months and during the long periods of waiting between the sampling-times in the dark and empty laboratory I had worked on two novels. The first had no name I called it The Monastery Story and it was a rambling mass of paper, hardly thought out, hardly conscious. (It was published by The Bodley Head in 1986: still a muddle for all Euan Camerons editorial work.) The second novel was half-finished, but the rest was in my mind. It was a story about a man walking along an abandoned railway: his concern was to leave the place of his birth, to quit his origins. The railway, through being empty, was therefore full of all possibility: it was to be a line of thought, a linear perspectival place of all potentiality, high on an embankment above the ordinary world. Forever, in the minds eye, would be the vanishing-point towards which one journeys, and about which one might speculate but ultimately say nothing. And, on turning round, a similar past. The character I called A. The thought behind this was one of cipher: where A has gone, B and C will follow, and the dialect Aye, yes, it is, I, Adam, the first, one.
I met Charles Harmon in the Royal Oak. He was a biochemist, a good friend of mine. We had been to the same school. Over the beer he asked me to tell him about my writing. I gave him a brief resumé of The Monastery Story (I am not good at talking about my work: I seize up, cannot speak: in interviews tens of minutes can go by.)
The resumé went something
It is a metaphor for the way
in which we create an internal world, deep to the senses, that
inexactly mirrors and to some unknowable extent decides the perceived
The beer was finished: Time was called. Charles invited me back to his rooms, saying that he had a book to give me. He cycled: I ran. It was a wet evening. He handed me the book: it was Franz Kafkas The Castle; a paperback Penguin edition. Have you read this? he asked. No, I said. He lent me the book. I caught the last bus home, reading deeply during the journey. I remember exclaiming to myself, as the bus arrived at the top of Headington Hill: this contains truths so lucid they are nearly physical. I read the book during the night and finished it about five in the morning.
When The Viaduct came to be published (I didnt seek its publication: I lent the manuscript to a friend, and she submitted it to an agent without telling me) I raised my fears with Euan Cameron, editor at The Bodley Head. Readers will think that my A is taken from Kafkas K. He thought about this, and said, but you had not read Kafka when you wrote your work, and that is surely the end of the matter. Readers may think what they wish.
And thats the truth. The two works are indeed remarkably dissimilar. They were born in different ages. Anyone who thinks otherwise knows neither author well.
Well-known names in the canon of literature are popularly assigned the whole weight of their period. This is particularly so of the name of Franz Kafka. He was writing within the very anima of his time. Examples come quickly to mind: the damage which has been inflicted upon his characters before they even emerge onto the page: the damage which makes them clutch the slightest straws in a ship-wrecked continent: the damage which makes them frightful and fearful beings, who, in their anxiety to survive, will scar themselves further and will not hesitate to injure others. The very mechanicality of the ordering of the black-and-white cinematographic set (visual but unsighted) is in itself filled with purpose. The unpersoned but personal process begun long before the curtain rises; begun, a fearful thought, while the protagonist is still in the womb is found in so much writing, so many films and plays of the period: it is even found in the work of philosophers and demographers of the time. But this process was at its most clear in the work of Kafka, and Kafkas name has been chosen to bear its weight. The term Kafkaesque (originally of light-hearted coinage) says much. But, above and beyond all this, the certainty is that Kafka, as though he were one of his own characters, did not spare himself. And that was surely because with the same prescience accorded to Carl Jung he was able to find and write down a vision of the future, to see ahead, to grasp all that would lie over the terrible horizon: the unfolding machinery of inhuman destruction which was to grip Europe so quickly and so tightly, and by which so many of Kafkas own family were to die. Like other great writers he was able to stand at the horizon of his own sight.
Many of Kafkas characters face
a horizon which recedes at their approach; the horizon may be
that of distance, or of meaning, or of comprehension; that which
seems on the edge of being understood, strained by the exertion
of the approach, no longer means. The situation on the skyline,
which seems so distant and yet so clear to the Kafkan observer,
takes on a different and reductive character as he grows closer.
Closeness is cognate with baseness; remoteness with elevation
and purity. Time after time this occurs, metaphor upon metaphor:
the great bell of the inaccessible Castle sounds out like some
deep-voiced bourdon, while the bell from the village (to which
the protagonist has unlimited access) has a crazy, meaningless,
jangling quality. There is a kind of subtle counterflow of identity
here. That which is (so to speak) on the skyline and seen remotely
partakes of an identity imposed by the distant viewer; on his
approach and as more of its nature is revealed, its identity
appears to change; but the viewers conjectures do not necessarily
fall away as closer experience shows them to have been mistaken.
When he stands on the skyline of his own past he must confront
what he had seen distantly: he finds that it has no meaning.
This is alarming, because it is very true to life. One thinks
of the maxim living in hope; this maxim might have
been coined for the protagonist of The Castle: it might
be the reason why so many of Kafkas characters continue
their struggle: in the never-ending journey to define the recessionary
meaning of the horizon (of dimension, time, or self) they find
an uneasy reason for their being alive.
David Wheldon, Bedford, 1990