An amazing book, and how lucky I got to read it in the Czech Republic! I had it for kindle, translated by John Williams I think, so I may have to read the alternative translations. A little fan-girl of me perhaps, but to be reading it as we explored Prague’s castle and the Kafka Museum (which I wrote about here) was brilliant really. Though also existentially terrifying, as I find all of Kafka.
The book opens with a concrete description of the castle, a clear vision of its place and structure as well as the clarity available to those living at that height, but one that becomes more and more complicated as he gets closer to it:
Now, he could see the Castle above him clearly defined in the glittering air, its outline made still more definite by the moulding of snow covering it in a thin layer. There seemed to be much less snow up there on the hill than down in the village, where K. found progress as laborious as on the main road the previous day. Here the heavy snowdrifts reached right up to the cottage windows and began again on the low roofs, but up on the hill everything soared light and free into the air, or at least so it appeared from down below.
On the whole this distant prospect of the Castle satisfied K.’s expectations. It was neither an old stronghold nor a new mansion, but a rambling pile consisting of innumerable small buildings closely packed together and of one or two storeys; if K. had not known that it was a castle he might have taken it for a little town.
This shifts into a more mundane reality of village homes, churches, streets. But always the Castle itself remains something always seen yet always out of reach, an impossible distance to cover. K. walks and walks, yet overcome by strange weariness and drifts of snow, he turns aside. Day by day the castle becomes ever more distant, unreal yet at the same time ever more powerful in its oppression of his spirit and his circumstances.
The castle is home to rarefied beings, almost supernatural in their powers over those in the village and their effect on them. Controlling K.’s fate is Klamm, yet he is as out of reach as the castle, and K.’s attempts to contact him are the stuff of daily nightmares. K. crosses boundaries and suffers the consequences — for example here, in a hidden courtyard he waits for Klamm to enter his waiting sleigh. Instead the coachman eventually leaves K. alone in the darkness, turning off the lights as Klamm cannot, will not face K. This transgression of space is unforgivable and brings with it a Pyrrhic sense of defeat in victory:
…it seemed to K. as if all contact with him had been broken off, as if he were now freer than ever, as if he could wait here in this otherwise forbidden place as long as he wished; as if he had fought for this freedom as few others could have done, as if no one could touch him or drive him away, or even speak to him, and yet at the same time — and this conviction was at least as strong–as if there were nothing more senseless, more desolate than this freedom, this waiting, this invulnerability (loc 1792).
Above all remains the split between Castle and village, rulers and ruled at varying degrees of distance. There is a visual refinement in the faces of those who have been there, particularly the women singled out for gentlemen’s pleasures. Government is designed to preserve and enhance this split. The landlady tells K.
‘Herr Momus is Klamm’s secretary like any of his other secretaries, but his office and, if I am not mistaken, his official duties too…’ Momus, still writing, shook his head vigorously, and the landlady corrected herself: ‘Well, only his office is confined to the village, but not his official duties. Herr Momus deals with the written work relating to the Village…That’s the way it is; all the gentlemen from the Castle have their village secretaries.’ (loc 1841)
Absolute power reflected in the weakness and uselessness of petty officials. K. only seeks to be informed of his work, his purpose. Instead he is told by letter:
To the surveyor of Bruckenhof. The surveys you have made so far meet with my approval. The work done by the assistants is also commendable… (loc 1953)
He has done no work. He has been given no direction. The assistants are mad. Sill, it is the interview with Olga, sister to the messenger Barnabas, that I found the key to it all in my own mind. I was completely surprised by what was essentially an attempted rape at the centre…a letter demanding a village girl come to a Castle gentleman, her refusal at the heart of the entire family’s destruction. K.’s involvement in it all by extension. It is an extraordinary thing I thought, to find in this bewildering maze of rural geography and bureaucracy and madness. Something so much more real than in The Trial or the Metamorphasis, just as K. is better defined and more sure of himself. Yet K.’s initial outrage changes, shifts, softens to accommodate itself to Olga’s views, the villagers’ beliefs, and it all falls back into the nightmare as Olga continues to describe their desperation and scheming. After the museum, though, I was particularly focused on the geography, and these descriptions of barriers formal and informal, physical and mental, visible and invisible are so fascinating, they almost make me want to study the geographies of bureaucracy–or paranoia:
…it gives us doubts about everything. Is it really Castle work that he is doing, we ask; he goes to the offices, certainly, but are the offices actually part of the Castle? And even if there are offices that are part of the Castle, are those the offices he is allowed into? He’s admitted into some offices, but only some of them, then there are barriers, and behind these are more offices. He’s not actually forbidden to go any further, but he can’t go any further once he’s seen his superiors and they have dealt with him and sent him away. What’s more, you’re watched all the time up there, at least that’s what we believe. And even if he did go further on, what good would it do him if he had no official business there; he would just be an intruder. And you mustn’t imagine these barriers as a hard and fast divide, Barnabas is always reminding me of that. There are also barriers in the offices he visits, so there are some barriers he goes through, and they look no different from the ones he has not yet gone through, and so it can’t be assumed that the offices behind these barriers are any different from the ones Barnabas has been in (loc 2775).
It isn’t just the geography of bureaucracy that is opaque, confused, unreadable. Barnabas works for Klamm, he thinks, yet no one can ever be sure even just of Klamm’s appearance, so at times he is not even sure of that:
…all these differences are due to magic, they are quite understandable because they depend on the present mood, the level of excitement, the countless degrees of hope or despair on the part of the observer, who is in any case only able to catch a momentary glimpse of Klamm (loc 2809).
And so we come to the greatest fear of all perhaps, the method of governance instilling the idea that if one were only stronger, more connected, wiser, everything would be all right. That it is all your own fault:
What I mean by all this is that something is there, Barnabas is being offered something, at least something, and it’s his own fault if all he can get out of it is doubt, fear and hopelessness (loc 2923).
And all of it an exercise in collective (mis)understanding, world building:
Olga’s story was revealing such a vast, almost unbelievable world to him that he could not resist intruding on it with his own little adventure, in order to convince himself of the existence of her world as well as that of his own experience (loc 3402).
I loved most of all that amazing nighttime meeting in the bureaucrat’s hotel wing, which is itself an incredible description of physical space that is as much mental space, constricting, suffocating, claustrophobic:
Here everything was small but elegantly constructed, and space was used to the best advantage. The corridor was just high enough for them to walk upright. Along the sides was a series of doors almost next to each other. The side walls did not reach right up to the ceiling, no doubt to provide ventilation, for the tiny rooms along this deep cellar-like corridor probably had no windows. The disadvantage of these walls that were open at the top was that the noise in the corridor must have been heard in the rooms too (loc 3790).
Everything is concealed, bewildering, yet at the same time there can be no privacy:
The servant climbed onto K.’s shoulders and looked over the gap above the wall into the room. ‘He’s lying on his bed’ (loc 3803)
K. is betrayed by his own weakness, his own tiredness, he cannot take advantage of the interviews he obtains. And then follows the most brilliant of all scenes: the men pushing the carts, distributing folders, the opening and slamming of doors, whispered negotiations, hands emerging from rooms, peeping through cracks and recriminations. K.’s very presence throwing everything into complete chaos as no one can bear to let themselves be seen, much less spoken to.
It ends in mid sentence — I didn’t know that when I started, so it was an almost vertiginous ending. Kafka couldn’t find his way to the ending, I know the feeling, and I’m not sure it could have ended. I found the beginning quite terrifying in its way, but that steadily dropped off, you can feel the tension unwinding somehow, even as it gets more interesting in other ways.
There is so much more here — as always — but being in Prague and reading this, I am thinking most about Kafka and space and remember I found this in the museum:
…Kafka carries out a more difficult operation: he turns Prague into an imaginary topography which transcends the fallacy of realism. Kafka’s phantasmal architecture has other ends. Rather than a particular house, school, office, church, prison or castle being important, it is what these constructions reveal when they act as topological metaphors or allegorical places. What surprises does this transfigured Prague hold in store? Just how far can the metamorphosis of a city take us?
I think they do act as metaphors and allegorical places…in some ways I think they are also ways of imagining the barriers and impassible places in our own minds and actions. But the castle of Prague itself makes some concrete sense of this as well perhaps, the relationship between writer and city a dialectical one. Prague’s castle is no one large building surrounded by defensible stone walls that I would imagine from living in England or Scotland. We looked for it and I’m not sure when we actually found it, entered it, reached the castle. You go through this splendid arch just off the Charles bridge
And you wander up and always up past a whole lot of Baroque magnificence, becoming more magnificent the higher up the hill you get. You go up a whole lot of steps and suddenly you are there, and walking through stately home sort of buildings to get to the splendidly gothic St Vitus’s Cathedral, which is surrounded by this labyrinthine pomp and what seems like administrative space. Maybe. But there is palace after palace up there, making sense of homes for the many named and revered Castle gentlemen. It is not until you are walking along part of the backside that you really get a sense that this is in any way the defensible space I associate with the word Castle — or was once:
There are some fake turreted kind of battlements at the top awash with tourists, but there you can also get a real feel of just how high above, how far removed this castle complex is from the rest of Prague:
Instead it seemed a collection of powers, a complicated administrative centre…and of course, for much of its history, an empty shell, a representation, with the real power always residing with the Hapsburg empire far away. A Kafkaesque castle in more than one respect. Also a beautiful place:
Of course, there are other candidates for the inspiration for The Castle, but Kafka grew up beneath this one, and being here made the book a little less dreamlike and removed from reality — just a little less.
I searched for images of The Castle to see how others had imagined it — conventionally I am afraid, the bookcovers imagine it most conventionally. But I also found this, the most startling, built by architect Ricardo Bofill outside of Barcelona. A modern day construction for your viewing pleasure:
read more here