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From Barnes & NobleRewriting Kafka
Just before his death, in 1924, Franz Kafka sent a note to his friend Max Brod:
"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.... Yours, Franz Kafka"
There's been much debate about this note ever since Brod published it in a postscript to the first edition of The Trial. Did Kafka really intend that Brod destroy his manuscripts? The conclusion, as much as one can be reached, seems to be no, that Kafka asked precisely the one person who had already told him he would not honor his wishes. Brod felt too keenly the value in Kafka's unpublished work; his literary ethic overcame his personal scruples, and he devoted much of his life to publishing the writing Kafka had left behind.
Luckily for us. Unluckily, perhaps, for Kafka scholars, the three novels left behind -- The Trial, Amerika (originally titled The Man Who Disappeared), and The Castle -- were all unfinished. Brod heavily edited the manuscripts, correcting Kafka's idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation, reordering paragraphs and chapters, and "fixing" their endings, so that they would read as if complete.
The problem with Brod's editing almost goes without saying. It is impossible to know what Kafka's actual intentions regarding these texts were; we have only the manuscripts from which to judge. And these editions faced another obstacle: being banned by the Nazis as "harmful and undesirable." Thus Kafka's novels became famous throughout the world largely in their translated forms, particularly the English translations, which present another level of difficulty. The Castle was originally translated into English by Edwin and Willa Muir, whose profoundly Victorian sensibilities provoked them to demodernize the text, smoothing out its jagged edges, straightening its confusions, making its characters more sympathetic, and above all, imbuing the narrator's search with a specifically Christianized spirituality.
All of these arguable mistranslations, along with the questionable editing of Kafka's manuscript, led scholars to cry out for new editions. Even Salman Schocken, Kafka's publisher, was clamoring for critical editions of the novels, claiming that "the Schocken editions are bad." Brod, however, made this new work impossible by refusing scholars access to the manuscripts. Finally, in 1961, Kafka's heirs authorized a German scholar who had discovered the manuscripts' whereabouts to deposit them in Oxford University's Bodleian Library. And since the 1970s, a team of Kafka scholars has been working on German critical editions of all of Kafka's writings.
The Castle is the first of those critical editions to be translated into English. This new edition removes all of Brod's editing, returning the text to the last state in which Kafka appears to have intended it. Reading this edition is an odd experience for anyone acquainted with the texts we have always taken for "Kafka," texts that, despite their thematic oddness, have been softened on the sentence and paragraph levels. Mark Harman's translation restores the text's ominousness and its jaggedness, allowing the narration at moments to appear brisk and disjointed, and at others to become caught within the convoluted diction of the Castle's officials.
The plot of The Castle is deceptively simple: A man named K. arrives in a small village and attempts to gain access to the Castle, but his attempts are repeatedly foiled. The story itself is almost unimportant; what develop increasing importance as the novel progresses are the dialogue among characters and the ways in which the story of K.'s presence in the village is restructured every time it's told -- and the ways in which that story becomes a comment upon the novel itself:
"But," said the chairman, interrupting himself as if he had gone too far in his eagerness to tell the story, or as if it were at least possible that he had gone too far, "does the story bore you?"
"No," said K., "it amuses me."
At that, the chairman said: "I am not telling you this for your amusement."
"It amuses me," said K., "only because it gives me some insight into the ridiculous tangle that may under certain circumstances determine a person's life."
"You still haven't gained any insight," the chairman said gravely, "and so I can go on..."
But the gaining of insight in such a bureaucratically controlled circumstance is all but impossible. The Castle is a tale not only of the terrors of such hierarchical control but also of the village's paranoid response to that bureaucracy; the characters reveal over and over again their powers of -- in fact, their need for -- interpretation. K., on the other hand, exists in this world as a bad reader of a flawed text.
Perhaps most shocking about this edition of The Castle are the three chapters restored to the novel's end. The manuscript -- and this edition of the novel -- literally ends in midsentence, as if Kafka picked up his pen and walked away. Max Brod chose to end the novel at its most decisive moment, as K. loses his fiancée. The three chapters that follow, however, while hardly lending any sense of completion to the novel, are crucial to understanding the relationship of K. to both the village and the Castle authorities.
This new edition, by undoing the attempts of previous editors and translators to "rationalize" the text, reveals Kafka's project as manifest in his very prose. It is puzzling, even maddening at moments, but infinitely rewarding.