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 Brod felt too keenly the value in Kafka's unpublished work; his literary ethic overcame his personal scruples, and he devoted much of his life to publishing the writing Kafka had left behind.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.
Read an Excerpt
It was late evening when K. arrived. The village lay under deep snow. There was no sign of the Castle hill, fog and darkness surrounded it, not even the faintest gleam of light suggested the large Castle. K. stood a long time on the wooden bridge that leads from the main road to the village, gazing upward into the seeming emptiness.
Then he went looking for a night's lodging; at the inn they were still awake; the landlord had no room available, but, extremely surprised and confused by the latecomer, he was willing to let K. sleep on a straw mattress in the taproom, K. agreed to this. A few peasants were still sitting over beer, but he did not want to talk to anyone, got himself a straw mattress from the attic and lay down by the stove. It was warm, the peasants were quiet, he examined them for a moment with tired eyes, then fell asleep.
Yet before long he was awakened. A young man in city clothes, with an actor's face, narrow eyes, thick eyebrows, stood beside him with the landlord. The peasants, too, were still there, a few had turned their chairs around to see and hear better. The young man apologized very politely for having awakened K., introduced himself as the son of the Castle steward and said: "This village is Castle property, anybody residing or spending the night here is effectively residing or spending the night at the Castle. Nobody may do so without permission from the Count. But you have no such permission or at least you haven't shown it yet."
K., who had half-risen and smoothed his hair, looked at the people from below and said: "What village have I wandered into? So there is a castle here?"
"Why, of course," the young man said slowly, while several peasants here and there shook their heads at K., "the Castle of Count Westwest."
"And one needs permission to spend the night here?" asked K., as though he wanted to persuade himself that he hadn't perhaps heard the previous statements in a dream.
"Permission is needed" was the reply, and this turned into crude mockery at K.'s expense when the young man, stretching out his arm, asked the landlord and the guests: "Or perhaps permission is not needed?"
"Then I must go and get myself permission," said K., yawning and pushing off the blanket, as though he intended to get up.
"Yes, but from whom?" asked the young man.
"From the Count," said K., "there doesn't seem to be any alternative."
"Get permission from the Count, now, at midnight?" cried the young man, stepping back a pace.
"Is that not possible?" K. asked calmly. "Then why did you wake me up?"
The young man now lost his composure, "The manners of a tramp!" he cried. "I demand respect for the Count's authorities. I awakened you to inform you that you must leave the Count's domain at once."
"Enough of this comedy," said K. in a remarkably soft voice as he lay down and pulled up the blanket: "You are going a little too far, young man, and I shall deal with your conduct tomorrow. The landlord and those gentlemen there will be my witnesses, should I even need witnesses. Besides, be advised that I am the land surveyor sent for by the Count. My assistants and the equipment are coming tomorrow by carriage. I didn't want to deprive myself of a long walk through the snow, but unfortunately lost my way a few times, which is why I arrived so late. That it was too late then to report to the Castle is something that was already apparent to me without the benefit of your instructions. That's also the reason why I decided to content myself with these lodgings, where you have been so impolite--to put it mildly--as to disturb me. I have nothing further to add to that statement. Good night, gentlemen." And K. turned toward the stove.
"Land surveyor?" he heard someone asking hesitantly behind his back, and then everyone was silent. But the young man soon regained his composure and said to the landlord, softly enough to suggest concern for K.'s sleep, yet loudly enough to be audible to him: "I shall inquire by telephone." So there was even a telephone in this village inn? They were certainly well equipped. True, certain details took K. by surprise, but on the whole everything was as expected. As it turned out, the telephone hung from the wall almost directly above his head, in his sleepiness he had overlooked it. If the young man had to use the telephone, then even with the best intentions he could not avoid disturbing K.'s sleep, it was simply a matter of deciding whether or not to let him use the telephone, K. decided to allow it. But then of course it no longer made sense to pretend he was asleep, so he turned over on his back again. He watched the peasants gathering timidly and conferring, the arrival of a land surveyor was no trifling matter. The door to the kitchen had opened; filling the doorway was the mighty figure of the landlady, the landlord approached her on tiptoes in order to report to her. Then the telephone conversation began. The steward was asleep, but a substeward, one of the substewards, a Mr. Fritz, was there. The young man, who introduced himself as Schwarzer, said that he had found K., a man in his thirties, rather shabby-looking, sleeping quietly on a straw mattress, with a tiny rucksack for a pillow and a knobby walking stick within reach. Well, he had of course suspected him, and since the landlord had obviously neglected his duty, it was his, Schwarzer's, duty to investigate the matter. K.'s response on being awakened, questioned, and duly threatened with expulsion from the Count's domain had been most ungracious but perhaps not unjustifiably so, as had finally become evident, for he claimed to be a land surveyor summoned by the Count. He was duty-bound to check this claim, if only as a formality, and so Schwarzer was asking Mr. Fritz to inquire at the central office whether a land surveyor of that sort was really expected and to telephone immediately with the answer.
Then there was silence, Fritz made his inquiries over there while everyone here waited for the answer, K. stayed where he was, did not even turn around, seemed completely indifferent, stared into space. With its mixture of malice and caution Schwarzer's story gave him a sense of the quasi-diplomatic training that even lowly people at the Castle such as Schwarzer could draw on so freely. Nor did they show any lack of diligence there, the central office had a night service. And obviously answered very quickly, for Fritz was already on the line again. Yet it seemed to be a brief message, since Schwarzer immediately threw down the receiver in a rage. "Just as I said," he shouted, "no trace of a land surveyor, only a liar and a common tramp, and probably worse still." For a moment K. thought that everybody, Schwarzer, the peasants, the landlord and landlady, was about to jump on him, and he crawled all the way under the blanket to escape at least the first assault, when--he was slowly stretching his head back out--the telephone rang again, especially loud, it seemed to K. Although it was unlikely that this call also concerned K., everyone froze, and Schwarzer came back to the telephone. After listening to a fairly long explanation, he said softly: "So it's a mistake? This is most unpleasant. The department head himself telephoned? Odd, very odd! And how am I supposed to explain this to the land surveyor?"
K. listened intently. So the Castle had appointed him land surveyor. On one hand, this was unfavorable, for it showed that the Castle had all necessary information about him, had assessed the opposing forces, and was taking up the struggle with a smile. On the other hand, it was favorable, for it proved to his mind that they underestimated him and that he would enjoy greater freedom than he could have hoped for at the beginning. And if they thought they could keep him terrified all the time simply by acknowledging his surveyorship--though this was certainly a superior move on their part--then they were mistaken, for he felt only a slight shudder, that was all.
After waving aside Schwarzer, who was timidly approaching, K. rejected their insistent pleas that he move into the landlord's room, accepted only a nightcap from the landlord and a wash basin with soap and towel from the landlady, and did not even have to request that the room be cleared, for all rushed to the door, averting their faces so that he wouldn't recognize them tomorrow, then the lamp was extinguished and he finally had some peace. He slept soundly until morning, only briefly disturbed once or twice by scurrying rats.
After breakfast, which the landlord said would be covered by the Castle along with K.'s full board, he wanted to go immediately to the village. Recalling the landlord's conduct yesterday, K. spoke to him only when strictly necessary, but since the landlord kept circling him in a silent plea, K. took pity on him and let him sit down for a moment beside him.
"I still haven't met the Count," said K., "they say he pays good money for good work, is that so? Anybody traveling as far from his wife and child as I am wants to have something to take home with him."
"The gentleman need have no worries in that regard, one doesn't hear any complaints about bad pay here."
"Well," said K., "I'm not at all shy and am quite capable of saying what I think, even to a Count, though it is naturally far better if one can remain on friendly terms with those gentlemen."
The landlord sat opposite K. on the edge of the window seat, not daring to sit more comfortably and keeping his large, anxious brown eyes fixed on K. At first he had thrust himself on K., but now it seemed as if he wanted to run away. Was he afraid of being questioned about the Count? Was he afraid that the "gentleman" whom he saw in K. was unreliable? K. had to distract him. He looked at the clock and said: "Well, my assistants will be here soon, can you put them up?"
"Certainly, sir," he said, "but won't they be staying with you at the Castle?"
Was he parting that easily and that gladly with his guests, especially K., whom he was quite determined to transfer to the Castle?
"That hasn't been settled," said K., "first I must find out what kind of work they have for me. For instance, if I'm to work down here, then it would make more sense for me to live here, too. And I fear that the life up there at the Castle wouldn't appeal to me. I want to be free at all times."
"You don't know the Castle," the landlord said softly.
"Of course," said K, "one shouldn't judge matters too hastily. All I can say about the Castle for now is that they know how to choose the right land surveyor. There might be other advantages there, too." And he stood up in order to release the landlord--who kept anxiously biting his lips--from his presence. It certainly wasn't easy to win the confidence of this man.
On the way out, K. observed on the wall a dark portrait in a dark frame. He had already noticed it from his bed, but unable to discern any details from that distance, he had thought that the actual picture had been taken from the frame, and only the dark backing was to be seen. But it was indeed a picture, as now became evident, the half-length portrait of a man around fifty. He held his head so low over his chest that one barely saw his eyes, the drooping seemed to be caused by the high, ponderous forehead and the powerful, crooked nose. His beard, pressed in at the chin owing to the position of his head, jutted out farther below. His left hand was spread out in his thick hair but could no longer support his head. "Who is that," asked K., "the Count?" K. stood before the picture and did not even turn to glance at the landlord. "No," said the landlord, "the steward." "They do have a handsome steward at the Castle, that's for sure," said K., "what a pity his son turned out so badly." "No," said the landlord, drawing K. down and whispering in his ear, "Schwarzer exaggerated yesterday, his father is only a substeward, and one of the lowest at that." Just then the landlord seemed like a child to K. "The rascal," said K., laughing, but the landlord said without laughing: "Even his father is powerful." "Come on!" said K., "you consider everyone powerful. Me too, perhaps?" "No," he said, timidly but gravely, "I do not consider you powerful." "Well, you're very observant, then," said K., "for, speaking in confidence now, I'm really not powerful at all. And so I probably have no less respect for those with power than you do, only I'm not as honest as you are and don't always care to admit it." K. tapped the landlord on the cheek in order to comfort him and to gain his affection. And now he even gave a little smile. He was really a boy with his soft, almost beardless face. How had he come by his stout, older wife, whom one could see through a small window, bustling about with her elbows sticking out? Yet K. did not want to question him any further and risk chasing away the smile he had finally elicited, so he merely signaled to him to open the door and stepped out into the beautiful winter morning.
Now he saw the Castle above, sharply outlined in the clear air and made even sharper by the snow, which traced each shape and lay everywhere in a thin layer. Besides, there seemed to be a great deal less snow up on the hill than here in the village, where it was no less difficult for K. to make headway than it had been yesterday on the main road. Here the snow rose to the cottage windows only to weigh down on the low roofs, whereas on the hill everything soared up, free and light, or at least seemed to from here.
On the whole the Castle, as it appeared from this distance, corresponded to K.'s expectations. It was neither an old knight's fortress nor a magnificent new edifice, but a large complex, made up of a few two-story buildings and many lower, tightly packed ones; had one not known that this was a castle, one could have taken it for a small town. K. saw only one tower, whether it belonged to a dwelling or a church was impossible to tell. Swarms of crows circled round it.