‘Somebody must have made a false accusation against Josef K., for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong.’ This much-quoted opening sentence of The Trial sets the tone—one of cool, lucid observation of increasingly bizarre events—of Franz Kafka’s novel about a senior bank officer, Josef K., who on the morning of his thirtieth birthday, out of the blue and for no apparent reason, is charged with an unnamed criminal offence. The Trial recounts K.’s growing sense of helplessness as he seeks to uncover the truth of his case from a labyrinthine legal machine whose reach appears to be limitless, whose agents are revealed behind every door, from the door of K.’s own apartment to the door of an impoverished painter’s studio in a derelict tenement. As K. observes quietly to the court: ‘There is no doubt that behind all the utterances of this court, and therefore behind my arrest and today’s examination, there stands a great organisation.’
Franz Kafka was born in 1883 in Prague (then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire) into a middle-class Jewish family. When his two older brothers died in infancy, Kafka became the eldest child with three younger sisters. He was sent to German schools, where he excelled, and went on to study law at the German University, graduating in July 1906 with a Doctorate in Jurisprudence. Following university, Kafka worked in the law courts before finding a semi-legal position in 1908 in the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, where he worked until 1922 when tuberculosis forced him to retire. For most of his four decades, Kafka lived in his parents’ cramped apartment, working at the insurance office by day and writing by night: ‘Since I am nothing but literature and can and want to be nothing else, my job will never take possession of me,’ he wrote. His father, a merchant, was utterly unable to comprehend his pale, thin son’s complete devotion to so unprofitable and unworldly an occupation as literature.
In 1902, Kafka met the writer Max Brod, who was to become his closest friend and literary executor, and through whom in 1912 he met Felice Bauer, a businesswoman from Berlin. Kafka’s non-committal relationship with Felice, conducted mostly via letters between Prague and Berlin, resulted in two broken engagements and coincided with an extraordinary period of creative outpouring. Several weeks after their meeting, Kafka wrote ‘The Judgement’, one of the few stories published in his lifetime, which appeared in 1913 with a dedication to Felice. In the months after their meeting he also wrote six chapters of the novel published posthumously as America (1927) and the story ‘The Metamorphosis’, published in 1915.
In 1923 Kafka moved to Berlin to escape his family and focus on his writing. He died in June 1924 near Vienna, shortly before his 41st birthday, leaving Brod with instructions to destroy his writing after his death. Instead, Brod published and promoted Kafka’s stories, starting in 1925 with The Trial, and Kafka achieved worldwide posthumous fame during the Nazi era, as his three sisters were being deported and killed in concentration camps.
The Trial does not make comfortable reading, as might be expected from a man who believed we ought to read ‘only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading it for? … A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.’ The Trial articulates both K.’s apparent state of paranoia in a world ruled by anonymous bureaucracy and the potent, impeccable logic pitted against him to justify the court’s commonsense-defying behaviour. Like Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, in which the language of the law has become hollow sophistry capable of great destruction, at its most literal interpretation The Trial is a study of the power of words and the impotence of the individual at the mercy of a vast legal system which, through its power to judge right and wrong, ultimately becomes the arbiter of meaning. The portrait painter—whose painting of Justice is reminiscent not of Justice or Victory, but ‘looked exactly like the goddess of the hunt’—explains to K. there is no point hoping to persuade the court to change its opinion, for the court is utterly unresponsive: ‘If I paint all the judges in a row on a canvas, and you argue your defence before this canvas, you’ll have more success than you would have before the actual court.’
But gradually K. begins to understand that his innocence is beside the point—he is trapped in a system in which his every protestation of innocence only increases his aura of guilt: ‘What matters are the many subtleties in which the court gets lost. But in the end it produces great guilt from some point where originally there was nothing at all.’ There is also a mad humour in Kafka’s vision, in the ludicrous antics of the court and K.’s efforts to cooperate with it:
“You are an interior decorator?”
“No,” said K., “I am a senior administrator in a large bank.” This answer provoked such a hearty laugh from the right faction down below that K. had to laugh too.
So rich and open a story is The Trial that it has been all things to all people: a religious allegory; a story of divine justice, original sin, fate, capitalism, a totalitarian nightmare, an impotent son overwhelmed by an omnipotent father; a tale of the absurdity of existence. None of these interpretations is able to encompass the full brilliance of the story itself. The remarkable thing about The Trial is that Kafka has transformed his own experience of impotence and strange thrall to his captors—his parents; his teachers; his fiancee, Felice Bauer; his employers; his society; life itself—and distilled it into a lucid and resonant multilayered parable that has the force and irreducibility of truth.
So acute was Kafka’s vision that almost 100 years after his death the word ‘Kafkaesque’ conveys more vividly than any other word a world governed by impassive agents who may or may not be obeying orders from faceless superiors for no apparent reason. Its evocations of helplessness when dealing with authority are uncannily applicable to almost every dimension of contemporary life, from the detention of refugees on Nauru to the shifting public bodies charged with building WestConnex and automated phone answering services.
Orson Welles surmounted numerous challenges, including running out of money, to bring his nightmare vision of The Trial to the screen, starring Anthony Perkins as Joseph K. It was supposed to be filmed in Zagreb, but finally, fortuitously, one moonlit night Welles discovered the perfect location in Paris—the abandoned railway station of Gare d’Orsay. Welles considered The Trial (1962) to be his best film. although, perhaps unlike Kafka, Welles viewed Joseph K. as ‘a little bureaucrat’ and therefore guilty: ‘I consider him guilty … He belongs to a guilty society; he collaborates with it.’