I honestly didn’t think much of it the first time, but with anything that packs as much reputation as The Trial it only makes sense to give it a second shot. Most of the classics, I’ve found, turn out to be pretty damn good. Maybe I would have grown into Kafka!
The Trial, this time around, reminded me of another classic from a couple decades earlier: Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. Both of the two works begin with a dramatic flourish that everybody knows: the big famous 2001 fanfare in the Strauss tone poem, and K’s arrest in Kafka’s book. And afterwards, both pieces fade into a long series of murky, dark-hued passages that are a bit of a chore to get through. Kafka at least has a pretty good second movement – er, chapter – in which K has to wend his way through tenement housing looking for the absurd court in the attic, an episode poised between nightmare logic and slapstick silliness. It’s a tone that the remainder of the book tries to maintain, but without much success.
Living in Central Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century, Kafka would have been no stranger to the presence of secret police and occasionally dodgy legal proceedings. Still, on second reading I think that it’s a bit literal to think of The Trial as being “about” totalitarian societies. On this reading, it seemed pretty easy to construe the novel as being “about” the futility of human existence, when viewed in a grumpy mood.
In this interpretation, Kafka creates a kind of twentieth century Pilgrim’s Progress, an analogy to everyman’s crisis of mortality or, if you like, the mid-life crisis. At age 30, K is suddenly beset by an unsettling force that seems to doom him. He spends chapter after chapter seeking solace in the various diversions and social institutions that are supposed to structure our lives: family, the rule of law, romantic adventure, professional life, and lastly (in most arrangements of the book, which Kafka didn’t finish) religion. Nothing really helps, and the relentless march towards his doom continues. Sound familiar? If not, wait until you turn 30!
In my first review, I mostly missed this angle, although I did speculate that Kafka’s “literary star must have risen with hand in hand existentialism, a philosophical movement perfectly attuned to his protagonists' alienated struggles against the absurd.…” Now, the philosophy of existentialism and the experience of an extended mid-life crisis aren’t exactly the same thing, of course, but they’re certainly within hailing distance of each other.
Did The Trial grow on me on a second reading? No, dang it, it did not. I continue to find it a rather dull story, and as a document of its times I’m distracted by my knowledge that it was never finished and not published until well after the death of its author. It is more of an interesting document of the times forty years later in which it became popular, but now we’ve left literature behind and have moved on to the history of intellectual trends. That’s cool, and The Trial is arguably worth reading, but it doesn’t make the book more of a success either as a work of art or as an entertainment.