I have picked up Franz Kafka’s Das Schloss again, after nearly fifty years, reading it again, and translating passages, for my own amusement. I’ll be writing more about it, later. On the cover of my copy (Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, Frankfurt am Main), Hermann Hesse is quoted as calling the novel “the most mysterious and beautiful of Kafka’s great works.” (I agree with Hesse.)
The word ‘Schloss’ can be translated as ‘castle’ or ‘palace’ (or even ‘lock’). The building (or buildings) that figure in Kafka’s novel appears not to satisfy either description but, rather, to be quite unimpressive – certainly, this is how it appears to ‘K’, the protagonist.
I turn to Chapter 1 and provide a free translation of a descriptive passage (below).
On the whole, the castle, as it appeared from a distance, corresponded to K’s expectations. It was neither an old fortification, built by and for a knight, nor a new, magnificent palace, but an extensive structure, consisting of few two-storey buildings but many low buildings, tightly packed together. If one had not known that it was a castle, one could have taken it to be a small town. K could see only one tower. He could not make out whether it belonged to a dwelling or a church. A swarm of crows circled round it.
Keeping his eyes fixed on the castle, K kept on walking. Nothing else concerned him. As he got closer to it, however, the castle disappointed him: it was truly a miserable little town, distinguished only by the fact that all of it (perhaps) had been built in stone; but the paint had peeled off and the stone appeared to be crumbling. K briefly thought of his home town: it hardly came second to this so-called castle. If K had only been interested in sight-seeing, then he would have had a wasted journey, and he would have done better to visit his old home, where he had not been for such a long time. He mentally compared the church tower of his home town with the tower in front of him. That tower rose unhesitatingly and boldly, tapering to its broad roof, ending in red tiles – an earthly building (what else?), but with a higher purpose than the rows of low houses, and with a clearer expression than the grey workday. This tower – the only one he could see – was apparently the tower of a dwelling, perhaps that of the main building. It was perfectly round. It was graced, in places, with ivy. It had small windows, which reflected the sun, in a crazy pattern. It had a balcony all round it, the battlements of which – unsafe, irregular and crumbling (as if hand-drawn by an anxious or careless child) – formed a serrated edge against the blue sky. It was as if a gloomy occupant, who should have kept himself locked away in the remotest room, had broken through the roof, in order to show himself to the world.
From my background reading, it remains unclear to me whether the castle of the novel is based on a real place that Kafka had seen, or more than one, or whether it is derived from his vivid imagination.
In the novel, Kafka’s castle is the headquarters of the opaque bureaucracy that strictly governs everything that happens in the village below – with grave consequences for the fate of K himself. As in Amerika and Der Prozess, powerful people look very ordinary (just like the castle itself). They don’t need to show off.