Franz Kafka,’Das Schloss’ (‘The Castle’)

 

Sie sind nicht aus dem Schloẞ, Sie sind nicht aus dem Dorfe, Sie sind nichts.  Leider sind Sie doch etwas, ein Fremder, der ûberzählig und ûberall im Wege ist, einer, wegen dessen man immerfort Scherereien hat.

You are not from the Castle, you are not from the village, you are nothing.  Unfortunately, though, you are something – a stranger, superfluous, always in the way, constantly causing trouble.

[The landlady of the village inn to K, in Chapter 4]

 

The title

The word ‘Schloss’, in the title, can be translated as ‘castle’ or ‘palace’ or “country house” (or even ‘lock’).  The building (or buildings) that figure in Kafka’s novel appears, however, to be quite unimpressive – certainly, this is how it appears to ‘K’, the protagonist.

Publication

Kafka left his third novel incomplete (but see below).  It was published only after his death, at the instigation of his friend Max Brod.

The story

K arrives in a village, in winter, to take up an appointment as a land surveyor, for Count Westwest.  The local castle (the Castle) overlooks the village.  The Castle officials (an all-male elite) oversee all the goings-on in the village and record them, in bureaucratic detail.  They are respected and looked up to by the villagers, and indeed obeyed.

The Castle and the village are fundamentally separate.  Castle officials visit the village but villagers are not permitted to enter the Castle. The officials transact much of their business in the village itself, at night.  They conduct interviews with villagers at night too.

The novel largely consists of a record of the series of meetings between K and individuals – both villagers and officials – which give him some insight into how the place works.  (Called to his own first proper interview with an official, at night, K misses his appointment, by falling asleep!)

Some Castle officials abuse their power over the ordinary people by taking local women as their mistresses. They are free too to discard them.  (One man in particular – Herr Klamm – is mentioned.)  The women who are taken up by Castle officials gain rather than lose higher social status in the village!  (Any woman who rejects such a relationship is ostracised by the community)

K himself tries to use his relationship with a young villager (Frieda) as a bargaining tool in order to arrange a man-to-man interview with Klamm – this he fails to achieve.

K is engaged in a struggle for recognition as a professional person – a land surveyor.  He never has the opportunity to practise his profession.  Indeed, one informant tells him that his services are not required and that the job offer resulted from a bureaucratic error.

K remains an outsider.

The language

Kafka’s prose is precise.  It has many long sentences, with subordinate clauses.  Different aspects of a topic are balanced.  Different arguments are weighed against each other.  It reminds the reader of bureaucratic language.  Even the characters’ speeches tend to be formal.  Typically of literary German, reported speech features extensive use of the subjunctive mood.

Kafka’s German is fairly easy to understand, because of its clarity; but it is difficult to translate into fluent English.   For example, the word order sometimes has to be changed – but with this the delicate structure of the original may be impaired.

The story is told, in a way, from K’s perspective, as the reader is given access to his thoughts as well as his statements, as in a first person narrative.  The other characters’ thoughts are revealed in their body language (as reported) and what they say.

K, the protagonist

The reader is entitled to ask questions about K.

Why does he stay in the village, given that he suffers a series of rebuffs?

Is he too proud about his status?  (He does accept a job as a school caretaker as a temporary measure.)

Is he insufficiently flexible in his dealings with both villagers and officials?  Does he expect the system to adapt to him rather than the other way round?

What is more important to K – his proclaimed love for the barmaid Frieda or his wish to use her as way to set up an interview with Klamm (her former lover)?  Does he neglect her, in the pursuit of his struggle for recognition?  Does he, indeed, misuse her?

The officials

The bureaucrats communicate with K through letters and through interviews – solely on their own terms (who, when, where and how are entirely at their discretion).

The fact that the offer of an appointment to K as a land surveyor was a mistake is not officially recognised.

The bureaucrats fail to resolve K’s status and so leave him in limbo.

An ironic ending

In his afterword to the first edition of Das Schloss, Max Brod states that Kafka revealed to him how the story would end.  By this account, K does not give up his struggle; but he eventually dies in the attempt, from exhaustion.  The local people gather around his death bed.  Now the Castle officials hand down their decision: although they deny K any legal claim to live in the village, taking into account the circumstances, they grant him permission to live and to work there.

Themes

  • Class: the officials have arbitrary power over the lives of the villagers and appear to from a separate, superior class
  • Gender: the officials are all male; they abuse their power when they take village women (expected to comply) as their mistresses
  • Bureaucracy: while little indication is given of much activity being carried out in the village, it is made clear that the officials maintain detailed records of everything.

Meanings

1 The novel reflects the human search for belonging to a community

2 Similarly, it reflects the human search for recognition, by the community, of one’s personal worth

3 It may reflect the human search for order in society

4 It may also have something to do with the need for fairness and flexibility, which can temper the rigid administration of rules

5 It may reflect the elusive nature of a fair social order and the imperfections of human societies in reality

6 In part it may be a satire on excessive and inflexible bureaucracy (the maintenance of some sort of order, at any cost)

7 It may too represent a critique of excessive individualism

8 For a 21st century reader, it can be seen as a parable that illustrates the plight of people who remain outsiders, for example, the homeless, those who suffer discrimination, foreigners, asylum seekers and refugees

9 Fundamentally, Das Schloss remains ambiguous.

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The nature of the Castle in Franz Kafka’s ‘Das Schloss’

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.