Having now read two of Franz Kafka’s three novels, Amerika and The Trial, it’s possible to start to put down some thoughts about what makes his world so different. Most of the time you feel uncomfortable because you know that even in those moments of calm there is tragedy coming and the main characters will usually be unable to prevent terrible things happening.
There are differences (see below) but in both books Kafka can use the environment – never ending corridors, stifling attics and suburban apartments – to inspire disorientation and fear. He exploits the size of America and the emerging industrialisation to disturb Karl Rossmann in Amerika and the battle between one man and a secretive legal system is the enemy for Joseph K. in The Trial.
Having been woken up and told he is under arrest he never finds out what he is being charged for, how his case is progressing or who is ultimately in charge of his fate. But he does at least fight against his situation, a decision that ultimately rewards him with death, although all of the other characters involved in his case advise him to just live with the situation.
Kafka ingredients: being in the dark, facing a bureaucratic system that is extensive and faceless, struggling with the concept of losing position in society and finally being alone and forgotten when the final moment comes
From the start he is in a difficult position because he has been sent away from home to America for seducing a maid but from landing in the country after fighting onboard the boat for the rights of a stoker he barely knows he starts to drift subject to the more aggressive personalities around him. So he ends up being thrown out by his Uncle on the most bizarre of justifications, comes under the influence of two drifters, Robinson and Delamarche, and ends up even at the end when going for an interview at the theatre being handicapped by his past with his unfinished education. Because of his youth he is constantly being held, squeezed and hit by other larger characters ranging from the head porter to Delamarche.
Kafka ingredients: violence, insecurity, vast industrial processes, a the clash of size and suffocation (for instance the large country mansion and the episode where Karl gets lost in the dark and the unknown system at work which means Karl continually fails to be allowed to get his slice of the American dream.
What leaves you feeling so disturbed is the idea that forces out of your control, both known and hidden, might be able to exert control over your life to such an extent that you are excluded from mainstream society.
The next challenge is to read The Castle to see just what delights are waiting for the main character in that book…