Franz Kafka’s the Trial was the first of his books picked up by major publishers such as Penguin. It maintains the noble tradition of being, aptly enough, Kafkaesque – in other words, creating a story around an event which is irrational inexplicable, and absurd (like ordering a pizza and receiving Arnold Schwarzenegger instead).
Kafka wrote this 100 years ago, but it wasn’t published until 1925 (after the author’s death in 1924 aged only 40). Although world famous today, during his lifetime he only had a few pieces of writing published and he died of TB as an unknown entity. He even instructed his friend, Max Brod, to destroy all his work in the event of his death. Brod ignored this request, with the result being (following the subsequent publication of numerous, often unfinished, Kafka masterpieces) the unearthing of one of the 20 century’s great writers.
Kafka was influenced enormously by Crime and Punishment when putting together the Trial, but he didn’t finish writing his book – Brod later edited it to tie the story together, further highlighting how Kafka wasn’t a novelist of any weight during his lifetime. He didn’t consider fame of any worth and it was Brod who turned him into a literary sensation; with Kafka remaining such a mystery, this has only added to his allure.
The Trial is about Josef K. – he is arrested for an unexplained crime. He doesn’t know what’s going on, the authorities are inaccessible, and it’s all rather confusing for the man. Thusly, we have the themes of absurdity throughout, which is why Kafka was an influence on the likes of Sartre and Camus.
As with much of Kafka’s work, the Trial has a hallucinatory, almost fantastical, nature to it, along with a sense of foreboding and terror. As a respectable bank officer, Josef K. has to suddenly defend himself from a crime he doesn’t know anything about. Subsequently, his attempts to secure his freedom are thwarted at numerous steps, leaving him dishevelled and increasingly aware evil is at hand. As such, this is one of the most disquieting reads from the 20th century.
The Trial can be viewed as a parable, a precursor to the development of existentialism, or a warning about a dystopian state (themes from the Trial are evident in works such as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four). All three if you want, although the theme of obsessive state bureaucracy is consistent throughout.
As a result, it proved rather prescient for events in the 20th century, with world-changing political movements ranging from the totalitarian Nazi Germany to Stalinism and his use of Gulags as a deeply paranoid and delusional form of state control. As such, the Trial has resonated throughout the last 100 years and stands as a frightening read.
Along with other works such as the Metamorphosis, readers new to Kafka will find a strange world which is out of order. He was certainly ahead of his time and, with a mysterious history and outlook on life, Kafka will remain synonymous with modern literature for a long time.