I am a huge fan of Kafka, or I was. I studied his short stories at university and was bewildered and challenged by his writings yet found them irresistible. I enjoyed too the BBC film version of his greatest novel ‘The Trial’. It still counts as one of my all-time favourite films.
So it was with great delight that I finally picked up my one-volume copy of all three of Kafka’s novels and read it after waiting more than twenty years to find the time. I was eagerly expecting the magic words of the writer of ‘The Metamorphosis’ and ‘In the Penal Colony’ and ready to be entranced once again. I was bitterly disappointed.
To be fair, ‘The Trial’, shortest of the three, was superb – though not an easy read. I was more impressed that the BBC production had recreated the book almost down to the finest detail and I now have even greater admiration for the film. I was glad I read ‘The Trial’ and doing so means a happy ticking-off of one more book on the bucket list.
The second, longer novel ‘America’ was less effective. It followed the same dystopian plot of ‘The Trial’ namely that of a young man who, through no fault of his own, finds himself at the butt-end of life and suffering misery through the presumptions and misunderstandings of those in power above him. It was okay but I found the plot tiresome about a third of the way through. Still, it was worth reading.
But the third, and longest novel – ‘The Castle’? Oh my good lord…
This was a novel which never should have been written (and indeed doesn’t seem to have been completed even with the full version I have in my copy). It is like reading a bland, tasteless version of ‘The Trial’ but one which has been bloated to three times its natural length. The story failed to engage after the first few chapters and I found the conversations tedious, the plot tenuous and the characterisation utter devoid of any interest at all. There is no conclusion to the story, nothing to like in K (unlike the similar Joseph K of ‘The Trial’ who sparkles with life) and I found myself, after every scene, thinking ‘who cares?’
My hearty recommendation to anyone buying the novels separately is: don’t bother with ‘America’ and ‘The Castle’. If you buy the three-novel volume as I did: don’t waste the valuable hours of your life reading ‘The Castle’. There are no pearls of wisdom, no hidden meanings, no depths to explore here that you can’t find more succinctly and artistically written in ‘The Trial’.
For me, Kafka has proven with novels to be rather like Beethoven with operas – managed one pretty darned well but it was a struggle! The composer, at least, had the good sense to leave operas well alone after Fidelio. Kafka, alas, didn’t do the same with novels. His mind is brilliantly tuned to the structure of the short story. As a novelist, he is a rambling buffoon and incapable of saying anything of merit – nor of saying it quickly!
In short – read ‘The Trial’ but unless you find it profoundly intoxicating, don’t bother with anything more. And if you’ve never read any Kafka before? Go to the short stories first before even considering a novel.