To understand a work by Kafka, only a comparison with another work by Kafka will suffice. To make sense of what is most original and distinct in The Castle, what makes it the most thoroughly realized expression of Kafka’s imagination, even though it is incomplete, it is necessary to compare it to The Trial.
Both works are about characters who are not so much in search of explanations, but whose situations are such that explanations are demanded by them, not by virtue of their being especially inquisitive, but owing to the situations themselves. Erich Heller writes that in Kafka, the Cartesian formulation needs to be rephrased: “It thinks, therefore I am.” And Herman Bloch writes of the supra-personal in Kafka, the dissolution of the psychological into something larger than a single mind. That is felt, I think, in the form of explanation in both of the novels: explanations for prohibitions and prohibitions on explanations impose themselves on characters, determining their action, becoming, however they fail to offer meaning, the only ends to which characters direct themselves, until, in The Trial, the verdict is reached.
But explanation fits differently in the two novels. The explanations in The Trial are of the process of the Trial; but the explanations themselves happen in a third space, neither public nor private—the space of The Trial—and the explanations gesture to the Trial, but do not themselves seem a part of it. The Trial is explained as a parable, but K’s experience of it does not, until the last chapter, seem itself like a parable; his work at the offices, his life, are instead a narrative of what it is like to live with, and against, something that can only be explained as a parable that nonetheless has purchase over, and ultimate judgment upon, life itself.
In The Castle, the saturation is complete: the Castle is both distant, like the Trial, and everywhere. Whereas everything might be subject to, considered by, the Trial, the Castle is itself inseparable from the normal public and private roles of life; it does not occupy a third space, a third vantage point. And nobody can explain it, or speak to it, or witness it, without at the same time being subject to it and subjecting K. to it. This density of presence, its never not being in the words and explanations, is matched by a sense that it is absent, that no communication is with the Castle itself.
Maybe both are different descriptions of religion, or its absence made to look like religion.
The style is that of patience. One critical essay remarked that The Castle is still, as if paralyzed by fear; but it moves steadily, Kafka’s sense of the passing hours and days, and the feeling that one has in reading it is disorienting when one is told that an event happened, in K’s experience, “yesterday” or “two days before” when it seems to be much more distant in the past, even though has actually happened to make that sense justified. The patience—and Kafka’s admiration for patience as a necessary virtue, and maybe, in the world he presents, alongside kindness a supreme virtue—is felt as a limpidity of style, a perfection of realism. That owes less to descriptive intensity and more to the willingness to attend, even in light of what ought to be consuming: a trial or the authority of the castle. A contemporary American novelist (I forget which) in an essay describes his teenage encounter with Kafka, gripped by The Castle, racing to see whether K. would achieve his goal and reach it—but such a memory is either false or else the book was wildly distorted: the possibility for suspense is often defused (or diffused) by Kafka’s determination, and K’s determination, to go with time as others order to, to exhibit only the mildest irritation and briefest bouts of anger, never directed with much hope of reaching a larger goal than the immediate extinction of discomfort. Even the firing of the lawyer in The Trial initiates no effort at arriving at a verdict, if that were even possible.
It is this, probably, that gives the feeling in both novels that K. is entirely at home, even though both novels are about experiences of extreme alienation; his willingness to abide, his capacity for patience, seems to coincide with his dwelling in the worlds that are so inimical to dwelling.
But in The Trial, the possibility of conclusion, and so the suspense is nonetheless preserved. Some of the skeleton of the novel’s plot belongs to genres of melodrama or mystery. The patience is portrayed, but not as infused into the style. In The Castle, the saturation is deep.
The heightened awareness of time is matched by a curious absence of historical consciousness internal to the texts. Again, comparison illustrates what is especially remarkable about The Castle, for in The Trial, the Courts are made to seem the outgrowth of long historical development, illogical as it might be, mysterious as it might be; whereas the castle, and its authority, are never imagined in terms of a history they possess, or as belonging to any broader historical movement. They might be described in terms of history, any history, but such a description would feel, like other explanations of their existence and operations, arbitrary or else unsatisfactory.
Kafka’s letters are unusually rewarding, even for someone who does not much like reading authors’ letters. This is perhaps because they are continuous with the stories and novels: the recurrent messengers (even Gregor’s father becomes a messenger for a bank in “The Metamorphosis”), the surprise of receiving any communication that seems to mean, the bafflement of what it might mean, the ensuing communications asking for the meaning to be explained, or seeking to explain and asking confirmation, and then the bafflement over whether one’s own messages explained themselves well enough. This is the stuff of the letters as much as it is the stuff of the stories: the prospect of miscommunication and misunderstanding brought on by and bringing on yet more explanations…
And having only one half of the correspondence, Kafka’s letters to Milena, but not hers to his, on the page, the prospect of resolution, of passing a verdict on the success of communication, knowing what has made it across, is itself a formal equivalent to the stories, where some other half is missing. Benjamin said that the stories are like parables without doctrine; the published letters are a correspondence without response, and that could describe not only the relation of K. to his court and K. to the Castle’s authorities, but The Castle to the world for which, in which, it was written; the reader’s explanations do not seem to ever reach it. The authority or court thinks, and K is; the correspondence between Kafka and Milena thinks, and so Kafka is; the relationship between the stories and something in the world thinks, and so the stories are; but we are never able (any more than K.) to fathom or find, from the available materials, an adequate description of the relationship, half of it lying obscured or else as good as absent.
The letters, especially when they turn in and examine their success and means, seem sometimes to contain the germs of texts that Kafka did not write:
I think there is one idiosyncracy that we share, Milena: we are so shy and anxious that almost every letter is different, almost every one is frightened by the previous letter and even more by the reply. It’s easy to see that you aren’t like this by nature, and I, perhaps even I am not like this by nature, but this has almost become my nature, passing only when I am desperate or, at most, angry, and needless to say: when I am afraid.
Sometimes I feel we have a room with two doors on opposite sides and each of us is holding the doorknob and, at the bat of one person’s eyelash, the other jumps behind his door, and now if the first person utters a single word, the second is sure to close the door behind him, so that he can no longer be seen. He is bound to reopen the door, though, since it may be a room impossible to leave. If only the first person weren’t exactly like the second, then he would be calm and pretend not to care in the slightest about the second; he would slowly go about ordering this room the way he would any other. But instead, he repeats the same thing at his door; occasionally even both people are standing behind their doors at the same time and the beautiful room is empty.
Agonizing misunderstandings are the result. Milena, you complain about some letters that you turn them in all directions and nothing falls out, but if I’m not mistaken those are precisely the ones where I was so close to you, my blood so restrained, restraining your own, so deep in the forest, so resting in rest, that nothing needed to be said, except perhaps that you can see the sky through the trees, that’s all. And these words are repeated an hour later and there really is “not a single word which hasn’t been well weighed.” But this only lasts for a moment at the longest, the trumpets of sleepless night will soon sound again.
You turn Kafka’s works all ways and nothing falls out. More and more falls in, and perhaps one can see the sky through the trees. “That’s all”: nothing more, and that is everything.