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Monday, December 26, 2011

 

First sentences: The Trial by Franz Kafka

Someone must have been spreading slander about Josef K., for one morning he was arrested, though he had done nothing wrong.

This discussion needs to be prefaced with two caveats. First, while I have read some shorter Kafka works and admire him greatly, I have not read The Trial, and so am less able to comment on how the first sentence reflects on the work as a whole. Second, this is a first sentence in translation: the original book was written in German, a language I don't speak, and hence commenting on the sounds of the sentence would be inappropriate here.

So, considering the first sentence as it stands, what to say about it?

Listening to Kafka's voice is listening to a voice at once intimate and alienating. He whispers that 'someone' must have been doing something as if we were in the middle of a conversation already, familiar with the situation - or else as unfamiliar with it, as alienated from it, as he is. I used to volunteer on a counselling hotline, and the more severely mentally ill callers often had this quality, a blur between what they knew and what knowledge could be reasonably expected of a listener, a tendency to confide without explaining. Elegantly, Kafka begins by confusing and dislocating us. Perhaps he is slightly mad, or perhaps we are, but as long as we are in his world, then the whole world is going to have this crazed continuum. We don't begin at the beginning, or know where we will end: we don't know what's going on. We will have to join K. in a journey of disorientation.

And in this disorientating world, threat is everywhere. Slander is enough to get one arrested, for instance: this implies a brutal authority at the head of things - if not a reliable one. 'Wrong' is an unclear factor: we are informed K. has done 'nothing wrong' in a phrase that's almost child-like in its simplicity - not 'nothing illegal' or 'nothing criminal', but nothing wrong, as if it were a question of morality, of existence, rather than of law and order. If you have to ask yourself if you've done anything wrong, you have to review everything you've ever done, and come to that, you need a clear fix on what counts as wrong in the first place. It's an impossible conundrum - but one that brings you to disaster if you can't solve it.

But how is one to solve it? To know what you have or haven't done wrong, you need some kind of sense of self. Josef K. doesn't even have a full name: he's referred to by an initial. There's something institutional about it, a reduction of people to primitive components, and also something universalising: without a name to distinguish him from us, K. becomes a point of observation rather than a man. What has he done? We don't know. We only know what we have done - and the mystery of being arrested for no good reason is a frightening situation the reader can immediately imagine themselves into. With no identity to protect himself or separate him from us, K. is less a character and more an open door into fear. What happens to a character the author doesn't even trouble to name is clearly not the point of the story.

'Kafkaesque' is a byword for endless confusion. First sentences are generally the beginning of something, but Kafka does not offer us any such reassuring sense of structure. While complying with a basic writing dictum - you should begin your story with an interesting event - he simultaneously erodes the sand beneath our feet. Something interesting is happening, but we don't know why, and we barely know to whom. Meaning slips through our fingers and we are swept into the void.

Comments:
I am loving this series and your insights. I have some suggestions for you, if you are wanting them - The Devils Larder, Jim Crace (I know its a book of short stories, but there seems to be a coherence to the book as well, if only that its not really about food!); and JG Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition (If only to see how it reflects its high level of experimentalism with form).

Naturally, feel free to ignore me!
 
Recognizing that we're looking at the English of this particular translation, I hope it's OK if I mention that Kafka's original has the advantage the German language confers of piling up the subordinate clauses before the main clause ("without his having done anything wrong" comes before "he was arrested one morning") and of putting the verb at the end so the order in which one reaches the information is "he was one morning arrested": the sentence builds towards the arrest.

I'm wondering why the translator didn't at least try to order the sentence a bit more like the original: "for one morning, though he had done nothing wrong, he was attested."
 
That's very interesting; thanks Dash.

I would speculate that the reason is rhythmical. The original order has a jerky, shunting feeling, which reads very awkwardly in English; a writer might choose to write in a deliberately jerky rhythm, but it'd be a major stylistic decision. Since it was, in the original, presumably just a function of common German syntax, perhaps the translator decided he or she didn't have the stylistic mandate to do it?
 
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