Kafka’s one of those writers who doesn’t leave us just with significant texts or contribute words to the language – he becomes a word in himself, his legacy so profound that we need a whole new term to capture it: the distortingly surreal, menacingly absurd, the strangely and dangerously complex, the kafkaesque. He not only published little in his lifetime, but didn’t even finish much, leaving partial and incomplete stories and novels to be filled it, edited, and published by his friend Max Brod. Well, kinda. Kafka left explicit instructions that it all be burnt unread, but Brod would have no part of that, and set to organizing and disseminating the work.
The Trial is one of the best known of these unfinished, never-intended-for-publication pieces. Bank clerk Josef K. is arrested, though he’s never told on what charge or on whose authority. He passes from court to home to court, his path winding through affairs, bribery and odd encounters with flogging as he seeks to uncover the reason for his arrest and locate an advocate who can get him out of the legal mess. But he just finds the absurdity of the law, the circular logic and incomprehensible maze of it all. Everywhere is the state, the law, the un-named accusation – and then, on Josef K.’s thirtieth birthday, the end. It’s man and bureaucracy, the human condition and modernity, the utter absurdity of contemporary civilization. It’s what Kafka does, and it somehow bridges the alienation of Dostoevsky with the absurdism of Camus and Beckett. Kafka’s writing stands alone, but it establishes a dialogue with some of the most significant literary and philosophical reflections of the generations on either side of him.
A rather unimposing clerical worker, Franz Kafka’s writings were a relatively quiet vocation. But thank God for Max Brod, who ignored the order to burn all of his friend’s papers. Milan Kundera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Vladimir Nabakov, Salman Rushdie – some of the most significant literary voices of the last century owe a tremendous intellectual debt to Franz Kafka. And somewhere out there, there’s more to be read: suitcases of his papers were confiscated by the Gestapo in the 1930s and have never been recovered.