Book Review: Am I Too Stupid to Read Kafka?

This is not a running post.

Every 4-6 weeks, my Sunday morning run is pushed off to the afternoon due to the small book club I host. It’s been going on for just over a year, and we have finally started to settle in. The group’s members are feeling comfortable with each other, and we’re pretty much on the same page about what kind of books we like to read. We also like to eat.

The group’s selection this month was “The Trial” by Franz Kafka. Now I’ve read Kafka’s short stories (Metamorphosis, A Hunger Artist, etc.) and enjoyed them. I got no beef with Franz. But after our group discussion, I started to wonder if I’m too dumb to read Kafka.

The Trial

There’s a ton of commentary and analysis out there on the Trial, and I got a little flummoxed by it. One question was “[Question] 20.Write a note on the changes in furniture, robing and disrobing in the book.” Damn, was I supposed to be paying attention to the furniture?!

However, I was more concerned by the fact that I seemed to be the only member struck by the spiritual struggle of the main character; the others focused on the struggle against the system. Perhaps I was born too late. This Big Machine message is such a “duh” idea that I hardly blinked, and thus the major impact this book had was lost on me. I suppose if I had read this in 1925 (?) or when I was 20 years old, this would have made a much stronger impression. But not only did I just read a 300-plus page book on the industrial prison complex, I’ve been an adult working in the corporate world for over 25 years. So this idea of powerlessness against the system barely made a blip on my radar, and I suppose why I was more interested in the internal struggle of Joseph K.

Anyway, I did “enjoy” the book and would give it 3½ out of 5 stars. Here are a few other items of note about the book:

  • Definitely get the Schocken translation. Seriously, you will have a much better experience. The version I have even has the deleted passages and unfinished chapters.
  • In a few instances, a paragraph went on for six whole pages. I found the super-long paragraph an annoying and affected device at first but came to appreciate it as the book went on. The tension! Sometimes it just takes me a while to get into the style of the writer. But once I got into it, I really dug Kafka’s groove.
  • There is an Alice and Wonderland quality to the descriptions of the System, which I found kind of fun.
  • Kafka builds a very palpable feeling of claustrophobia and futility in this oppressive society governed by an omnipresent overseer.

So, while I seemed to get out of The Trial something different from my fellow group members, I wouldn’t say I’m too stupid to read Kafka. Maybe I’m just too familiar with The Machine.

Additional Reading

The book about the industrial prison complex is “The New Jim Crowe: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander. An awesome read.

I added Kafka-esque writer Bruno Shulz’s “The Street of Crocodiles” to my reading list based on recommendations of two members. That’s one of the best things about the book group – learning about more books to read.

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