A remote village covered almost permanently in snow and dominated by a castle and its staff of dictatorial, sexually predatory bureaucrats — this is the setting for Kafka’s story about a man seeking both acceptance in the village and access to the castle. In The Castle, Kafka explores the relationship between the individual and authority, as the protagonist K. asks why the villagers so readily submit to an authority which may exist only in their collective imagination. In the following excerpt from the new Oxford World’s Classics edition, K. first encounters the castle and the strange power it holds over the village.
Now he could see the castle above, distinctly outlined in the clear air, and standing out even more distinctly because of the thin covering of snow lying everywhere and changing the shape of everything. In fact, much less snow seemed to have fallen up on Castle Mount than here in the village, where K. found it as diﬃcult to make his way along the road as it had been yesterday. Here the snow came up to the cottage windows and weighed down on the low rooftops, while on the mountain everything rose into the air, free and light, or at least that was how it looked from here.
Altogether the castle, as seen in the distance, lived up to K.’s expectations. It was neither an old knightly castle from the days of chivalry, nor a showy new structure, but an extensive complex of buildings, a few of them with two storeys, but many of them lower and crowded close together. If you hadn’t known it was a castle you might have taken it for a small town. K. saw only a single tower, and could not make out whether it was a dwelling or belonged to a church. Flocks of crows were circling around it.
His eyes ﬁxed on the castle, K. went on, paying no attention to anything else. But as he came closer he thought the castle disappointing; after all, it was only a poor kind of collection of cottages assembled into a little town, and distinguished only by the fact that, while it might all be built of stone, the paint had ﬂaked oﬀ long ago, and the stone itself seemed to be crumbling away. K. thought ﬂeetingly of his own home town, which was hardly inferior to this castle. If he had come here only to see the place, he would have made a long journey for nothing much, and he would have done better to revisit the old home that he hadn’t seen for so long. In his mind, he compared the church tower of his childhood home with the tower up above. The former, tapering into a spire and coming down to a broad, red-tiled roof, was certainly an earthly building — what else can we build? — but it had been erected for a higher purpose than these huddled, low-built houses and made a clearer statement than the dull, workaday world of this place did. The tower up here—the only visible one—now turned out to belong to a dwelling, perhaps the main part of the castle. It was a simple, round building, partly covered with ivy, and it had small windows, now shining in the sun — there was something crazed about the sight — and was built into the shape of a balcony at the top, with insecure, irregular battlements, crumbling as if drawn by an anxious or careless child as they stood out, zigzag fashion, against the blue sky. It was as if some melancholy inhabitant of the place, who should really have stayed locked up in the most remote room in the house, had broken through the roof and was standing erect to show himself to the world.
Once again K. stopped, as if standing still improved his powers of judgement. But his attention was distracted. Beyond the village church where he was now — in fact it was only a chapel, extend like a barn so that it could hold the whole congregation — lay the school. It was a long, low building, curiously combining the character of something temporary and something very old, and it stood in a fenced garden that was now covered with snow. The children were just coming out, with their teacher. They crowded around him, all eyes fixed on him, and they were talking away the whole time, do fast that K. couldn’t make out what they were saying. The teacher, a small, narrow-shouldered young man who held himself very upright, but without appearing ridiculous, has already seen K. from a distance — after all, apart from his own little flock K. was the only living soul to be seen far and wide. K., as the stranger here, greeted him first, noticing that despite his small stature he was used to being in command. ‘Good morning, sir,’ he said. All at once the children fell silent, and the teacher probably appreciated this sudden silence in anticipation of his remarks. ‘Looking at the castle, are you?’ he asked, more gently than K. had expected, but in a tone suggesting that he didn’t like what K. was doing. ‘Yes,’ said K. ‘I’m a stranger here; I arrived in the village only yesterday evening.’ ‘Don’t you like the castle?’ the teacher was quick to ask. ‘What?’ K. asked in return, slightly surprised. He repeated the question in a milder tone. ‘Do I like the castle? What makes you think that I don’t?’ ‘Strangers never do,’ said the teacher. Here K. changed the subject, to avoid saying anything the teacher didn’t like, and asked, ‘I expect you know the count?’ ‘No,’ said the teacher, and he was about to turn away, but K. wasn’t giving up, and asked again: ‘What? You don’t know the count?’ ‘What makes you think I would?’ asked the teacher very quietly, and he added in a louder voice, speaking French: ‘Kindly recollect that we’re in the company of innocent children.’ This made K. think he might properly ask: ‘Could I visit you one day, sir? I shall be here for some time, and feel rather isolated; I don’t fit in with the local rustics here, and I don’t suppose I will fit in at the castle either.’ ‘There’s no distinction between the local people and the castle,’ said the teacher. ‘Maybe not,’ said K., ‘but that makes no difference to my situation. May I visit you sometime?’ ‘I lodge in Swan Alley, at the butcher’s house.’ This was more of a statement than an invitation, but all the same K. said: ‘Good, then I’ll come.’ The teacher nodded, and went on with the crowd of children, who all started shouting again. They soon disappeared along a street that ran steeply downhill.
Kafka‘s last novel, The Castle, breaks new ground in evoking a dense village community fraught with tensions, and recounting an often poignant, occasionally farcical love-affair. This new translation by prize-winning translator Anthea Bell follows the German text established by critical scholarship, and mentions manuscript variants in the notes. The detailed introduction by Ritchie Robertson, a leading Kafka scholar, explores the many meanings of this famously enigmatic novel, providing guidance without reducing the reader’s freedom to make sense of this fascinating novel. Read Ritchie Robertson’s blog post: “Innocence and Experience: Childhood in Kafka.”
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