Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Before the law

Recently there has been one of those Facebook list things - where someone writes a list and then nominates three other people who write a list and nominate...and so on. The subject of the list this time has been '10 books that have stayed with you'.

Like most people I could write a different list every day for different reasons. It depends on my mood - and my memory. It did, however, make me think I might go through my bookshelves and pick out books that I think have made a particular impact on me for whatever reason.

I can't remember when I first read Franz Kafka's The Trial - some time in my twenties I would imagine. What I am pretty sure of though, is that I would not be the same person had I not read it - not that it changed me so much as confirmed in me something that was already there.

The book has stayed with me like a half-remembered dream and the beginning is a favourite of mine:

Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K, for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.

The book was written at the beginning of the First World War and not published until 1925, after Kafka's death, but that paranoid beginning seems to be perpetually relevant. It could have been written in the 1950s, the 1970s - or yesterday.

I remember vividly the last passage too, where Joseph K is lead through town to a quarry to be stabbed 'Like a dog!' with a butcher's knife. This kind of bleakness has given Kafka a reputation for miserablism but he in fact expressed frustration that people did not recognise the humour in his work - dark though that humour undoubtedly is.

The section I remember most of all is the strange parable told in the novel called Before the Law. In this story a 'man from the country' comes and tries to gain admission to 'the Law' at a doorway in a wall, but the guard tells him it is not possible to gain admittance at that time. He is kept waiting for years until he is weak and near to death. He manages to summon the energy to ask the guard why in all the years he has waited there no other person has tried to gain entry. The guard tells him that no one could gain entry at that door because that door was meant for him and him alone and 'I am now going to shut it!'

It's hard to judge a style when you are reading in translation and in the case of Kafka's novels, reading fragments (although Before the Law was actually published on its own in his lifetime), but there is something magical about the way that story is structured. I loved it then and still re-read it occasionally and whenever I do it re-awakens something in me - something in the way I think about stories and about writing.

You can hear Orson Welles reading it in his film of The Trial with Anthony Perkins as Joseph K.

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