Franz Kafka and Charles Dickens:
the unconscious made public


THE NOVELS of Charles Dickens were translated into German shortly after their English publication. They were very popular. Franz Kafka in the main admired Dickens’ writing. This admiration shows through in Kafka’s own novels, themselves written in German. On reading The Trial or The Castle one is struck by parallels with Charles Dickens’ novels, particularly Bleak House. Bleak House was apparently written fairly quickly, the construction coming to Dickens easily. I know of no book where there is such a separation between a conscious surface (with its winding and improbable plot and its characterization based often upon living people) and its vast unconscious depth, into which it is possible to submerge oneself endlessly, and about which it is possible to say very little. The great engine of the book is the Court of Chancery, to which all the characters and events are in some way connected. The Court has become something more more vast and cohesive than a human institution; it has become ageless, even immortal: its immortality is thrown into a stony relief by the longevity of the cases which pass before it: some commenced before living memory. In the eyes of many of the characters—poor, mad Miss Flite, for example—it has become nothing less than a sentient being in its own right. This woman has no apparent connection with the Court (except that she attends it) but she anticipates (and expects) that it will intercede on her behalf. If the reader finds something of the covertly religious in this, then how much more so in the case of Gridley, the man from Shropshire, who, as the court rises and its officials depart, cries out to the departing Chancellor: 'My Lord!' He is unanswered: his frantic beseeching is only mocked by lawyers’ laughter.
The Court itself is surrounded by numerous premises which survive only because it exists—lodging-houses let to legal copywriters, the bailiffs’ headquarters, the law-stationers’ shop with its epileptic maid, Guster, whose upbringing was such that she takes the pinched meanness of her present surroundings to be a kind of paradise.
The Court is seen as an obscure mirror of a divine order. The Chancellor himself superintends the mechanism of the Court, his seat elevated, his head ringed by a nimbus of foggy glory. Yet this Court is an intermediate place—it, too, is mirrored by an underworld institution, a rag-and-bone shop of indescribable squalor, where everything that is unwanted and ownerless fetches up. This shop is presided over by an old man whose nickname is The Chancellor; he, too, will be illuminated by a kind of fire: but this fire will smell of brimstone and will consume him.
The triplication of order, each more obscure than the last, seems to be the world-view which prevails in the London of Dickens' imagination. It stands alone, and would stand alone were there no plot. In certain other of Dickens' work—The Uncommercial Traveller, for instance, several stories go forward more or less without any kind of worked-out intention. That is not to call then vignettes. The Uncommercial Traveller has frequently been dismissed by those critics who look for conscious intention and who are distressed when they do not find it, but some of the stories are astonishing: the unfolding world-view is all.

Against a foggy Manichaean London and a rain-swept Lincolnshire the plot of Bleak House moves, narrowly, the present not laying down the future but working out the past —a curious habit of Dickens’, in his exploratory novels, and one which, considered, has the unease of someone constantly looking behind themselves as they walk. Yet, curiously, the consciously improbable involutions of the plot do not really matter: it is the world-view which is unique.

It is not difficult to distinguish between the conscious surface and the unconscious depth (with its store of credible but unmeant metaphor) in Dickens’ Court of Chancery. How superficially similar but how deeply different is the Court in Kafka’s The Trial. The surface structure of the novel is inseparable from the depth which supports it. In many ways surface and depth are interchangeable: on gazing at surface one is feeling in deep. (I am drawn to ponder the wit of Oscar Wilde’s assertion that only the superficial look beneath the surface.) In this world the surface is only a slice—arbitrarily cut by the limiting phenomenon of personhood—through the substance of the deep. The surface is but a section through the deep which would otherwise be unseen. But all worlds are, it seems, like that.

A case falls silent in Dickens’ Chancery when the estate is eaten up in costs: thus all victories won through Chancery are hollow. The protagonist (and the accused) of The Trial is told that the Court is in session when he comes before it, and the Court is out of session when he leaves it. This has two meanings, each depending on the nature of the Court and the relationship between the Court and the accused. The surface meaning is that the accused decides the sitting of the Court. The deeper is that the Court is in session throughout the life of the accused: it begins its sessions before the accused knows of its existence: it finishes its business at the carrying out of the sentence. The deeper meaning, at the end of the book, becomes the surface, which, we now know, it always was, from the beginning.


David Wheldon, Bedford, Oct 2001


 A first encounter with Franz Kafka


ONE EVENING in Oxford – at about 10pm in the autumn of 1978 – having taken the final samples from my bacterial cultures, I hung my white coat on the back of the door and put my treble recorder in the pocket. I left the Gibson Laboratories and walked across the Woodstock Road to The Royal Oak for a glass of beer.

Over the months and during the long periods of waiting between the sampling-times in the dark and empty laboratory I had worked on two novels. The first had no name – I called it The Monastery Story – and it was a rambling mass of paper, hardly thought out, hardly conscious. (It was published by The Bodley Head in 1986: still a muddle for all Euan Cameron’s editorial work.) The second novel was half-finished, but the rest was in my mind. It was a story about a man walking along an abandoned railway: his concern was to leave the place of his birth, to quit his origins. The railway, through being empty, was therefore full of all possibility: it was to be a line of thought, a linear perspectival place of all potentiality, high on an embankment above the ordinary world. Forever, in the mind’s eye, would be the vanishing-point towards which one journeys, and about which one might speculate but ultimately say nothing. And, on turning round, a similar past. The character I called A. The thought behind this was one of cipher: ‘where A has gone, B and C will follow’, and the dialect Aye, yes, it is, I, Adam, the first, one.

I met Charles Harmon in the Royal Oak. He was a biochemist, a good friend of mine. We had been to the same school. Over the beer he asked me to tell him about my writing. I gave him a brief resumé of The Monastery Story (I am not good at talking about my work: I seize up, cannot speak: in interviews tens of minutes can go by.)

The resumé went something like this:

‘A stranger falls ill in the mountains, is cared for in a village which is dominated by a vast building, a monastery, it is said, though it has no ornamentation to suggest this purpose. In the altered mental state brought about by his fever he hears the vast vocabulary and organizing intelligence of the bells that sound down from the bell-tower of the monastery. He finds that he can predict the order of their sounding. What he hears has to do with feelings so deep he hardly knows them as his, and for which he can find no name. Apart from the familiarity of feeling that the bells evoke — or respond to — there is no possibility of any communication between himself (and, presumably, any other person) and the monastery.
‘On his recovery he talks to the magistrate of the village who is also the ‘secular agent’ of the monastery; it becomes clear that this can only be a self-invented post. The magistrate has been forced to make for himself a place in the monastic hierarchy in order to make order of the world which surrounds and overarches him.’

So my resumé continued:

‘It is a metaphor for the way in which we create an internal world, deep to the senses, that inexactly mirrors and to some unknowable extent decides the perceived one.
Inexactly is the key: for it means that an only an essentially unknowable world is habitable.
‘The story is an allegory of what we call the self, and which, for all the error and ignorance within this name, and all the weight of its unknown history, must in the end be accepted without examination. At it best, enquiry can only make: at its worst, it may evoke a malign and parodic counter-enquiry.’


The beer was finished: Time was called. Charles invited me back to his rooms, saying that he had a book to give me. He cycled: I ran. It was a wet evening. He handed me the book: it was Franz Kafka’s The Castle; a paperback Penguin edition. ‘Have you read this?’ he asked. ‘No,’ I said. He lent me the book. I caught the last bus home, reading deeply during the journey. I remember exclaiming to myself, as the bus arrived at the top of Headington Hill: ‘this contains truths so lucid they are nearly physical.’ I read the book during the night and finished it about five in the morning.

When The Viaduct came to be published (I didn’t seek its publication: I lent the manuscript to a friend, and she submitted it to an agent without telling me) I raised my fears with Euan Cameron, editor at The Bodley Head. ‘Readers will think that my A is taken from Kafka’s K.’ He thought about this, and said, ‘but you had not read Kafka when you wrote your work, and that is surely the end of the matter. Readers may think what they wish.’

And that’s the truth. The two works are indeed remarkably dissimilar. They were born in different ages. Anyone who thinks otherwise knows neither author well.

Well-known names in the canon of literature are popularly assigned the whole weight of their period. This is particularly so of the name of Franz Kafka. He was writing within the very anima of his time. Examples come quickly to mind: the damage which has been inflicted upon his characters before they even emerge onto the page: the damage which makes them clutch the slightest straws in a ship-wrecked continent: the damage which makes them frightful and fearful beings, who, in their anxiety to survive, will scar themselves further and will not hesitate to injure others. The very mechanicality of the ordering of the black-and-white cinematographic set (visual but unsighted) is in itself filled with purpose. The unpersoned but personal process – begun long before the curtain rises; begun, a fearful thought, while the protagonist is still in the womb – is found in so much writing, so many films and plays of the period: it is even found in the work of philosophers and demographers of the time. But this process was at its most clear in the work of Kafka, and Kafka’s name has been chosen to bear its weight. The term Kafkaesque (originally of light-hearted coinage) says much. But, above and beyond all this, the certainty is that Kafka, as though he were one of his own characters, did not spare himself. And that was surely because – with the same prescience accorded to Carl Jung – he was able to find and write down a vision of the future, to see ahead, to grasp all that would lie over the terrible horizon: the unfolding machinery of inhuman destruction which was to grip Europe so quickly and so tightly, and by which so many of Kafka’s own family were to die. Like other great writers he was able to stand at the horizon of his own sight.


Many of Kafka’s characters face a horizon which recedes at their approach; the horizon may be that of distance, or of meaning, or of comprehension; that which seems on the edge of being understood, strained by the exertion of the approach, no longer means. The situation on the skyline, which seems so distant and yet so clear to the Kafkan observer, takes on a different and reductive character as he grows closer. Closeness is cognate with baseness; remoteness with elevation and purity. Time after time this occurs, metaphor upon metaphor: the great bell of the inaccessible Castle sounds out like some deep-voiced bourdon, while the bell from the village (to which the protagonist has unlimited access) has a crazy, meaningless, jangling quality. There is a kind of subtle counterflow of identity here. That which is (so to speak) on the skyline and seen remotely partakes of an identity imposed by the distant viewer; on his approach and as more of its nature is revealed, its identity appears to change; but the viewer’s conjectures do not necessarily fall away as closer experience shows them to have been mistaken. When he stands on the skyline of his own past he must confront what he had seen distantly: he finds that it has no meaning. This is alarming, because it is very true to life. One thinks of the maxim ‘living in hope’; this maxim might have been coined for the protagonist of The Castle: it might be the reason why so many of Kafka’s characters continue their struggle: in the never-ending journey to define the recessionary meaning of the horizon (of dimension, time, or self) they find an uneasy reason for their being alive.
Expectation – ostensibly centering on some coming event, but, in reality, centred on no nameable thing – is an integral part of human nature, and one which is alarming to consider. Kafka considers it constantly, refining and poetically exaggerating it in many of his stories. In his hands it becomes not only alarming but dangerous – the Statue of Liberty, sighted by so many immigrants with so much expectation, holds, in Kafka’s Amerika, not a torch but a naked unsheathed sword.
That which stands on the horizon of visual and mental sight becomes both meaningless and dangerous on the approach; when it becomes one with oneself it is incompatible with life. The end of The Trial is a most disturbing piece of literature because the outcome of the trial is both seen and hidden as the two opera-hatted murderers pass the knife slowly between them, holding the handle meaningfully towards the protagonist as though indicating that he has both the opportunity and the power to take the knife and to conclude the trial himself. Indeed, as one reads this extraordinary work, one wonders whether the event which is unfolding before the reader’s eye is the anticipatory crime rather than its punishment: or, perhaps, crime and punishment have become one entity. And all the time there may be a witness at the window of the isolated house which stands nearby, a kind of diminished Berkeleyan deity who might or might not exist, and who, if indeed a witness, has no will to intervene. The reader is in this position also, having the power to witness but the inability to act, save that he ‘reads’ the account.
The theme of the remote becoming debased or traduced in its approach is one which occurs repeatedly, as though the writing were a fugue (literally, a flight) upon this theme. After a while the reader will see something appear over the curvature, as it were, of the world of the writing, and will begin to speculate on the manner of its coming debasement. This occurs over and over throughout The Castle and The Trial and adds to the tension which these two books possess. I have read these books once but could not bear to read either of them a second time – all except for the pages of The Trial which contain the parable of the doorkeeper. The parable occurs towards the end of the book, and is the culmination of the fugue: all comes together: the approach to justice itself has no reality – it does not even have the empty status of a void – but the system of approach, shimmering, always accessible, theoretical and theoretically intact, can bear no real weight or use. It is pristine only because it cannot be touched.
The appeal for an approach to the Law is, in many respects, an image parallel to that of Job’s righteous demand for an approach, through the Law, to the presence of his Maker, to stand before him, face to face, and to take issue with him from the narrows of his own experience.


David Wheldon, Bedford, 1990



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