Academic journal article German Quarterly

"Fräulein Bürstners weiße Bluse": Making Sense Stick in Kafka's The Trial

Academic journal article German Quarterly

"Fräulein Bürstners weiße Bluse": Making Sense Stick in Kafka's The Trial

Article excerpt

The Trial has twisted and turned very productively through generations of readers' hands, and one cannot do justice to the breadth and depth of critical inquiry that has accompanied it down the eighty-odd years of its reception - not in an article, and certainly not in the introductory comments to an article. I mention merely two of the trends pertinent to the present reading: many of the earliest commentators ascribe to the work a range of high-powered symbolical meanings (metaphysical, existentialist, spiritual, mystical - already in 1 961 Sontag refers to the "mass ravishment" of Kafka by "successive armies of interpreters") , and many later commentators draw attention to autobiographical substructures that Kafka himself may have expected his closer friends to recognize (at least in part) - but could not have anticipated commentators a century later to decode with more insight into his personal life than any of his friends were ever given access to.

Notwithstanding the fact that symbolic and biographical interpretations no longer feature at the forefront of Kafka scholarship, this severely reduced overview of The Trial's reception figures in the various editions commonly available to an English-reading audience. Thus Idris Parry prefaced his 1994 Penguin translation with biographical cross-referencing that sought to weaken the still popular idea of The Trial as high-powered allegory; and yet around the same time Vintage released its own line of Kafka, as originally translated by Edwin Muir, prefaced by Muir and with an afterword by Max Brod, whose various comments effectively corroborate each other's views of Kafka as an exemplary spiritual and artistic figure. Also available, albeit not pitched to the general public and to my knowledge only in German, is Roland Reuß's Stroemfeld historisch-kritische edition (1997), which restores the work to the fragmentary and disordered state in which Brod found it, thereby physically demonstrating the vast influence Brod had on the version of The Trial that has since become so familiar to readers. Most of these fragments were written in the wake of the first and final chapters of The Trial, both written around 11 August 1914 (Corngold, "Medial Allusions" 163), these two chapters forming, as it were, the lips of a novel yet to be forced apart by the rest of the work.

With this in mind, it is these two chapters which could be said to reflect most closely the original design of the novel before its development apparently got out of hand. I suggest, moreover, that in these first-written chapters one can best decipher the same exegetical tension that has been relayed to the novel's reception, namely that between the meaningful (symbolic) and the mundane (bio- and autobiographical). In contrast to the novel's reception, where these tendencies have contrastive agendas, particularly at the outset of the text these interpretative possibilities have a symbiotic relationship which is central to the text's development. As I propose to demonstrate, interpretative choices made in the generation of the narrative favor the flatteringly meaningful over the mundane - thus shame would rather be construed as the possibility of official guilt, and a simple apology would rather be deferred until after an official verdict. An initial semantic derailment is subsequently supported by a train of narrative manipulations and seemingly deliberate misreadings.

And yet who or what "would rather"? As we shall have opportunity to observe, despite his effortless competence Josef K. does not appear in the least clued in to just how he is complicit in and plays along with the process of plot construction. On the other hand, tracing this agency to the author himself would be the task of an autobiographical close reading which would possibly focus on Kafka's tendency to abdicate from personal responsibility, as dramatized and explored in his writings, specifically relating developments in The Trial to Kafka's relationship with Felice Bauer. …

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