Personal Best: The Castle

"The Castle" by Franz Kafka

By Andrew Ross
Published September 30, 1996 11:50AM (EDT)

i am probably one of those reasonably well-protected, if introverted and somewhat scared, individuals whose personality may have been formed as much by such reading experiences as by real, outer life. There weren't too many black people in the south of England, where I was raised, but I became fiercely race-conscious (a feeling that has since evolved into a more troubling ambivalence) upon reading James Baldwin's "Another Country."

Baldwin's is one of the books that made a permanent imprint upon me, as good a criterion as any for choosing a personal best. The list would include those which have provided purely visceral pleasure, like Stephen King's "The Shining." Then there is the deeper, more profound satisfaction gleaned from a book that fires on every narrative, emotional and intellectual cylinder -- I am thinking here of "The Honorable Schoolboy," by John Le Carré.

But how to explain "The Castle," by Franz Kafka, an insurance clerk from early 20-century Prague? I was introduced to Kafka one summer by a fellow, who like myself, sold ice cream on the beaches of Brighton. He was 15, I was 14, and therefore he was a father figure. He smoked, had an attitude and I don't remember his name. I do remember his dog-eared copy of "The Metamorphosis and Other Stories," and I remember being stunned, enthralled, and never for a moment questioning that a human being could wake up one morning to find himself transformed into a monstrous bug, much to the chagrin of his family.

Perhaps it was Kafka's foreboding that appealed to an English-Jewish boy who would not have been born had World War II gone the other way. That foreboding, for me, reached its complete expression with "The Castle." No matter how hard the Surveyor tried, he could not gain admittance. No matter how austere Kafka's writing, K filled every crevice of my being as he pursued his hopeless quest. It was all a dream -- surreal, and yet totally, totally real. Dry, matter-of-fact, basic and hyper-intense.

That "The Castle" was unfinished was the crowning ironic glory. The metaphor, as Kafka must have known in his torture, is so very, permanently, apt.

Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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