Franz Kafka is one of only a handful of writers whose names have entered into the vernacular: ‘Kafkaesque’, meaning bizarre, illogical, claustrophobic and, often, the product of a sinister, arbitrary bureaucracy. His three novels, two of which were unﬁnished, were published posthumously by his literary executor against his stated wishes. These books – unsettling, thought-provoking, yet with frequent ﬂashes of humour – have left an indelible mark on modern literature, inﬂuencing many later writers, from Albert Camus and Paul Auster to J. M. Coetzee and W. G. Sebald. These Folio Society editions, published in series with Metamorphosis and Other Stories, are illustrated by Bill Bragg, and use the best available translations, with each book featuring a newly commissioned introduction.
'A law court has its own peculiar power of attraction, don't you think?'
A respectable young banker, Josef K., is arrested on his 30th birthday and never ﬁnds out why. After his arrest, K. still goes to work, is visited by his uncle and even carries on abortive romances with various women. Yet all the while, the noose is tightening ... Kafka powerfully captures the plight of a helpless individual caught up in the toils of a meaningless, implacable system. As in a nightmare, K. finds that rooms change conﬁguration without warning; people behave according to a bizarre logic; K. knows things without knowing why or how. Yet the overall effect is of inescapable reality.
In 1912, Kafka was introduced to a young office worker named Felice Bauer, and they entered into a long and disastrous on–off engagement. Infuriated by his vacillations, Felice’s family called a meeting that Kafka described as a ‘tribunal’. Introducer John Banville shows how this experience inspired The Trial, and how the novel perfectly illustrates Freud’s deﬁnition of the uncanny as ‘the familiar re-presented to us in unfamiliar guise’. This edition is translated by Idris Parry.
‘Nowhere else had K ever seen one’s official position and one’s life so intertwined as they were here, so intertwined that it sometimes seemed as though office and life had switched places.’
The Castle is about a man who is caught between two types of society, both equally alienating. The protagonist (again, called K.), a land surveyor, has been summoned to a castle, located in a snowy nowhere-land. Yet the castle is closed to him and there is no record of him being summoned – his entire presence there, it seems, is due to a bureaucratic error. The count who sent the summons is never seen; the castle is ﬁlled with clerks ﬁling documents, issuing diktats and seducing the women of the village. K. seems doomed to remain an outsider in the village and yet is excluded from the castle. In his introduction to this edition, John Sutherland observes that Kafka was the ﬁrst, and greatest, writer to dramatise the shift in European society from feudal, familial ‘community’ (the village) to rational ‘bureaucracy’ (the castle). Translated by Mark Harman.
‘It was neither an old knight’s fortress nor a magnificent new edifice,
but a large complex, made up of a few two-story buildings and many lower,
tightly packed ones … Swarms of crows circled round it.’
‘He took his hand away from his chin, and waved it feebly, as though to indicate at one and the same time the remoteness of Europe and the insignificance of whatever plans might have been made there.’
Amerika was the first of Kafka’s novels, but the last to be published. A picaresque and idiosyncratic romp, it follows the adventures of Karl Rossman, sent away from home after getting a maid pregnant, as he leaves Europe and travels across America (a country Kafka never visited). Part social satire, part coming-of-age novel, it is lighter in tone than the rest of Kafka’s fiction, and owes a debt to a writer he hugely admired: Charles Dickens. Our introducer James Lasdun provides a fascinating exploration of two writers who shared ‘an instinctive sympathy with the downtrodden; an abiding interest in the effect of large, impersonal forces on small, vulnerable human beings’. Their differences are however, he says, equally revealing: ‘In Dickens, the source of cruelty is largely social and therefore amenable to correction. In Kafka, it is intrinsic to human existence.’
‘He took his hand away from his chin, and waved it feebly,
as though to indicate at one and the same time the remoteness of Europe
and the insignificance of whatever plans might have been made there.’
Read more about the life and work of Franz Kafka
Born in Prague in 1883 to a German-speaking Jewish family, Kafka spent most of his career in the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute. He hated his job, but was a conscientious employee, who helped many victims of industrial accidents. His work made him sympathetic to the individual faced with the impenetrable tyranny of bureaucracy. In the evenings he worked on his writing, honing his uniquely disturbing vision of the world. Kafka's three novels, two of which were unﬁnished, were published posthumously by his literary executor against his stated wishes. They have proved to be among the most enduring and influential works of the twentieth century.