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Few artists ever develop as singular a style as Franz Kafka. Even though Kafka wrote only three novels and a few dozen short stories (almost none of which were published in his lifetime), his work is so uniquely haunting and familiar that his name inspired an adjective: Kafkaesque. A dictionary might define Kafkaesque as any work marked by surreal logic of menacing proportions. But any definition misses the details that make Kafka's work so rewarding.
Kafka's stories take place in a universe that follows the logic of dreams. Time slips away, distances stretch and bend, people change personalities in an instant, and humans
| mutate overnight. Yet, as we do in dreams, his characters take these distortions in stride. This casual acceptance of the surreal hints at a shadowy world behind our own. Yet, as we do in dreams, his characters take these distortions in stride. This casual acceptance of the surreal hints at a shadowy world behind our own. In this world, everyone else knows what's going on, though they won't explain themselves. These people are petty, officious, and self-important, but they're also somehow average, even boring, which ultimately makes them more ominous. In Kafka's nightmare landscape, the most pedestrian objects and events become the most frightening.
Yet the tone is one not of danger but of guilt. Almost all of the characters assume they must be guilty of something. The happy ones don't care, and the foolish ones are proud. It falls to the protagonist to try to do something about it. These heroes are the most important characteristic of the Kafkaesque, though they are often left out of the definition. Even though they are aware that they don't fit in, fitting in is what they desire most. These heroes are almost anonymous: some have no name at all, while others, like the hero of The Castle, are known only by an initial. And they all strive with incredible, even stubborn, intensity to penetrate the mysteries of this world and relieve themselves of the burden of guilt.
Ultimately, however, this is impossible. Kafka's work might be summed up as the unstoppable force of the spirit meeting the immovable object of reality, except that Kafka believes that this force must eventually fail because it is human. But of all his writings, The Castle is the only one to provide a kind of solution, a suggestion that his art is not wholly pessimistic. In Kafka's earlier works, the hero's failure was complete. In The Castle, written two years before Kafka's death, K. remains defiant until the end. His strength earns the reader's admiration and makes him tragic rather than pathetic. The Castle is one of the great tragedies of the 20th century, not because it accepts that the unseen forces of the Kafkaesque will defeat us (though they certainly will), but because it suggests that we will continue to struggle. And that, Kafka implies, is itself a victory.
Aaron Leichter, co-adaptor and dramaturg
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