Elias Canetti

Kafka’s Other Trial

“If one thinks about it with a little courage, our world has indeed become one in which fear and indifference predominate... Kafka was the first to present the image of this world.”

In 1914 Franz Kafka faced a humiliating public trial when his fiancé broke their engagement. His letters show a man pained and powerless, manic with desire to rest, and yet, above all, creatively inspired.

Kafka’s Other Trial is a considerate analysis of this desperate time in Kafka’s life by Elias Canetti (July 25, 1905 – August 14, 1994), a Bulgarian/British writer and Nobel Prize winner.

Two decisive events in Kafka’s life—events which he and all the people would have wanted to keep especially private—had taken place in a way that was embarrassingly public: the official engagement in the Bauer family home on June 1 and, six weeks later, on July 12, 1914, the ‘tribunal’ at the Askanische Hof, which led to the breaking of the engagement. It can be shown that the emotional substance of both events entered directly into The Trial, which Kafka began to write in August. The engagement becomes the arrest in the first chapter; the ‘tribunal’ appears as the execution in the last.

Canetti walks us through the relationship between Kafka’s life and art and how one informed the uniqueness of the other.

The uniqueness of his work, in which emotions hardly appear, though literature otherwise swarms with them, volubly and chaotically. If one thinks about it with a little courage, our world has indeed become one in which fear and indifference predominate. Expressing his own reality without indulgence, Kafka was the first to present the image of this world.

Kafka graffiti, Prague in 2013. Featured in Kafka's "Investigations of a Dog" in the Examined Life Library.
Kafka graffiti in Prague, Czech Republic. Photograph by Peter Fosberg.

Kafka’s writing was a touchstone of style and characters who were the embodiment of suffering. Failure wasn’t something that happened to him; it was him. Like Gregor in The Metamorphosis, who finds himself a beetle and, surprisingly, accepts this state.

In The Metamorphosis degradation is concentrated in the body that suffers it: the degraded object is, from the first moment, compactly there. Instead of a son, who feeds and supports the family, all of a sudden there is an insect. This transformation exposes him, inescapably, to humiliation; an entire family feels provoked to inflict it actively.

Canetti said The Metamorphosis was the most perfect, poetic essay in the 20th century. The reformation of a human being through suffering. It was all-encompassing and, according to Canetti, mimicked quite a deal how Kafka dealt with his own life.

Of the intense voyeurism we perpetrate when reading too closely the personal/private correspondence of another, Canetti has this to say:

I found these letters more gripping and absorbing than any literary work I have read for years past. They belong among those singular memoirs, autobiographies, collections of letters from which Kafka himself drew sustenance. He himself, with reverence his loftiest feature, had no qualms about reading, over and over again, the letters of Kleist, of Flaubert, and of Hebbel.

Franz Kafka meant a great deal to modern literature and to the literature of Eastern Europe, to writers like Canetti. Prague turns on the prime riverside placement of the Kafka Museum. A Romanian friend of mine described Ionesco as “our version of Kafka.”

We assign part of our best selves to writers, thinkers, poets—those who write things that capture and expand our minds and tell us something about ourselves that we know but cannot express.1

Kafka's Other Trail
“I lack the peace of simple things” wrote poet Wendell Berry. I immediately thought of Kafka. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Kafka’s work often finds his main characters awake within nightmares. In The Trial, it is a nightmare fabricated from unjust persecution; the novel begins:

Somebody must have made a false accusation against Josef K. for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong.

Many people we might read have mentioned others in this long line of human continuum and consciousness. Mary Oliver referred to Walt Whitman as the brother she never had. Whitman himself took tremendous inspiration from Henry David Thoreau.

When I remember the times when I was still living in the midst of dogs, taking part in everything that concerned them – a dog among dogs – I do find on closer examination that there was always something not quite right about the picture, a little breach or rupture; a mild unease would befall me at the heart of the most respected tribal occasions, yes, sometimes even in intimate settings; no, not just sometimes, but very often, the sight of a dear fellow dog, his mere aspect, somehow seen afresh, could make me embarrassed, shocked, alarmed- yes, even desperate. I tried to calm myself, friends I discussed it with helped me, quieter times came along, times that were not free of such surprises either, only they were accepted in a spirit of greater equanimity, were more casually absorbed into the tissue of life; perhaps they made me sad and tired, but they allowed me to continue to exist as a perhaps somewhat aloof, reserved, frightened, calculating, but all in all regulation dog.

From Franz Kafka’s Investigations of a Dog

Kafka was instrumental to many who wrote at the intersection of pain, guilt, and self-awareness. Others have too. Pain had a compounding effect according to C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed: not only are we in pain, but we’re irrevocably aware of it. The mid-20th-century poetry of American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg pivots between power (self-actualization) and powerlessness.

Is pain something that happens to us, that we invite in? Or is it something of our own creation? And what power do we have against it?
Illustration of Franz Kafka © The Examined Life