On Kafka and Sleep

(The following essay is based on a premise for which I now see no evidence: a stopping point for Kafka’s book, The Castle, I feel certain I read. Everywhere is a claim of some unfinished line and there is just no trace of what I recall in any of these exhaustive online conversations and descriptions of the novel. My entire proposal could be based on any of several things, from the version I read having reached a limited representation on the internet, to my early onset of senility but if the giving away of what I remember to be the “ending” to an unfinished book is what you’d consider a “spoiler,” you’d probably best not read further; and if a personal stream of consciousness interpretation of Kafka is likely to trigger in you a response filled with academic and/or literary canonist’s pride, you’d probably best fuck off).

It’s been a while since I read The Castle. Have you read it? Which ending? We’re told he didn’t finish it, but as of the last page of the volume of my memory, I was satisfied the story had ended, whether that be precisely where Kafka stopped writing, thinking it a temporary abandonment, or just the version as edited by that Max guy being what I’ve taken as the last line. Because Franz Kafka, along with everything else there is to say about him–more clever things than I will ever write about anyone have been written about him in volumes of essays competing for the right to write about Kafka; be it the result of self-importance or scholarship or legitimate insight or whatever it takes to be capable of flexing that way: “I can compare Dostoyevsky to Dickens and explain why the story of their meeting either is or isn’t real”; “I can play Joe Pass licks during busy hours at a Guitar Center”; and along those lines, “I can tell you how much more I understand about Kafka than the people who wrote essays before me”; some of these people are right and some aren’t and they’re all very clever, I guess–but he was not an easy man to pin down, and I only came to this venue to explain why the ending I read to The Castle was one Kafka might have eventually intended.

From the moment K. enters this town, he’s fucked and the sum of my flexing for rights to write about Kafka will come down to this: I understand better than some people the kind of fucked that K. was. He was fucked without a line on anything but how to get more fucked. He had people swarming around him, eager to explain to him how fucked he was, to help him complicate the matter by fucking him over more without even necessarily or seemingly trying to; people running back and forth across the town with news of just how far off he was from the simplest of marks–confirmation of the job he was hired for and instructions on how to begin–add to that just enough of a clue toward his goal to keep him interested and you’ve got a five or six-hundred-page anxiety dream presented with the most exquisite, strangely familiar, fearlessly intimate prose I’ve ever read, translated by the who knows who go-to of Penguin Publishing or not.

The Castle may have even been the first writing I ever took in of Kafka’s, and at that time it seemed as if I was reading through the details of a past life. I’ve lately thought of going back and reading it again but I’m frightened of the idea–will it seem as if that past life was as illusory as so many of the ideas I carried around at the time? Does the closeness I felt to Kafka’s impressions have an expiration date of some kind, now that I have lived through my twenties, and anyway, is what was important to me then any less or more important than whatever has changed in the process of surviving?

Regardless, I’ll make a claim about Kafka I shouldn’t have to defend, even to the flexors–he was one to reflect heavily on his own behavior. If “Letter to His Father” and the collection of letters to his fiance, Felice, aren’t enough to make that point for me, I’m more inclined anyway to refer to a line in The Trial, where looking back on what seemed a trivial exchange, the author remarks that K. was satisfied with his part in it. I’ve heard people say they didn’t much like K. as represented in The Trial, and maybe this came from a misunderstanding of incidents like this one–to me it shows that his walking away from any dealings with other people without holding criticisms of how he handled it was worth remarking on, and therefore an abnormality for the character. I’m relying on this loosely recalled, paraphrased moment to segue loosely into how it was The Castle‘s perhaps accidental ending took me out of my own miserable scrutiny, despite the widely accepted blanket statement that Kafka’s writing is “bleak.”

I work a night job, and questions of whether one behaved appropriately, or performed his duties according to the local protocol, or questions of any kind can become strained under the brutal and elusive magnifying glass of sleep deprivation. When I first started working here, my second job in several years in the hotel business, I was in the process of moving, working and trying to find a place and one week of this in particular took a debilitating toll on my weekly hours of rest. Along with a tendency to second guess my performance on a job in the early days of learning the details especially, I found I was in a spiral of self-doubt; most particularly over my inability to reason out that the early details of this job were very similar to the early details of every other job I’d ever had (especially my last one though–as it was also at a hotel); these were details over which I had never been fired, over which I had rarely even been reprimanded. Why was I troubled? Why should I care about these things when the next shift would either prove to me it was nothing, or stand as a short lesson regarding how this particular hotel is run as compared to the last one where I worked?

I shouldn’t have, but there I was. Going round and again these various items, all numbers shit or how something could come back to haunt me and it never would, and I knew it and around and again and again it went in spite of that flimsy logical grasp of an anxiety that was at the center of it, illogical.

But with the moving, a rental truck proved unwieldy an acquisition for the day, unless picked up by an ungodly hour to the likes of us night-auditors, and so I did something I almost never do anymore on the biggest day of the move–I basically stayed up all night. I might have winked for an hour or two but after getting the stuff to Albuquerque I was on a shift again that night without a nap and in the middle of all these thoughts I went to the ending of The Castle as I remembered it, more or less: “And all he wanted was to sleep–.” In that moment I finally let go of everything–I realized that the only matter of true consequence was getting through the rest of my shift and making my way to bed. It may not seem profound, but in the midst of what was happening in my head at the time–such a compulsive cycle of thinking that was so utterly and transparently futile–my exhaustion became my best and truest asset. I embraced it and suffered less even in waking hours that followed. I don’t remember how I slept but the relief from my own thoughts was absolute.

The Castle presents to the reader something that cannot be resolved–a noble, yet pitiful grasp for sanity amidst the dysfunctional hierarchy of a strange land. The town of K.’s hiring is everywhere if these places are looked upon with such a desperate desire for purpose, and the guardians of the hierarchy resent the very prospect of a visitor who doesn’t understand that a desire for purpose is reason enough in full to respond with jealous wrath. When K. becomes outraged or exasperated, whether he is truly innocent to the game or simply trying to deny to himself what sort of game he’s meant to be playing, this jealousy turns to hatred for his unwillingness to see them the way they see themselves, instead of the way they actually appear to K. Brilliantly, magically, Franz Kafka gave to us, if against his deathbed wishes, a post-mortem resolution to this thing that cannot be resolved–by way of resignation to one’s own faculties, specifically the ability to sleep. His quest for truth in the middle of a shit-storm of illusion gave way, if all too eventually, to an immutable and natural need in his body, and he was whole again in that moment, and it was the perfect ending; the only honest way to finish such a story.

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