Max Brod has a lot to answer for. As the closest thing Franz Kafka had to a best friend, and more pertinently also his literary executor, Brod was given clear instructions that he was to destroy all Kafka’s unpublished work following his death, which came on June 3, 1924. Brod ignored this, and we can thank him for bringing all three of Kafka’s full-length novels, The Castle, The Trial, and Amerika, into print as a result. English translations by the husband and wife team of Edwin and Willa Muir started to appear in 1930 with The Castle, the book Kafka had labored over and then abandoned not long before his death at the age of forty, a victim of tuberculosis that in time made the act of swallowing so painful that it now appears he succumbed to starvation.

Brod often warned Kafka that he would refuse his instructions and said that had he truly been serious about wanting his manuscripts destroyed in this way he would have appointed a different executor. We can argue the merits of the case one way or another, even while deploring some of its broader consequences when applied to other authors and their posthumous works. Earlier this year, Knopf published the late Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Until August, many years after he had unambiguously told his two sons, “This doesn’t work. It must be burnt.” Now the sons have not only brought out the book but also have concluded in a preface that their father’s “then fading facilities [sic] that kept him from finishing the novel also kept him from realizing how good it is,” a view that appears to be at odds with the critical consensus.

Other such projects over the years have raised similar questions about the ethical and aesthetic soundness of posthumous publication. During his lifetime, Vladimir Nabokov was meticulous when it came not only to the plots and narrative tone of his books but also to the use of the “ands” and the “buts,” and before he died in 1977 he was no less fastidious in his instructions to his executors to burn the “hideous mistake” of his work in progress The Original of Laura. Nonetheless, by 2009 the book was on sale, an event that caused Alexander Theroux in the Wall Street Journal to compare the Nabokov of Laura to Lou Gehrig in 1939 and Martin Amis to write in his own review that “when a writer starts to come off the rails, you expect skidmarks and broken glass, [but here] the eruption is on the scale of a nuclear accident.”

In similar vein, there was David Foster Wallace’s Pale King, which was published in 2011, three years after its author’s suicide. Benjamin Alsup at Esquire perhaps spoke for many when he wrote that while not completely without merit, the book as published was “incomplete” and “frustratingly difficult,” and “potholed throughout by narrative false starts and dead ends.” And for that matter, can any objective party truly believe that the reputation of Ernest Hemingway, that male literary equivalent of the Statue of Liberty, was significantly enhanced by the publication in 1986 of The Garden of Eden, which followed twenty-five years after the author’s suicide? For readers fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with the book, it’s an interminable adolescent daydream about sexual transference and androgyny which Barbara Probst Solomon described in the New Republic as a “travesty,” before concluding, “I can report that Hemingway’s publisher has committed a literary crime.”

But what should we make of Kafka’s final, inchoate novel The Castle? A century on, it’s still a matter of debate whether it was worthy of Max Brod to have rescued the original manuscript, which ends mid-sentence, and then to have published it in a heavily edited version two years after his friend’s death. And it remains an open question whether it should be read as a spiritual allegory, with the protagonist vainly seeking admission to the sanctuary, or demi-paradise, stated in the book’s title; or perhaps as just another of its author’s characteristic excursions into a bureaucratic wasteland, its central character, “K.,”the walking punchline to a cosmic jest of unfathomable cruelty.

In January 1922, when he was thirty-eight, Kafka traveled to the ski resort of Spindelmühle, set in a valley amidst the snow-capped peaks of the Giant Mountains in the present-day Czech Republic. The natural beauty of his surroundings failed to move him. Surveying his carefree fellow guests at the resort, Kafka wrote in his diary of his twinned feelings of unfitness for any lasting human relationship and his “endless astonishment whenever I see a group of people cheerfully assembled.” Indeed he was in Spindelmühle not for its alpine sport but because his doctor had insisted that he, a figure now pitiful in his suffering, take a leave of absence from his position as an assessor at Prague’s Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute, where he was primarily responsible for interviewing and examining factory employees who had lost fingers or limbs or suffered some equally debilitating injury owing to the poor work safety practices of the day.

“Everything now seems over with,” Kafka wrote in his diary that same month. He found it impossible to sleep, and equally “impossible to endure life,” seemingly tortured by an “inner clock [that] runs crazily on at a devilish or demoniac or in any case inhuman pace” while “the outer one limps along at its usual speed.” In the late 1980s, a photograph came to light that purports to show Kafka arriving in Spindelmühle. He is seen posing at the side of the horse-drawn sleigh that has brought several travelers on the last leg of their journey from Prague. The figure who may or may not be Kafka stands a little apart from his fellow passengers, his features blurred by snow, but a faint smile playing on his thin lips. It is dusk, and there’s something that suggests an isolating, or at least not wholly welcoming, scene imbued with latent menace, the same ingredients present in the opening paragraphs of the novel he began by gaslight in his small upstairs room at the hotel later that night.

“It was late evening when K. arrived,” the book opens in its most popular (though far from unchallenged) English translation. “The village was deep in snow. The Castle hill was hidden, veiled in mist and darkness, nor was there even a glimmer of light to show that a castle was there. On the wooden bridge leading from the main road to the village K. stood for a long time gazing into the illusory emptiness above him.”

And so we’re off, immediately plunged into a realm a later generation would come to know as “Kafkaesque,” where nothing is ever quite as it seems. Essentially, it’s the tale of K., who claims to be a land surveyor, sent by a party or parties unknown, for some purpose unknown, to the Castle, itself an unknown quantity. What particular function K. is supposed to complete while on the premises we never discover. Rather than offer the reader the solace of a linear narrative, conventional dialogue, and credible internal logic, Kafka instead trades in shadow and mood, with the omnipresent shroud of snow an obvious device to convey that oppressively shuttered world that characterizes his writing.

Brod never believed that Kafka was serious about wanting The Castle destroyed, insisting that his friend had taken great pleasure in seeing his work in print.

Later in his stay at the resort, Kafka wrote of his situation as “a dreadful one, alone here in Spindelmühle, on a forsaken road, moreover, where one keeps slipping in the snow in the dark, a senseless road, but unavoidable, without an earthly goal.” This is surely what the novel itself is “all about,” if it’s about anything at all. How could the description be bettered? Juddering down a dim and perilous path to an unstated but indefeasible destination, with no satisfactory answer as to the purpose of one’s journey in the first place—he may not have intended the metaphor consciously, but it sums up the man and the work.

On March 15, 1922, Kafka read the first chapter of The Castle to Max Brod, who was immediately struck by its brilliance. Brod went on to write, a little breathlessly, of the man he called a “Diesseitswunder”—an earthly miracle—as “the mainstay of my whole existence.” Nonetheless, Kafka abruptly abandoned the novel the following September after suffering an apparent nervous breakdown caused by anxiety over his living arrangements once back in Prague. Brod never believed that Kafka was serious about wanting The Castle destroyed, insisting that his friend had taken great pleasure in seeing his work in print. What was more, Kafka invariably seized the opportunity to read extracts of the book aloud: “Anyone who had the privilege of hearing him recite his own prose to a small circle, with a rhythmic sweep, a dramatic fire, a spontaneity such as no actor ever achieves, got an immediate impression of the delight in creation and the passion that informed his work.”

In time Brod himself set about significantly editing The Castle, which took on some of the more overtly religious flavor and narrative structure—a quest, fraught with danger—of The Pilgrim’s Progress as a result. The first edition, published in 1926, failed to sell its 1,500-copy print run. Four years later the Muirs brought out the book’s first English translation, an estimable labor of love on their part, if one that further accentuated what they saw as the book’s essentially spiritual message and, as they put it, “normalized” much of the author’s deliberately eccentric syntax and punctuation. A subsequent edition from 1941, with an homage by Thomas Mann, was the one that introduced Kafka to a mass audience, for whom his central thesis—that the human condition was essentially absurd, and the human race itself the product of one of God’s bad days—may have resonated with a generation again confronted by the spectacle of a world tearing itself to pieces.

Kafka did not live to see his name raised up among the pantheon of modernist authors, and he may well have had mixed views on the matter had he done so. We’ll never know. He was nursed through his final agony both by his favorite sister, Ottilie, whom he called Ottla, and a succession of lovers. Towards the end he opened his eyes to see his doctor briefly move away from his bed and pleaded with him not to leave. The doctor said he was not leaving. Kafka answered in a deep voice, “But I am,” and closed his eyes. An alternative scene was suggested years later by an attending nurse, who insisted that Kafka had managed to raise himself one final time to smell a bunch of flowers at the bedside: “It was unbelievable: and even more unbelievable was the fact that he had opened his left eye and seemed to come alive. He had such amazingly brilliant eyes, and his smile was so full of expression and his hands and eyes communicated when he could no longer speak.”

Perhaps not even Kafka could have imagined the terrible fate that befell Ottla and others of his circle in the years ahead. It is a tale of almost phantasmagoric evil. In 1943, the fifty-year-old Ottla volunteered to accompany a trainload of children from their ghetto at Terezín in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to their final destination at Auschwitz. On arrival at the death camp she proudly declared herself to be a Jew, in full knowledge of the likely consequences. Kafka’s two other sisters, Elli and Valli, also died in the camps. His uncle Siegfried, a rare benign presence in his nephew’s childhood, committed suicide to avoid deportation. At least six other family members vanished in the Holocaust. In time Max Brod escaped to Palestine, taking Kafka’s last unpublished manuscripts with him.