By Jan Baetens
Le Château (“The Castle”) is a two hundred pages mute graphic novel by the Belgian artist Olivier Deprez. First published in 2002, this reinterpretation in expressionist black and white woodcuts of Kafka’s famous novel was immediately recognized as a masterpiece of modern graphic storytelling and had rapidly become a cult album. The longtime out of print status of the book dramatically increased its almost mythical standing, while slowly moving the work from the field of literature to that of visual arts (actually, the only way to access the material was to visit the regular exhibits of Deprez’s work, in Belgium as well as abroad).
The new edition of the book, superbly printed and including some minor edits and a strongly revised cover and flyleaf design, will finally enable a larger audience to discover and appreciate this milestone of the modern graphic novel, radically different from the prototypical features of this kind of narrative.
At first sight, one may even have the impression that The Castle rejects most of the elements that distinguish the graphic novel from mainstream comics: no autobiographical voice or plot, no blurring of boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, no attempt to present a narrative that ties in with the daily life and the ordinary concerns of today’s reader. Instead, the book appropriates a very old technique (woodcuts, here directly inspired by the pioneering early 20th Century work by Frans Masereel, the founding father of the wordless graphic novel), and is not afraid of proposing a personal yet faithful adaptation of a literary classic (Kafka’s unfinished novel was only published in 1926, two years after the death of the author).
Yet form and content of Deprez’s work are stunning. The novel’s plot, an endless and open series of waiting and missed encounters, is both cleverly respected and completely reinterpreted in a new way of visual telling. Key in this regard are two elements: first the tension between figuration and abstraction, which appear as two sides of the same coin; second the multiple plays with rhythm, as determined by the fundamental “beat” of the page layout, which generally offers a combination of two large horizontal panels (the notion of “gutter”, the worn-out stereotype of comics analysis which always repeats the importance of the “gap” between panels, is reworked according to the more fundamental logic of montage, the basic unit being the page and the double spread, not the sequentially arranged individual units).
The reading of Deprez’s Kafka book can now finally take a new start. In combination with a series of upcoming exhibits (among them a retrospective at the Wittockiana in Brussels), this new edition will represent a major and lasting contribution to the field of graphic storytelling in print.
Oliver Deprez, Le Château. D’après F. Kafka. Brussels : FRMK
ISBN : 9782390220138