Kafka’s Last Tri­al: The Case of a Lit­er­ary Legacy

  • Review
By – March 29, 2018

The sto­ry of what hap­pened to Kafka’s works after he died is as sor­did and byzan­tine as one of Kafka’s own tales. Mov­ing adroit­ly between court pro­ceed­ings, cul­tur­al realpoli­tik, and lit­er­ary analy­sis, Ben­jamin Balint tells a sto­ry that is not only fas­ci­nat­ing, but also helps one to become a bet­ter read­er of Kafka’s prose.

A brief sum­ma­ry for those who have not been fol­low­ing the court fil­ings: A dying Kaf­ka, in a moment that has become myth­i­cal, orders his best friend and great­est fan, Max Brod, to burn all his remain­ing man­u­scripts, let­ters, and papers. Brod can’t bring him­self to do the deed. Instead, the archive escapes with Brod, end­ing up in his apart­ment on a small street in Tel Aviv. We know the greater part of Kafka’s achieve­ment because Brod betrayed his friend’s explic­it instruc­tions that the work be destroyed. The work improb­a­bly sur­vives, while the rest of Europe, includ­ing much of Kafka’s fam­i­ly, goes up in flames in the cat­a­clysm that tran­spired twen­ty years after his death.

Brod lived a long life, nev­er quite recap­tur­ing his Mit­teleu­ropa promi­nence in the Mid­dle East but nev­er­the­less play­ing an impor­tant role in the ear­ly years of Habi­ma The­ater. Toward the end of his life, he took on a fel­low émi­gré, Esther Hoffe, as his sec­re­tary and assis­tant and bequeathed to her some of the Kaf­ka man­u­scripts. When she died in 2007, she left the man­u­scripts to her two daugh­ters, the younger of whom, Eva, is one of the main pro­tag­o­nists of Kafka’s Last Trial.

The cen­tral legal ques­tion that ani­mat­ed the decade-long legal pro­ceed­ings was whether this inter­gen­er­a­tional hand-off was legal and valid, as again­st­claims from both the Nation­al Library in Jerusalem and the Ger­man Lit­er­a­ture Archive (Deutsches Lit­er­at­u­rar­chiv) in Mar­bach. Brod had at var­i­ous points indi­cat­ed his desire that the papers migrate to more insti­tu­tion­al hands after Esther’s death, as opposed to becom­ing a Hoffe fam­i­ly pos­ses­sion in per­pe­tu­ity. The three-way bat­tle between Ger­man, Israeli, and per­son­al own­er­ship sets into high and obscur­ing relief the fig­ure of Kaf­ka him­self. Every tri­al is a bat­tle of nar­ra­tives, a con­test of sto­ries where a judge or jury is asked to decide between drafts. How­ev­er, the legal wran­gling over Kafka’s papers brings an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly rich set of con­texts to this con­ven­tion of adver­sar­i­al authorship.

Franz Kaf­ka, the man who became an adjec­tive, was a Jew­ish Czech writer who lived in Prague and wrote some of the most flaw­less Ger­man seen since Richard Wagner’s Tris­tan und Isol­de. He grew up in a fierce­ly sec­u­lar mid­dle-class house­hold, with an over­bear­ing father of mem­o­rable awful­ness. Large­ly through Brod, Kaf­ka encoun­tered the Jew­ish fer­ment hap­pen­ing in Prague: Mar­tin Buber, Zion­ist stir­rings, Yid­dish the­ater. He made plans to vis­it Pales­tine, took pri­vate Hebrew lessons, and was entranced by the Yid­dish speak­ers from the East, car­ri­ers of a Jew­ish­ness at once wilder and more pious than any­thing on offer in Prague. Kaf­ka was touched by these Jew­ish cur­rents, but nev­er quite con­sumed by them. As in oth­er things, his was not a tem­pera­ment of belong­ing, but a sen­si­bil­i­ty of separation.

So, who should own Kaf­ka? The Israelis claimed that his work belongs in Israel — the Jew­ish home­land cre­at­ed in the wake of the Holo­caust, and where Brod found refuge on the last train out of a col­laps­ing Czecho­slo­va­kia, where the Hoffes set up res­i­dence. Explic­it Jew­ish­ness appears nowhere in Kafka’s fic­tions, but for those with eyes to see it is every­where: in the lone­li­ness and the oth­er­ness, in the metaphors and the sense of being nei­ther here nor there. As Balint notes, the sig­nif­i­cance of the Jew­ish peo­ple and its polit­i­cal aspi­ra­tions to both Kaf­ka and Brod would prove cen­tral to the tri­al — and to the judge’s ver­dicts.” The great­est cham­pi­on of the Jew­ish Kaf­ka was Ger­shom Scholem, the Berlin-born schol­ar of kab­bal­ah who would reign at Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty for decades. For him, Kaf­ka was Torah. He was fond of say­ing that the Jew­ish troi­ka was the Hebrew Bible, the Zohar, and the works of Kaf­ka. Besides, Ger­many didn’t do a stel­lar job of pre­serv­ing Jews — why should they be trust­ed with their books?

Oth­ers aren’t so sure. Kaf­ka was a Ger­man writer who nev­er set foot in Israel. His library was rich with Ger­man texts, and his inter­est in Jew­ish­ness was nev­er as deep as Brod’s and Scholem’s. It was a flir­ta­tion with­out con­sum­ma­tion, and the absence of Jew­ish men­tion in his work was as inten­tion­al as it is glar­ing. Balint con­vinc­ing­ly shows how Kaf­ka is still an under­card in Israel; there is no com­plete edi­tion of his work in Hebrew. In Ger­many, on the oth­er hand, Kaf­ka is cen­tral to how Ger­man cul­ture under­stands itself. Kaf­ka has his own sec­tion on nation­al syl­labi, along­side the lights of the Mid­dle Ages and Enlight­en­ment. He is an epoch unto him­self, a writer who vis­it­ed Ger­many itself only rarely but inhab­it­ed its lan­guage ful­ly and peerlessly.

And what of Eva Hoffe, cling­ing to the sheaves of paper, her mul­ti­tude of cats prowl­ing over the price­less ink? It’s easy to see her as a hoard­er, a sad and lone­ly fig­ure whose ulti­mate legal defeat was only just. Kaf­ka should belong to the whole world, after all. Schol­ars should be allowed to vis­it the let­ters and scrib­bled diaries, com­pare ver­sions in the usu­al archival dance. But I think Kaf­ka would have under­stood Eva, her efforts to ward off anonymi­ty by cling­ing to frag­ments, her per­sis­tent sense of a con­spir­ing world. Remem­ber — Kaf­ka want­ed every word to burn. Who is to say how he would adju­di­cate the scram­ble amid the embers?

Ari R. Hoff­man is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty. He is cur­rent­ly a Dex­ter Dis­ser­ta­tion Com­ple­tion Fellow.

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