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?