Print Edition - 2019-01-12  |  On Saturday

Courtrooms for Kafka’s legacy

  • Kafka’s dying request that his manuscripts be destroyed sparked a legal battle that raged for decades
- Tim Adams

Jan 12, 2019-

As he lay dying of tuberculosis in 1924, Franz Kafka left perhaps the most infamous last will and testament of any 20th-century writer. The note was sent in the form of a letter to his great friend, disciple, agent and executor, Max Brod. “Dear Max,” it read, “perhaps this time I will not recover at all…” The will went on to detail the few stories he had written “that can stand”, which included ‘The Judgment’ and ‘Metamorphosis’. “Everything else of mine which is extant,” Kafka demanded, “all those things without exception are to be burned, and I beg you to do this as soon as possible.”

The note, discovered in Kafka’s desk in the Prague apartment belonging to his parents, in which he lived for all but the last of his 40 years, left Brod with the worst of all dilemmas. Since the pair had first met as law students at Charles University—“a collision of souls”—22 years earlier, Brod, widely recognised as a literary prodigy himself, viewed Kafka as his great mission in life. Kafka was compulsive about his writing and despairing of its merit in about equal measure. By 1910, he confessed to Brod that he had never “managed a single line I’d care to acknowledge… The sentences literally crumble in my hands; I see their insides and have to stop quickly.”

Had it not been for Brod’s insistent championing of his friend’s genius, Kafka might well have destroyed all of his work long before he died. “At times,” Brod confessed, “I stood over him like a rod, drove him and forced him again and again by means of new tricks.” Kafka rarely thanked his confidant for this bullying, but Brod was not deterred. Almost alone, he had read Kafka, understood the ways in which he was unique—qualities that would one day give rise to the term ‘Kafkaesque’.

“What mattered to me,” Brod said of his efforts to get that work into print, “was the thing itself, the helping of a friend even against the wish of a friend.”

On reading Kafka’s posthumous instruction, Brod remained faithful to the writing, not to the writer.

He did not follow Kafka’s injunction to burn the unfinished manuscripts, notebooks and letters that were left behind. Instead, he preserved them, and in doing so, in an irony the author of The Trial would have understood, gave rise to a legal battle that has run from Brod’s death, in Tel Aviv in 1968, almost up to the present day.

Benjamin Balint’s account of this saga is both a fine journalistic telling of that half century of courtroom drama, and a revealing examination of the writer and the relationships at its heart. In 1939, Brod escaped from Prague before the arrival of the Nazis with Kafka’s papers in a battered suitcase. “An exile,” Balint notes, “is a refugee with a library.” The library Brod carried contained all Kafka’s prescient dread of the terrors to come. Brod, who had long been a Zionist, headed for Jerusalem, where after the war he devoted himself to editing the papers that included the unfinished manuscript of The Trial. After his death, he left all of the Kafka papers—including a sheaf of unpublished letters between the writer and Felice Bauer, the love of his life—in the care of his secretary, Esther Hoffe, and with his intentions for them maddeningly vague. Hoffe resisted overtures from the National Library of Israel, which argued that Brod wanted the papers to be given to its archive. Instead, she sold some of her prize “possessions” at auction. The German Literature Archive in Marbach paid £1m for the manuscript of The Trial and at the time of Hoffe’s own death, aged 101 in 2007, it was negotiating with her for the remainder of the collection.

It was at this point that the great legal wrangle began in earnest. Ownership of the papers was claimed by Hoffe’s two daughters, Ruth and Eva. Their rights were dramatically challenged in the probate court by the states of Israel and Germany, through the proxies of their respective library archives.

Eva Hoffe, who died last August, first appeared in court to defend her right to the papers in 2007 but saw judgments go against her in favour of the Jerusalem archive in 2012 and then on appeal in 2015. Balint’s book opens at the last of Hoffe’s failed appeals, in 2016, when she was an indefatigable 82. By this time, there was far more at stake than the preservation of Kafka’s notebooks.

The court case had long since become a high-stakes confrontation that raked over a century of German-Israeli history and sought to define the intrinsic cultural identity of perhaps the most enigmatic of all 20th-century writers. Balint brings all of these forces and arguments to vivid life as the appeal edges toward a verdict. As Josef K’s uncle noted, in Kafka’s indelible novel, “A trial like this is always lost from the start.”

—©2019 The Guardian

Published: 12-01-2019 08:35

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