In his lifetime, Franz Kafka was not exactly a runaway success. His first book, Meditation, a collection of eighteen prose poems, was published in an edition of eight hundred copies and soon vanished. His second book, A Country Doctor, was mentioned by only one reviewer; Kafka’s father did not deign even to open it. Most of his slender output was coaxed into print by his good friend Max Brod, who saw genius in this strange man and was baffled and appalled by his chronic self-condemnation. When Kafka died in 1924, Brod was given a plain and uncompromising order. ‘Dearest Max,’ Franz wrote, ‘My last request: Everything I leave behind me … in the way of notebooks, manuscripts, letters, my own and other people’s, sketches and so on, is to be burned unread and to the last page.’
Obviously, Brod disobeyed, and most people have thought he chose the noble option. Without this ‘betrayal’, we would have no The Trial, no The Castle, no ‘Metamorphosis’, none of Kafka’s fascinating and harrowing letters to his girlfriends, none of his Diaries, and no one would be using or misusing the adjective ‘Kafkaesque’. In short, our conception of what has most mattered in 20th-century literature would be different. W H Auden, not at first sight the most likely of fans, suggested in 1941 that ‘had one to name the artist who comes nearest to bearing the same kind of relation to our age that Dante, Goethe and Shakespeare bore to theirs, Kafka is the first one would think of.’
This is about the largest claim one could make for any writer, since the trio Auden elsewhere referred to as ‘Daunty, Gouty, and Shopkeeper’, borrowing from Joyce, are often thought of as the great universal geniuses: the writers who belong not only to their respective national literatures but to (Goethe first floated this idea) World Literature. Plenty of people have agreed with Auden that Kafka belongs to all literate humanity, but quite a few have dissented, sometimes vehemently. Some of the dissenters have been lawyers.
The question of who owns Kafka is at the heart of Benjamin Balint’s thought-provoking and assiduously researched Kafka’s Last Trial, which (to simplify) is about the attempt by the state of Israel to prevent the sale of Kafka’s manuscripts from a private collection there to anywhere overseas, particularly to the German Literature Archive in Marbach. Spoiler alert for those who were not reading the newspapers in 2016: the state won. But Balint’s book is not so much about the outcome as it is about the arguments that were brought forward.
The reason Kafka’s papers ended up in Israel is simple: Brod, a Zionist, brought them there. After Brod’s death, in 1968, the archive passed to his secretary and confidante Esther Hoffe. She died in 2007 at the age of 101, leaving the papers to her daughters Eva and Ruth; Ruth died not long afterwards, leaving Eva Hoffe as the owner of the cache, which was of considerable size. In the mid-1980s, Esther Hoffe commissioned a Swiss philologist to make an inventory of the manuscripts, some of which she kept in her house on Spinoza Street, while others were deposited in banks in Zurich and Tel Aviv. The philologist found that the collection ran to about twenty thousand pages.
There are good reasons to sympathise with the Israeli case, and one of them is all too obvious. As Professor Otto Dov Kulka said to the New York Times, ‘They say the papers will be safer in Germany. The Germans will take very good care of them … Well, the Germans don’t have a very good history of taking care of Kafka’s things. They didn’t take good care of his sisters.’
Lest we forget, each of Kafka’s three sisters was murdered by the Nazis. Elli and Valli were deported to the Łódź ghetto in 1941 and sent to the gas chambers of Chełmno in September 1942. Ottla, the youngest and by all accounts the most vivacious of the girls, was killed in Auschwitz in October 1943. Kafka’s lover, Milena Jesenská, died in Ravensbrück concentration camp, his second fiancée, Julie Wohryzek, in Auschwitz, and his friend Yitzhak Lowy in Treblinka. Kafka’s favourite uncle, Siegfried, took his own life on the eve of his deportation to Theresienstadt. At least five of Kafka’s classmates were also murdered in concentration camps. It seems all but certain that, had Kafka lived on into his fifties, he too would have perished in a camp.
Even without taking all that into account, the state of Israel had good cause for concern. Some of the country’s finest spirits felt that Kafka was central to its identity. The great Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem, for instance, once said that for him, there were only three canonical Jewish texts: the Hebrew Bible, the Zohar and the collected works of Kafka. Moreover, Esther had not been as scrupulous a custodian as the state might have wished: she had often sold manuscripts abroad, including that of The Trial, which went for £1 million at Sotheby’s in 1988.
But the Israeli case was far from waterproof. For one thing, Israel had been very slow to accept Kafka as an important writer. In the early years, as Balint shrewdly points out, ‘Kafka’s motifs – humiliation and powerlessness, anomie and alienation, debilitating guilt and self-condemnation – were the very preoccupations Israel’s founding generations sought to overcome.’ Young Israel wanted farmers, engineers and architects, not neurasthenic idlers. Even though his reputation has picked up in more recent years, he remains less significant in Israel than in, say, Germany, France or America. As Reiner Stach, author of a monumental Kafka biography, put it, ‘To speak here of Israeli cultural assets seems to me absurd. In Israel, there is neither a complete edition of Kafka’s works, nor a single street named after him.’
There are no obvious villains or heroes in this tale, though it is hard not to think that there was a victim: Eva Hoffe, who said that she felt ‘raped’ by the court verdict, shaved her head in mute protest and, according to her friends, came close to suicide. It does seem unjust that she was not compensated for the loss of her inheritance with so much as a shekel. To describe her entanglements with the law as Kafkaesque is, for once, reasonable enough. Kafka, who always sided with the weak, the poor, the outcast, the wounded and the sick, would surely have regarded her with compassion. As so often, he deserves the last word: ‘What have I in common with the Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself.’