The battle over Kafka's legacy is worthy of one of the author's surreal novelsby Samuel Earle / January 28, 2019 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2019 issue of Prospect Magazine
Between 2009 and 2016, Franz Kafka’s unpublished manuscripts became the subject of an intense legal battle in Israel’s courts. Shortly before he died in 1924, the author famously asked his friend Max Brod to burn the lot. Brod refused, and after he died in Israel in 1968, the question turned to the ownership of Kafka’s works. Benjamin Balint tells the absurd and thrilling tale in his new book.
Three separate parties laid claim to Kafka’s manuscripts: Eva Hoffe, the daughter of Brod’s assistant in Israel Esther, to whom Brod had bequeathed the papers in an ambiguous will; the National Library of Israel, which insisted that Kafka’s Jewishness meant that it should keep them; and the German Literature Archive in Marbach, which pointed to the language in which Kafka wrote—German—and its superior storage facilities.
The trial was fraught with symbolic significance. The grim history of German-Jewish relations hung like a cloud over the case. When the German Archive boasted about its “cutting-edge capabilities” for looking after Kafka’s papers, some in Israel retorted that, since the country had killed all of Kafka’s sisters in the Holocaust, its record didn’t inspire much trust. When an Israeli court ordered a search of Eva Hoffe’s home in Israel, she compared Israel to the Gestapo.
Kafka’s own writing was even more present in proceedings, as if the answer to the case’s legal conundrums lay somewhere within his work. The court’s final decision in favour of Israel invoked “the true will of Kafka.” The irony of the conclusion was certainly worthy of its subject: Kafka’s work and identity, Balint writes, “was born of the impossibility of belonging,” only for him to have that belonging imposed on him posthumously by a country he never knew.
Balint weaves the story together artfully. My only issue is with the title: if Kafka can be taken to trial 85 years after his death, who’s to say it will be his “last”?
Kafka’s Last Trial by Benjamin Balint (Picador, £14.99)