The struggle over a rich literary inheritance opens questions of identity regarding the seminal writer, a Czech who was also Jewish but wrote in German of Habsburg-era Prague.
At four in the morning on March 15, 1939, Max Brod crossed the Czech-Polish frontier with his wife, Elsa, a visa to Palestine, and a bulky, cracked leather suitcase stuffed with manuscripts belonging to his best friend, Franz Kafka. More than 70 years later, those papers would become the subject of an intense international legal struggle over the author’s identity and the rights of his personal and cultural heirs.
This is the question at the center of Benjamin Balint’s exceptionally well-crafted and fascinating tale, Kafka’s Last Trial: Who was Kafka, exactly? And who owns his legacy?
Kafka was perhaps “the most prescient chronicler of the 20th century,” Balint writes; the author of The Trial, The Metamorphosis and The Castle, novels that capture the angst and alienation of a world becoming modern. Brod was his literary executor and that the world knows of Kafka, who died aged 40 of tuberculosis in 1924, is thanks to this man, who declined to fulfill his friend’s final instruction to burn his papers. In Kafka’s Last Trial, Balint – a writer and translator living in Jerusalem, whose penchant for lengthy, digressive footnotes occasionally betrays him – plays out this literary love story against the fascinating fate of Kafka’s papers following Brod’s death in 1968.
“We completed each other,” Brod recalled of Kafka. Falling out of upscale brothels and strolling the tree-helmed paths of Habsburg-era Prague, theirs was a literary entanglement between a writer of genius, Kafka, and a writer of taste, Brod, a man “who recognized genius but could not partake of it.” Their friendship recalls Plato’s image of the two halves made whole or Martin Amis’ observation that his bond with Christopher Hitchens resembled an “unconsummated gay marriage.”
But while Brod “may have been bestowed with the gifts of taste and discernment,” he did not possess “the ability to create a truly original work of art,” Balint concludes. After Kafka’s death, Brod dedicated the rest of his life to editing, publishing, and canonizing Kafka’s novels: first in Prague; and after 1939, in Tel Aviv. Late in life, he met Esther Hoffe, who worked as his secretary and to whom, by way of a muddled will, he left a trove of Kafka’s papers.
This is what leads to the legal battle that forms the second half of the story: Esther, and then her daughter, Eva, who inherited the papers in 2007, pitted against the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem and the Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach am Neckar. Germany and Israel both wanted the archive. But was Kafka a German writer or a Jewish one? And, therefore, did his archive belong on German or Israeli soil?
Kafka “attended a Germany university, studied German jurisprudence, and steeped himself in German literature” – and more to the point, “the austere music of Kafka’s art was inseparable from – and made possible by – the German language.” And, as Balint also notes, in all of Kafka’s fiction, there is no direct reference to Judaism. “One searches in vain for Jews, or Jewish patterns of speech, in Kafka’s placeless fiction.”
But what if Kafka’s path to universalism led through Jewish particularism? This is what Brod himself contended, calling his novels “the most Jewish documents of our time.” His “tragedies of the defeated outcast,” as Balint succinctly calls them, and motifs of humiliation and powerlessness, anomie and alienation, guilt and self-condemnation recall nothing if not the early 20th century diaspora Jewish experience.
“In the end, is Kafka a German- language writer who happened to be Jewish, or a profoundly Jewish writer who honed German into a new Jewish language adequate to articulating a Jewish [way of] thinking in a world without God and without revelation?” Rightly, Balint does not come down on either side, remaining the reader’s guide through this legal and literary maze. Kafka’s papers are now at rest in Jerusalem, but the essential question is far from settled.