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Kafka's Last Trial review: Benjamin Balint on who owns Kafka's manuscripts

History
​Kafka's Last Trial: The Case of a Literary Legacy
​Benjamin Balint
​Picador, $29.99

For decades, an unassuming apartment at 23 Spinoza Street, Tel Aviv, housed one of the world's greatest literary secrets. This apartment was the home of the elderly and reclusive Eva Hoffe, and there, among much disorder and dozens of pet cats were secreted a number of cardboard boxes containing the manuscripts and personal papers of Franz Kafka.

Max Brod, a Czech author and a friend of Franz Kafka's.

Max Brod, a Czech author and a friend of Franz Kafka's. Credit:Rina Castelnuovo

Eva Hoffe's mother, Esther Hoffe, had been Max Brod's secretary, and Brod was Franz Kafka's literary executor: the man who famously defied Kafka's deathbed instruction to burn all of his manuscripts.

Instead of destroying the manuscripts, Brod began publishing them. When war broke out in 1939, he fled Prague for Palestine, taking Kafka's manuscripts with him, stuffed in a suitcase. He went on to publish almost all of what we know of Kafka's work, but many of the documents from Brod's suitcase remained unseen.

Kafka's Last Trial by Benjamin Balint.

Kafka's Last Trial by Benjamin Balint.

Upon his own death, Brod passed the manuscripts to Esther Hoffe, who, instead of donating them to an institution where they could be made publicly available, kept them locked up at Spinoza Street, and in various safe deposit boxes in Tel Aviv and Zurich.

When Esther died in 2007 she bequeathed the manuscripts to her two daughters, Eva Hoffe and Ruth Wiesler, but her will was challenged by the Israeli National Library, triggering the convoluted and long-running trial that is the subject of Balint's book.

This trial could be something straight out of a Kafka story: dragging on for almost a decade, and involving teams of lawyers on all sides and every imaginable appeal and delay. At one point in Balint's book, Eva even compares herself to Josef K from Kafka's novel, The Trial. "Not even Kafka himself could have written such a Kafkaesque tale," she notes.

The focus of Kafka's Last Trial is on the court case itself, but the book is also a double-biography of Kafka and Brod. Balint uses letters and diaries to give a fascinating account of their friendship, careers, and relationships with women. To this end, the book's chapters alternate between the trial in present-day Israel; the lives of Brod and Kafka in early 20th-century Prague and Berlin; and Brod's life in Tel Aviv in the 1950s and '60s.

Franz Kafka.

Franz Kafka.

This lends the book a broad scope, but the constant jumping back and forth between cities and centuries can feel jarring, and the chapters that explore the trial weigh heavily on the narrative; partly because of Balint's meticulous attention to detail.

The central question of Balint's book, and of the trial itself, is: who owns Kafka? Not only who should have possession of the physical manuscripts, but also who should be able to make a cultural claim on him. Should Kafka be considered primarily as a German-language writer, or as an essentially Jewish writer? Or could he represent something else: something more universal?

Along with Eva Hoffe's claim that the manuscripts were her own personal property, and the claim made by the National Library, the other party vying for the papers was the German Marbach Literary Archive. Brod had intended for the manuscripts to go to the National Library, but Marbach, which already holds some Kafka manuscripts, claimed it was better resourced to house the papers.

However, having Kafka's manuscripts go to Germany is obviously highly problematic, given the country's Nazi past. Although Kafka himself died before the outbreak of World War II, his three sisters were killed in Nazi concentration camps.

Balint gives a comprehensive, well-researched analysis of the cultural significance and uses of Kafka, and in so doing he shows us that there is more to the Kafka trial than simply three different parties in a protracted fight over some manuscripts. Kafka's Last Trial raises broader questions: should Kafka's manuscripts – and indeed all art – be public or private? Should, and how should, the free-market control the ownership of art? What does ownership even mean in a digital age? And can a specific cultural claim be made on such a towering, universalist figure as Kafka?

In 2016 the case was finally decided in favour of the Israeli National Library, but for some, Kafka's legacy – as uncanny and mysterious as it is – couldn't ever be located in any earthly place. "From my perspective," Tel Aviv poet Lali Michaeli tells Balint, "Kafka's manuscripts should be sent to the moon."

Marija Pericic won the Vogel prize in 2017 for her novel about Kafka and Max Brod, The Lost Pages (Allen & Unwin).

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