Kafka’s Last Trial: The Case of a Literary Legacy

by Benjamin Balint

Kafka’s closest friend, Max Brod, died in Israel in 1968. His estate, including a number of Kafka manuscripts, became the subject of a legal battle that went all the way to Israel’s Supreme Court and was only resolved in 2016. Benjamin Balint’s Kafka’s Last Trial: The Case of a Literary Legacy provides a detailed account of the case.

There were two intertwined issues. Could the Kafka materials legally remain private property, or must they be entrusted to an academic library? And if so, which library – the National Library of Israel, or the German Literary Archive at Marbach, outside Stuttgart?

Brod bequeathed his entire estate to his secretary and intimate friend Esther Hoffe. In 1973 the State of Israel took legal action to claim the manuscripts. A court ruled that they were the property of Hoffe, who could do what she liked with them during her lifetime. However fair the decision, its consequences were unfortunate. Hoffe rarely allowed scholars to see the materials. She allowed Kafka’s and Brod’s travel diaries to be photocopied for a scholarly edition, but charged the publisher 100,000 Swiss francs. In 1988 she put the manuscript of The Trial up for auction at Sotheby’s. It was bought on behalf of the Marbach archive for £1 million, apparently the highest price ever paid for a modern manuscript, though much less than Hoffe and Sotheby’s had hoped for.

When Hoffe died, aged 101, in 2007, the remains of the Brod estate passed to her two daughters. However, the National Library of Israel stepped in, demanding it all as a Jewish cultural treasure. Ignoring the earlier decision, the court now found that the Hoffes held the Kafka materials in trust, not as a gift, and must hand them over. Esther Hoffe’s daughter Eva contested this verdict right to the Supreme Court, which ruled that she must deliver the entire estate to the Library with no compensation.

Much here is murky. Why was Eva Hoffe so desperate to retain the manuscripts? Some were in bank vaults, some in her cat-filled flat, most inaccessible to scholars. She seems to have taken no interest in their contents. Perhaps they represented a sentimental link to Brod, or a future nest egg. Balint never explains how Eva, allegedly impoverished by the cost of her mother’s hospital care, could afford to hire top lawyers. And why did the National Library intervene so insistently? They were not interested in Brod. His writings, mediocre at best, have no more readers in Israel than anywhere else. Accepting Brod’s papers was the price for securing Kafka’s, and the latter, according to several commentators quoted by Balint, would supposedly not only enhance the Library’s prestige but raise Israel’s reputation at a time when its policies receive worldwide criticism.

What about Marbach? Balint argues that the German canon is a central source of national identity, citing the view that by celebrating German-Jewish writers, German scholars are trying to evade the memory of the Holocaust. But by raising the study of Kafka, Walter Benjamin and Paul Celan almost to a cult, Germans are surely acknowledging the importance of Jewish authors.

Ironically, the Kafka manuscripts appear to include hardly any unpublished material or hitherto unknown masterpiece. Kafka scholars are unlikely to flock to Jerusalem to examine letters already available in scholarly editions.

Balint’s accounts of the successive court cases are skilfully interspersed with chapters on Brod’s friendship with Kafka, Kafka’s developing sense of Jewish identity and commitment to German literature, Brod’s difficult life as an immigrant who never quite mastered Hebrew, and his relationship with Esther Hoffe. He asks the intriguing question how far Kafka’s writings as we know them were shaped by Brod’s amateurish editing. Much of Kafka’s short fiction, unpublished during his lifetime, is known by Brod’s titles, though Balint is mistaken in saying that it was Brod who decided to end The Trial with Josef K.’s execution: Kafka himself gave that chapter the heading “End”. Overall though, Balint has done impressive research and provided a readable, often astonishing narrative

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