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.

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