A lit­er­ary bat­tle that be­came Kafkaesque

How Kafka’s manuscripts were tus­sled over by Is­rael, Ger­many… and an old lady. By Ru­pert Chris­tiansen

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - BOOKS -

S304pp, Pi­cador, £14.99, ebook £10.79

ome years ago, I naively signed up to write a book about lit­er­ary es­tates – the is­sues and prob­lems, in other words, that arise when au­thors die leav­ing com­plex or con­tested tes­ta­men­tary wishes, and their heirs, ex­ecu­tors and pub­lish­ers (as well as swoops of piti­less vultures only in­ter­ested in the fi­nan­cial pick­ings) are left to bat­tle things out.

A fas­ci­nat­ing sub­ject, I thought, but af­ter six months of re­search into the cases of TS Eliot, Philip Larkin and

Sylvia Plath, I thought I was go­ing in­sane and can­celled the con­tract. The hys­te­ria and vi­cious­ness, the griev­ing wid­ows and stonewalling gate­keep­ers, the sheer im­pos­si­bil­ity of weigh­ing the var­i­ous claims and counter-claims all made our cur­rent di­vi­sions over Brexit seem like the Teddy Bears’ Pic­nic.

This re­mark­able book re­minds me forcibly how wise I was to throw in the towel. It tells the vexed story of the post­hu­mous fate of Franz Kafka’s manuscripts and the tor­tu­ous in­er­tia of their Jarndyce vs Jarndyce progress through a long se­ries of wills and le­gal pro­cesses. If one some­times feels trapped in the thick­ets of de­tail and dizzy in con­tem­pla­tion of the rights and wrongs of the mat­ter, this is no re­flec­tion on the au­thor, Ben­jamin Balint, who ad­mirably keeps his cool and re­mains ju­di­ciously yet sym­pa­thet­i­cally even-handed through­out in clean, un­af­fected prose.

Con­struct­ing the nar­ra­tive in zigzag fash­ion, he moves be­tween the most re­cent decade and Kafka’s life­time, fill­ing in the pic­ture sub­tly and grad­u­ally. No spoil­ers will be given here as to the ul­ti­mate out­come, but it should be noted that the pub­lisher’s dead­line pre­vented Balint from record­ing that one of the ma­jor play­ers passed away in Au­gust, a loss that could mean yet fur­ther twists in the saga.

The tale opens in a court­room in Jerusalem in 2016, where the wiz­ened Eva Hoffe, a blame­less and oth­er­wise in­signif­i­cant el­derly lady, is await­ing judg­ment on the own­er­ship of pa­pers she had in­her­ited from her mother, Es­ther, in 2007. Her deep-seated de­spair is ter­ri­ble: she has no faith in jus­tice. Balint re­turns to this lat­ter part of the story at in­ter­vals, but be­fore we un­der­stand the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the case, he in­tro­duces the key fig­ure, Kafka’s best friend and neme­sis, Max Brod.

The two young men met in Prague in 1902. Al­though they shared a vivid sense of hu­mour as well as a mix­ture of Czech, Ger­man and Jewish iden­ti­ties, they were in many re­spects an un­likely match. Brod was a pro­lific and ephemer­ally suc­cess­ful poet, nov­el­ist and critic, con­fi­dent, out­go­ing and cheer­fully wom­an­is­ing. The hes­i­tant and in­tro­verted Kafka, who worked nine to five as an in­surance clerk, pub­lished very lit­tle and was racked by what

Balint calls “piti­less self-scru­tiny”. (Some amus­ing triv­i­al­i­ties emerge in­ci­den­tally here: in the wake of their Eu­ro­pean hol­i­days to­gether, for ex­am­ple, the pair planned to write a mon­ey­mak­ing se­ries of back­packer guide­books en­ti­tled Bil­lig – “Cheap”.)

Brod was no fool. He fully un­der­stood his friend’s su­pe­rior ge­nius and pas­sion­ately pro­moted it, wag­ing “an up­hill bat­tle against Kafka’s sense of his own in­ad­e­quacy” that veered in its tactics from en­cour­age­ment to bul­ly­ing.

At one level, Kafka’s imag­i­na­tion was so pow­er­ful that he was com­pelled to write; at an­other, he was so ob­ses­sively ter­ri­fied of pub­lic ex­po­sure that he was con­stantly on the verge of tear­ing ev­ery­thing up. It is fair to say that, without Brod’s sta­bil­is­ing in­flu­ence, the name of Kafka would now be en­tirely for­got­ten.

When Kafka suc­cumbed to tu­ber­cu­lo­sis in 1924, he left Brod a let­ter con­tain­ing clear and ra­tio­nal in­struc­tions that all his manuscripts should be burned. On the shaky grounds that he didn’t re­ally mean it, Brod ig­nored the in­junc­tion, took ad­di­tional pos­ses­sion of other ma­te­rial that he had not been be­queathed, and set about pre­par­ing Kafka’s unique fic­tions for pub­li­ca­tion.

Ex­ten­sively and metic­u­lously re­worked, the texts were ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to de­ci­pher, but the happy re­sult is that

Kafka – al­most against his own will – soon be­came uni­ver­sally recog­nised as one of the masters of lit­er­ary mod­ernism. Brod’s ed­i­to­rial de­ci­sions have been much dis­puted, but the fun­da­men­tal prob­lem is rooted in some­thing deeper than pa­le­og­ra­phy.

In 1938, af­ter Nazi Ger­many an­nexed Cze­choslo­vakia, Brod escaped to Pales­tine with the manuscripts in a suit­case. Af­ter his wife died in 1942, he be­came to­tally re­liant on his de­voted sec­re­tary Es­ther Hoffe, and in 1945, clearly and in writ­ing, he made the Kafka pa­pers over to her as a grate­ful gift, ap­par­ently on the tacit un­der­stand­ing that at some point she would be­queath them to

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