A literary battle that became Kafkaesque
How Kafka’s manuscripts were tussled over by Israel, Germany… and an old lady. By Rupert Christiansen
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