The long le­gal squab­ble over Kafka’s pa­pers, and the two women caught in the mid­dle

The Guardian - Review - - Non-fiction - John Banville

The world was Kafkaesque be­fore Franz Kafka; all he did was con­trib­ute the adjective. He was cer­tainly not the first lit­er­ary artist to iden­tify the es­sen­tial un­can­ni­ness of quo­tid­ian re­al­ity. From Cat­ul­lus through Jonathan Swift and on to Hein­rich von Kleist, ETA Hoff­mann and Dos­to­evsky, the fic­tions we spin in or­der that life might be sus­tain­able have been ques­tioned, de­rided and up­ended, over and over. All the same, Kafka re­mains a spe­cial case. As Ge­orge Steiner pointed out, no other great writer, not even Shakespeare, man­aged to ar­ro­gate to him­self and make uniquely his own a let­ter of the al­pha­bet. In the darker realm of lit­er­a­ture, at least, K is king.

The adjective “Kafkaesque” has, of course, be­come a cliche. Kafka’s name, ac­cord­ing to Philip Roth, “is plas­tered in­dis­crim­i­nately on al­most any baf­fling or un­usu­ally opaque event that is not eas­ily trans­lat­able into the go­ing sim­pli­fi­ca­tions”. Even Max Brod, his friend and the man we must thank for dis­re­gard­ing Kafka’s spe­cific, writ­ten in­struc­tions that all his un­pub­lished work should be de­stroyed, protested against the “re­pul­sive ex­pres­sion ‘Kafkaesque’”, adding that “Kafkaesque is that which Kafka was not!” But nei­ther was he what Brod claimed him to be, a “saint of our time”.

And Theodor Adorno was right to in­sist that he was not “a poet of the Ju­daic home­land”. In­deed, one of the themes run­ning through­out Ben­jamin Balint’s fas­ci­nat­ing and foren­si­cally scrupu­lous ac­count of the his­tory of Kafka’s pa­pers is the writer’s deeply am­bigu­ous re­la­tion­ship – if it can even be called that – with Is­rael, or, as it still was in his time, Pales­tine. While Brod, a typ­i­cal Mit­teleu­ro­pean man of let­ters, “came,” ac­cord­ing to the jour­nal­ist and Zion­ist Robert Weltsch, “to com­plete iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the Jewish peo­ple”, Kafka main­tained a scep­ti­cal at­ti­tude on the “Jewish ques­tion”, both in the per­sonal and the pub­lic spheres. “What have I in com­mon with the Jews?” he asks in his di­ary, adding with typ­i­cally lugubri­ous hu­mour, “I have hardly any­thing in com­mon with my­self.”

It was not un­til he dis­cov­ered what Balint de­scribes as “an un­likely source of vi­tal­ity” in the per­for­mances of a Yid­dish the­atre troupe in Prague’s Cafe Savoy that he be­gan to ap­pre­ci­ate his Jewish in­her­i­tance. “The café was tawdry,” Balint writes, “its door­man a part- by Ben­jamin Balint, Pi­cador, £14.99 time pimp,” yet the bur­lesque per­for­mances had the pe­cu­liar ef­fect of mak­ing Kafka’s “cheeks trem­ble”.

Kafka filled more than a 100 pages of his di­ary, Balint tells us, with ac­counts of the Yid­dish play­ers and their plays. “He was im­pressed by their au­then­tic­ity and ‘vigour’ ( Ur­wüch­sigkeit), and by the ironic id­iom it­self – in which high and low, bi­b­li­cal and ver­nac­u­lar rat­tled against each other.” Sa­muel Beck­ett must have un­der­gone the same kind of Da­m­a­scene mo­ment when he first be­gan to look se­ri­ously at the minia­ture tragi­comic epics of Buster Keaton.

Whether his glimpse of a shared Jewish past turned Kafka into a “Jewish” writer is doubt­ful. True, he did teach him­self He­brew, as his friend Ge­org Langer, a scholar of the Kab­balah, at­tested: “He, who al­ways in­sisted that he was not a Zion­ist, learned our lan­guage at an ad­vanced age and with great dili­gence.” Yet as Kafka him­self wrote not long be­fore his death: “What is He­brew, but news from far away?” As to Pales­tine it­self, it seems to have been for Kafka not so much the promised as the im­prob­a­ble land. As he scathingly re­marked: “Many peo­ple prowl around Mt Si­nai.” Per­haps the mat­ter is best ex­pressed by the Swiss critic Jean Starobin­ski: “In the face of Ju­daism, Kafka is an ex­ile, al­beit one who cease­lessly asks for news of the land he has left.”

All these as­pects of the ex­tremely vexed Jewish ques­tion are per­ti­nent to Balint’s sub­ject, which is the bat­tle be­tween Ger­many and Is­rael for pos­ses­sion of Kafka’s lit­er­ary re­mains, and the plight of the two women caught in the cross­fire – al­though it must be ac­knowl­edged that Es­ther Hoffe and her daugh­ter Eva ex­ploded quite a few bombs them­selves.

The Is­raeli case was suc­cinctly stated by Meir Heller, the hard-nosed lawyer who through eight years of in­tri­cate, some­times bit­ter, and – yes, alas – Kafkaesque lit­i­ga­tion rep­re­sented the Na­tional Li­brary of Is­rael: “Like many other Jews who con­trib­uted to west­ern civil­i­sa­tion, we think, his legacy ... [and] his manuscripts should be placed here in the Jewish state.”

The other in­ter­ested party was the Ger­man Lit­er­a­ture Ar­chive at Mar­bach, un­der the di­rec­tion of Ul­rich Raulff, which, as Balint writes, “wished to add Kafka’s manuscripts to the es­tates of more than 1,400 writ­ers … held in stor­age fa­cil­i­ties kept at a con­stant 18C–19C (about 66F) and a rel­a­tive hu­mid­ity of 50 per­cent-55 per­cent”. So far, so Ger­man; one of the less tem­per­ate com­ments came from the pub­lisher and Kafka scholar Klaus Wa­gen­bach: “The Is­raelis seem to have be­come crazed.”

The squab­ble – and it was a squab­ble, de­spite the many high-minded pro­nounce­ments that the af­fair called forth – cen­tred not on Kafka him­self, or his wishes as to the fate of his pa­pers, but to the am­bi­gu­i­ties of the will left be­hind by Brod, the orig­i­nal keeper of the ar­chive.

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.