KAFKA’S STRANGE LEGACY

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - Kafka’s Last Trial will be pub­lished on Jan­uary 10 by WW Nor­ton.

IN HIS own life­time Franz Kafka’s prose be­queathed him no recog­ni­tion, fame, or lit­er­ary prizes. This may seem odd to­day. Apart from Shake­speare and Goethe, Kafka is one of the most writ­ten about au­thors in mod­ern Euro­pean lit­er­a­ture. But in an­other way this ini­tial lack of crit­i­cal praise is hardly sur­pris­ing. Kafka hadn’t com­pleted a sin­gle novel be­fore his death aged 40 from tu­ber­cu­lo­sis. When Kafka was alive, his big­gest fan was his clos­est friend, Max Brod, a Ger­man-speak­ing Jew from Prague, a fel­low cit­i­zen of the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian Em­pire.

The key mo­ment for res­cu­ing Kafka’s manuscripts came in the im­me­di­ate hours fol­low­ing Kafka’s fu­neral on June 11 1924, when Brod found two notes writ­ten by Kafka that would dras­ti­cally trans­form the fate of mod­ern lit­er­a­ture. They left di­rect in­struc­tions, all manuscripts left be­hind be­long­ing to Kafka— with the ex­cep­tion of three or four pieces of work — were to be de­stroyed.

In Kafka’s Last Trial, pub­lished next week, Is­raeli writer and cul­tural com­men­ta­tor, Benjamin Balint sug­gests that Kafka’s last in­struc­tion to Brod can per­haps be un­der­stood as the ges­ture of a lit­er­ary artist “whose life was a judg­ment against it­self; as a kind of self-con­dem­na­tion with Kafka act­ing as both judge and the ac­cused.”

“Brod’s de­ci­sion was a be­trayal,” Balint ex­plains from his home in Jerusalem. “But it’s also a be­trayal that came from Brod’s great love. And without his ef­forts, Kafka’s great works and master­pieces would have been lost to pos­ter­ity.”

Balint’s lit­er­ary bi­og­ra­phy cov­ers a wide range of top­ics, in­clud­ing an anal­y­sis of Kafka and Brod’s com­plex re­la­tion­ship. It also dis­sects Kafka’s thoughts about iden­tity and root­ed­ness, which, in turn leads to a con­ver­sa­tion about his Jewish­ness. Like al­most ev­ery­thing re­lat­ing to Kafka, it is com­plex, with para­doxes and dou­ble mean­ings con­stantly arising.

As for his Jewish iden­tity, Kafka once wrote: “What do I have in com­mon with the Jews, I have hardly any­thing in com­mon with my­self ?”

Balint says it’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand the dif­fi­cult re­la­tion­ship Kafka had with his fa­ther. “Kafka’s fa­ther rep­re­sented, on the one hand, an at­ten­u­ated ver­sion of bour­geois Ju­daism that was Kafka’s only in­her­i­tance,” he ex­plains. “But he also rep­re­sented a kind of dom­i­nant way of be­ing in the world.”

Kafka’s re­dis­cov­ery of his Jewish roots came late in his life. But when that re­con­nec­tion ar­rived, he ex­plored it with great en­thu­si­asm, dis­cov­er­ing a love for Yid­dish theatre and Eastern Euro­pean Jewish cul­ture more broadly, while also tak­ing lessons in He­brew.

Brod was a com­mit­ted Zion­ist who moved to Pales­tine in the 1930s and ended his life in Is­rael. Kafka never made it to Pales­tine. His in­ter­est in Ju­daism was al­ways cul­tural rather than po­lit­i­cal.

The book’s main fo­cus is the com­pli­cated le­gal bat­tle in Is­rael over Kafka’s lit­er­ary es­tate that has dragged on since the mid 1970s.

The decades-long-trial con­cerns one fun­da­men­tal ques­tion, who is the right­ful cul­tural guardian of Kafka’s orig­i­nal manuscripts, since the pass­ing of Max Brod in 1968?

Do they be­long to Eva Hoffe, the daugh­ter of Brod’s good friend, Es­ther Hoffe, who was clearly cited as a ben­e­fi­ciary of Brod’s es­tate in his will?

Or should Brod’s ded­i­cated com­mit­ment to the Zion­ist project en­sure the manuscripts find a home at the Na­tional Li­brary of Is­rael? But then, con­sid­er­ing that Kafka wrote, thought, and spoke in Ger­man, should they not per­haps be part of the Ger­man Lit­er­a­ture Ar­chive in Mar­bach, Ger­many?

“This is one of the great ironies run­ning through this story,” says Balint. “Ninety years af­ter Kafka’s death you have th­ese two state pow­ers try­ing to re­claim a writer who pre­cisely re­fused to want to be­long to ei­ther of th­ese en­ti­ties [or iden­ti­ties].”

In Au­gust 2016 that ques­tion was fi­nally an­swered by Is­rael’s Supreme Court, which ruled that Eva Hoffe must hand the en­tire Max Brod es­tate — in­clud­ing Kafka’s manuscripts — over to the Na­tional Li­brary of Is­rael, for which she re­ceived no com­pen­sa­tion.

Balint says that Is­rael has never had much love for Kafka de­spite its long le­gal bat­tle to dis­play his work which he at­tributes to cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion and na­tional pres­tige.

“One of the points the Ger­man lit­i­ga­tors raised in this court case is that there are many small towns in Ger­many that have a Kafka street or al­ley, but not a sin­gle city in Is­rael can boast of such a thing.”

“This re­flects [Is­rael’s] rather es­tranged re­la­tion­ship with Kafka. As does the fact that to this day there is no com­plete edi­tion of Kafka’s work in He­brew.”

This is just one of many as­pects of the trial which seem typ­i­cally Kafkaesque, the word coined to mean a whole host of mod­ern trau­mas in­clud­ing exis­ten­tial angst, alien­ation, para­noia, iso­la­tion, in­se­cu­rity, the labyrinth of state bu­reau­cracy, the cor­rupt abuse of to­tal­i­tar­ian power, and the im­pen­e­tra­ble tan­gle of le­gal sys­tems. Balint says the best ex­am­ple came in Oc­to­ber 2012, when Judge Talia Pardo Ku­pel­man of the Tel Aviv fam­ily district court, re­opened a 40-year old le­gal case against Es­ther Hoffe.

The judge took the un­usual step of quot­ing a pas­sage from Kafka’s The Trial, a pas­sage from the novel that re­lates to the time­less na­ture of files in the le­gal world, point­ing out “no file is ever lost, and the court never for­gets.”

A num­ber of crit­ics have de­scribed Kafka as a prophet, viewing his work through a po­lit­i­cal and so­ci­o­log­i­cal lens in which he fore­saw the evil forces of twen­ti­eth cen­tury to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism and some have even gone as far to say that he pre­dicted the Holo­caust.

Read­ing the fi­nal page of The Trial, for ex­am­ple, one is spooked by Kafka’s sub­tle ob­ser­va­tion that in­di­vid­u­als — ei­ther in a soli­tary man­ner or col­lec­tively— can be con­demned to death for do­ing noth­ing wrong, com­mit­ting no crime, or break­ing any moral code.

“There are cer­tain in­ter­preters of Kafka who go very far in this di­rec­tion,” says Balint.

“They ba­si­cally read him with hav­ing this great clar­ity of vi­sion to see the Shoah, decades be­fore it hap­pened.”

“Kafka couldn’t con­tem­plate geno­ci­dal ex­ter­mi­na­tion. But I think he had a great sen­si­tiv­ity for the pos­si­bil­ity of man- to-man evil.”

As the twen­ti­eth cen­tury pro­gressed, Kafka’s pop­u­lar­ity soared. Not without con­tro­versy though. His work was banned in Nazi Ger­many, as it was in the Soviet Union un­til 1989.

With its sparse ex­ac­ti­tude and pre­ci­sion, Kafka’ sp rose de­scribe a mi­lieu where the in­di­vid­ual—for rea­sons un­be­known to them— feels ut­terly pow­er­less, con­fused, trapped, and sub­sumed into a world they re­ally do not un­der­stand. And, per­haps more im­por­tantly, they be­come de­hu­man­ised in the process.

Balint be­lieves such clar­ity of vi­sion proves that “Kafka not only be­longs to the canon of mod­ernism, but he ac­tu­ally de­fined it.”

“Even those who have never read a word of Kafka have some sense of what you mean when you say the word Kafkae­seque,” says Balint.

“That is how per­va­sive his in­flu­ence is. He gave ex­pres­sion to a vo­cab­u­lary that now we al­most take for granted: the in­di­vid­ual seem­ingly lost in an ab­surd and bu­reau­cratic face­less sys­tem.”

“He was [ex­tremely] pre­scient, writ­ing about the face­less mod­ern state that seeps into ev­ery as­pect of your life.

“And he wrote about to­tal­i­tar­ian regimes be­fore they ar­rived,” Balint con­cludes. “Some­how, he sensed all of it.”

PHOTO: WIKIPEDIA

PHOTO: KA­RINA KORECKY

Franz Kafka and (in­set) Benjamin Balint

IN­TER­VIEW J P O’MAL­LEY

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