KAFKA’S STRANGE LEGACY
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.”
Franz Kafka and (inset) Benjamin Balint
INTERVIEW J P O’MALLEY