Book Review | Kafka’s Last Trial by Ruby NamdarWho Owns Kafka?
Kafka’s Last Trial
by Benjamin Balint
W. W. Norton & Company
2018, 288 pp, $26.95
“One summer morning in Jerusalem, Eva Hoffe, eighty-two, sat with her hands clasped on a polished curved wood bench in an alcove of the Israeli Supreme Court’s high-ceilinged lobby. To pass the time before her hearing, a friend who had come to lend support leafed through a copy of the daily newspaper Maariv. On the whole, Eva avoided the press; she resented the farrago of lies generated by journalists bent on portraying her as an eccentric cat-lady, an opportunist looking to make a fast buck on cultural treasures too important to remain in private hands.”
These dramatic lines open Kafka’s Last Trial, Benjamin Balint’s account of one of the most fascinating debates over Jewish literature’s definition and boundaries: the 2016 legal battle over Franz Kafka’s literary legacy and the final resting place of his surviving papers. Few literary figures have stirred readers’ imaginations as much as Kafka, his tormented life and early death. Indeed, he is viewed as a mythical figure as much as a renowned author. But above all, the bizarre story of how Kafka’s work survived and entered the canon has become a staple of literary legend. Kafka’s Last Trial focuses on the lively debate over Kafka’s papers, while also shedding light on his intriguing personality—and his equally intriguing relationship with the author Max Brod, whose name is now irreversibly intertwined with Kafka’s legacy.
The story of Kafka’s life, death and literary resurrection is widely known, even among those who have never read a single line of his work. Born in 1883, Kafka grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in Prague. After studying law, he began his working life at an insurance company, leaving him little time to write. The young Kafka found his new position oppressive, later writing that it robbed him of his soul. The conflict between his poetic core and the bureaucratic alienation of middle-class conventions is one of the main motifs in Kafka’s work, and often considered his signature theme.
Kafka’s personal life was equally tormented. Ill at ease with himself and his relationships, he was engaged to several women, but never married. His relationship with his father was perhaps his formative conflict, and the famous letters between the two betray Kafka’s overwhelming sense of self-doubt and self-loathing. Kafka’s writing career was also far from thriving. Although a few of his works were published during his lifetime in literary magazines, they received little to no public attention. Kafka ordered his friend Max Brod to destroy the rest of his works after his death, including the unfinished manuscripts of Der Process (The Trial), Das Schloss (The Castle) and Der Verschollene (translated as both Amerika and The Man Who Disappeared). But when Kafka died from tuberculosis in 1924, at age 40, Brod ignored his friend’s request and published the manuscripts. Without Brod’s refusal to honor this final wish, and his tireless efforts to promote Kafka’s work in the years that followed, Kafka’s name would never have become one of the most important in the history of modern literature.
The relationship between Kafka and Brod—who was, at the time, a much more successful writer—and the strange circumstances that turned Brod into the guardian of Kafka’s legacy are at the heart of Kafka’s Last Trial. Balint, an American-born writer, translator and journalist living in Jerusalem, expertly traces a path from the early days of their friendship—their age of innocence, so to speak—to the contemporary battle over Kafka’s legacy.
The turn of events that led to this last trial is itself Kafkaesque. When the Nazis took over Prague in 1939, 15 years after Kafka’s death, Brod fled to Palestine with his wife, Elsa, and a suitcase full of Kafka’s unpublished manuscripts. He settled in Tel Aviv, where he continued to write and worked as a dramaturge for the Habimah theatre. During this time he did his best to promote his late friend’s writing and build the international reputation Kafka’s work enjoys today. After his wife’s death in 1942, Brod became very close to a couple named Otto and Esther Hoffe, employing Esther as a secretary for a number of years; many presume that this relationship was romantic as well as professional. Before his death in 1968, Brod passed the legal stewardship of the Kafka papers in his possession to Esther Hoffe, who left them in her will to her daughters Eva and Ruth. Ruth died in 2012, and Eva kept the archive in her small Tel Aviv apartment, never revealing its contents or condition, and viewed it as her most prized personal possession.
During the 2016 court case, which played out in the halls of the Israeli Supreme Court, three parties fought for ownership of the archive: Eva Hoffe, the National Library of Israel and the German Literature Archive in Marbach. In the first chapter of Kafka’s Last Trial, Balint presents the logic behind each party’s claim: Hoffe maintains that she received the papers lawfully as part of her inheritance and says she does not wish to part with them. The National Library of Israel tries to claim Kafka as a “Jewish author,” arguing that its shelves are the natural destination for Jewish culture’s literary treasures. At the same time, the German Literature Archive in Marbach sees Kafka as a German-language author, despite his Jewish roots, and argues that it can store and display the Kafka papers under superior conditions. The Germans also claim that the archives would be more accessible to Kafka scholars worldwide if they were housed in Germany, rather than in Israel—or in Eva Hoffe’s musty Tel Aviv apartment.
These claims lead to many more questions, which Balint artfully examines in Kafka’s Last Trial’s well-conceived and well-defined chapters, bearing alluring names such as “Flirting with the Promised Land” and “Last Son of the Diaspora: Kafka’s Jewish Afterlife.” Balint explores Kafka’s relationship with his Jewishness and the Jewish world’s attempt to co-opt Kafka as a “Jewish author,” as well as Israel’s ambivalence toward Kafka—and diaspora culture in general. Finally, he studies the complex and intriguing questions of “ownership” over ideas, words and stories. In the thought-provoking chapter appropriately titled “Kafka’s Creator,” Balint touches on some of the questions about Brod’s “disobedience” to Kafka’s last wish, and his posthumous “appropriation” of Kafka’s work. In this context, he quotes Cynthia Ozick’s claim that Brod “manipulated whatever came into his hands” and Czech-born author Milan Kundera’s insistence that Brod betrayed Kafka not only by propagating the myth of the suffering modern day saint, but also by indiscriminately publishing Kafka’s unfinished works and diaries, his undelivered letters to his father, and his love letters. Balint’s thoughts on these accusations are clear: “But had Brod obeyed the author’s last wish and consigned his manuscripts to the flames, most of Kafka’s writing would be lost. We—and Eva Hoffe—owe our Kafka to Brod’s disobedience.” This high level of discussion is typical of Kafka’s Last Trial, as is the tightness of its thematic structure. The many questions the book poses are all addressed in great detail and tied back to the dramatic trial, which would, it was hoped, put the issue of the Kafka archives to rest—though I’m not going to tell you what the court decided.
Although Kafka’s Last Trial is a work of nonfiction, it reads almost like a novel—a great compliment for such a serious and well-researched project. It tells a vital, gripping tale of a deep friendship between two seemingly incompatible young men—and how the early death of one prompts the other to become the guardian of his friend’s memory. It also tells, with compassion and sensitivity, the story of Eva Hoffe, a woman whose raison d’être became the preservation of Kafka’s legacy. Perhaps it is no accident that the two blurbs on the book’s back cover were not written by historians or biographers, but by two prominent Jewish novelists: Cynthia Ozick and Nicole Krauss, whose latest novel, Forest Dark, includes a fictional take on Kafka’s legacy—and mentions a suitcase full of perhaps-imagined papers taken (or stolen) from Eva Hoffe’s home in Tel Aviv. But despite the book’s compelling style and sweeping plot, Balint remains true to the limitations of a serious history. He closely follows the written evidence provided by the letters, memoirs and diaries of Brod, Kafka and others, as well as official sources such as court records and newspaper reports. Balint’s refusal to speculate about his protagonists’ hidden motivations is admirable given the novelistic instinct to explore the endless unspoken possibilities hiding below the story’s surface: Did Brod suffer a Salieri complex, living in the shadow of Kafka’s posthumous fame and glory? Did he harbor envy or animosity toward his late friend’s genius? These questions remain mostly untouched, leaving room for the reader’s imagination and creativity to fill in the gaps.
The Kafka mystique refuses to die. As I was putting the finishing touches on this review, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a sensational story reporting that Kafka had a son he never knew about, who died at the age of seven without ever meeting his father. The child’s mother, whose identity remained hidden behind the intriguing initials M.M., was an open-minded, independent woman who was not particularly interested in letting Kafka serve as her son’s father figure. She was murdered by the Nazis in Italy in 1945, when a German soldier beat her to death with a rifle butt. Although this story was mentioned in the English edition of Brod’s book Franz Kafka, it was not perceived by Haaretz as “old news,” a fact that speaks volumes to the vitality of the Kafka legend and its endless dramatic potential. Balint’s Kafka’s Last Trial brilliantly captures this potential, providing lovers of Kafka—and lovers of literary history’s legends—with a wonderful opportunity to peer behind the screen of a dramatic life, death and literary resurrection.
Ruby Namdar is an Israeli author living in New York. His novel, The Ruined House, won the 2014 Sapir Prize.