December 13, 2018

Who Owns Kafka’s Legacy?

“AT THE END of a long series of trials and appeals, beginning in 2007 in the Tel Aviv Family Court and ending in 2016 before the Israeli Supreme Court, Eva Hoffe, who had inherited and ultimately been relieved of a large stash of Franz Kafka’s manuscripts, felt she’d endured a long affliction delivered by forces beyond her control. In Kafka’s Last Trial, an account of the legal dispute and its literary, historical, and biographical contexts, Benjamin Balint describes his meeting with Hoffe shortly after the final verdict: “Speaking as though she regarded herself as the sum of her legal misfortunes, she compared the endless deferrals and delays of her case to those encountered by Joseph K. in The Trial. In both cases, she felt, an arbitrary system had insinuated itself into places both public and private.”

The Trial, which Kafka left unfinished at the time of his death in 1924 and which was published against his wishes by his friend Max Brod the following year, chronicles the struggles of its protagonist, who, after being inexplicably arrested in his home, finds himself subject to the whims of a mysterious court for reasons he cannot understand. Hoffe was not the first to make the comparison to Kafka’s novel, which seems to have haunted the case at every turn. Judge Talia Kopelman Pardo’s 2012 decision for the Tel Aviv Family Court quoted the novel in the context of justifying the court’s reconsideration of issues that had first been raised 40 years earlier, when Brod’s death had left the Kafka papers, one part of Brod’s expansive literary estate, in the hands of Eva Hoffe’s mother, Esther Hoffe, who was Brod’s secretary and close friend. Balint himself frequently draws the comparison, most prominently in the title of his book, which has proved an irresistible turn of phrase for writers interested in this case. (It’s also the name of Elif Batuman’s 2010 piece on the case for the New York Times.)

The impetus for the Israeli courts’ consideration of Brod’s estate was Eva Hoffe’s request for the probate of her mother’s will immediately following her death in September 2007. This is, under Israeli law, a routine step in the execution of a will. But the proceedings were interrupted by Meir Heller, lawyer for the National Library of Israel. Two days before the hearing about probating Esther’s will, he happened to encounter the will of Max Brod, which makes clear that Brod intended for the papers to go to Esther only for the duration of her life, after which time they should be sent to a public archive. “I busted into the court,” he later told the Sunday Times, “and said, ‘Stop! There is another will—the will of Max Brod!’” Thus the nine-year dispute over the fate of Brod’s literary estate began.

Early in the book, Balint articulates the question that ended up before the Israeli Supreme Court like this: “Does the estate of the German-speaking Prague writer Max Brod (1884-1968) belong to Eva Hoffe or to the National Library of Israel, or would it be best housed at the German Literature Archive in Marbach, Germany?” But the significance of the case goes deeper than the question of what party is legally entitled to this particular collection of papers, which drew interest principally because of the Kafka archive they contain. At issue, ultimately, are the questions of Kafka’s Germanness, of his Jewishness, of Germany’s post-Holocaust relationship to German-speaking Jewish writers, and of Israel’s relationship to writers of the Jewish diaspora.”

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