It’s been years since I’ve read something this arresting in the NY Times. Elif Batuman’s lengthy piece about the ongoing legal battle in Tel Aviv over Franz Kafka’s literary estate, “Kafka’s Last Trial,” is simply superb. If you are, were in the past, or have thought about becoming a Kafkologist, this is the kind of essay that will have you running to your library to reexamine The Trial or The Castle or, even better, Kafka’s Diaries, all the while scratching your head, wondering why on earth you ever stopped (or postponed) thinking about such a fascinating person and his perplexing oeuvre. To this day I can vividly recall, mentally and physically, the odd pleasure and sartori-like realizations that I experienced, though never could articulate, when for about two months in college I carried around Kafka’s Diaries in my backpack and read aphorism after aphorism, short-short story after story, thinking that I had discovered the Dada Rosetta Stone. I thought I was learning immense amounts of information from this fellow, yet I never quite knew where to shelve it in my mind nor where to use it. Even more important at the time, I felt as though I was peering into Kafka’s life with crystal clarity. For example, I still remember well that Kafka penned in his Diaries to have claimed inspiration from the life and deeds of Alexander the Great when he churned out the most memorable word snapshot: “Crocodiles who with their urine burned down trees.” I’m still at pains to explain why this seems to me as apt an association with Alexander as I’ve ever read. But it does, and I admire the mind that made it. Not sure if I understand it entirely though, or what it might really reflect about Kafka’s life.
Batuman’s essay is well worth the investment of time to read. Kafka couldn’t have scripted the legal wrangling that persists over his work and, in effect, his legacy any better than the tale Batuman unfolds as he recounts his encounters in Tel Aviv courthouses, among literary historians, philologists, museum curators and, most baffling and critical of all among the gaggle of real life characters whose lives appear to be suspended in K-land, the daughters of the lover of Kafka’s friend, Max Brod. Sometime before he died, Brod apparently bequeathed his Kafka archive to his secretary and lover, Ether Hoffe, and for years her surviving two daughters, Eva and Ruth, have been fighting to establish themselves as legal guardians of what remains of Kafka’s literary legacy. The two women couldn’t be more different: Eva is portrayed as the “catlady” who lives alone with anywhere from 40 to 100 cats and Ruth is a tony, fairly well-to-do grandmother.
Eva and Ruth, who fled Nazi-occupied Prague as children, are elusive figures who keep out of the public eye. The fact that they are represented by separate counsel reflects Eva’s greater investment in the case. While Ruth married and left home, Eva lived with their mother, and with the papers, for 40 years. Her attorney Oded Hacohen characterizes Eva’s relationship to the manuscripts as “almost biological.” “For her,” he told me, “intruding on those safe-deposits is like a rape.” (When asked whether Eva had used the word “rape” herself, Hacohen looked a bit tired. “Many times,” he said.)
By the bye, most of the ambiguity and strangeness that revolves around Kafka’s life and writings is attributable to Max Brod. Batuman’s essay bears this out nicely. Brod single-handily made the world know about Kafka. He also ostensibly betrayed Kafka’s wish to burn all of his writings after his death and instead, when he fled Prague because of Nazi encroachment, he shuttled those papers off to Israel, where he met Esther Hoffe and joined the Zionist movement (and by proxy implicated Kafka, through control of his work and legacy, in Zionist ideology as well, which may or may not have been a desire of Kafka’s). Brod and Kafka were friends back in Prague, to be sure, but Brod’s ambitions and Kafka’s ambitions couldn’t have been more different. And the complex and somewhat odd controversy that now engulfs the Kafka braintrust is really the work of Brod. Batuman captures the friendship of Kafka and Brod well, and he brings into focus the troubling yet sine qua non figure that Brod represents for anyone who enjoys K. In the end, Batuman opines, “Maybe there is no Kafka beyond Brod.”