Kafka, a Fletcherizer and Müllerizer, who knew?

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.”

Esther Hoffe and Max Brod

4 thoughts on “Kafka, a Fletcherizer and Müllerizer, who knew?

  1. andykorki

    Very good article, I started reading it at work thinking I would skim the first page only to find myself starting the article over and reading it entirely. Having read all his major works and a few short stories and letters I look forward to what may eventually lead to at least one or two collections of his letters and unpublished short stories. It will be interesting to see if there are any gems (aka Hunger Artist) in any of the archives or would it be that the cats have “burned” all his writings. I always found it fascinating that Max Brod played such a central role in making sure that Kafka was published and now we sit here waiting for the sisters of the women he entrusted with the manuscripts to essentially pass (and damn they are holding on at 100+!!!!).

  2. wildbillyscircusstory

    This was quite an article and the situation described therein perhaps an all too fitting denouement for Kafka’s catalog. That Brod essentially purloined the manuscripts and published them against Kafka’s will (a dying wish no less) demonstrated remarkable foresight. I wish I could offer more insight as to the law involved, but of course we aren’t dealing with US (or state) law and I scrubbed Intellectual Property Law from my brain shortly after the Bar Examination. However, I will say the oft-quoted maxim, “Possession is nine-tenths of the law” is wholly innacurate. Possession counts for nothing. Throw in a little Estates and Trusts issue, and one cannot envy the jurists deciding this case. (As a side note, I wonder if Peashoot was pondering debt collection litigation as he posted this…it seems goods were tendered long ago in the form of a t-shirt without reciprocal consideration.)

    A final, somewhat unfair, criticism of the article: any suppositions on Kafka’s view of this situation and his preference as to where the documents be housed entirely misses the point. Were the court to compel Kafka’s intent, the entire inventory would be destroyed, a result in which everyone (perhaps save Kafka) loses. This case revolves around Brod’s intent. And from what I read, rightly or wrongly and regardless of K’s wishes — which essentially count for nothing — it seems he wanted the documents to be curated for in Israel. I’m sure I’ll catch hell for saying Kafka’s wishes count for nothing…

  3. Peashoot

    Ha! Are you FINALLY gonna pay up? I do miss that t-shirt.

    And you’re right, you will catch hell: whether he’s dead or alive, K’s wishes are the only opinion in this case that truly matter. That his dying wish to have his work destroyed was betrayed jibes nicely with the plight of many of K’s tragic (hapless?) heroes. Yet, having said that, I am grateful to Brod for his literary prescience. And while I don’t have any preference about where the remains of K’s archive end up, I do hope they go to a place that can properly preserve them. I’ve seen many, many priceless manuscripts go the way of the worms in poorly ventilated research centres in India.

  4. wildbillyscircusstory

    Well, I concur with your desire that the documents end up in a place where they can be properly maintained for future generations. But, from a legal standpoint, Kafka’s wishes are a nullity; they are Brod’s property. Assuming, arguendo, that his intentions matter, it is all speculation. The one thing we do know for certain is his desire that they end up in the fire. Furthermore, the Germany vs Israel debate is idiotic: shouldn’t they be in Prague?

    And, to answer your interrogatory – payment is not forthcoming.


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