When, at the end of Franz Kafka’s great novel The Trial, the judgment rendered by a remote court for a crime that has never been disclosed is carried out, when Josef K. feels the knife entering his chest, the final thought that flashes through his mind has the precision and clarity that eludes us in life: “ ‘Like a dog!’ he said; it seemed as though the shame was to outlive him.” There is nothing so clear-cut and distinct about the thoughts of the protagonists of Benjamin Balint’s tale, which is, in the most general sense, about who has a right, legal or moral or both, to the papers that Kafka left behind when, in 1924, aged only 40, he succumbed to tuberculosis.
Balint’s story is a complex one, due in no small degree to the fact that Kafka hadn’t really wanted to leave anything behind. In a note he kept in his desk, the Jewish-Czech-German writer asked his closest friend, Max Brod, to burn his manuscripts, an order Brod ignored. Lest anyone think that refusal a betrayal of their friendship, Brod later suggested that Kafka should and would have known that he could never do such a thing. Were it not for Brod, Kafka would not have ascended to his hallowed status as one of the most important European modernists; without him, we would not have the great novels (The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika), the letters, the diaries, and many of the stories. Literary history abounds with such well-intentioned acts of defiance. Lavinia Norcross Dickinson, for example, dutifully burned her sister’s correspondence but spared the poems; had she been any more loyal, no one would know the name Emily Dickinson today. Brod does have a point: If you want to make sure, do the job yourself. A lesson heeded by Henry James, who made a bonfire in his Lamb House backyard and threw in the letters he wanted to keep from posterity.
Kafka’s Last Trial, Balint’s engaging new book, is full of such examples of second-guessing, full of people and institutions appearing to know how Kafka would have preferred to view himself or where, had he not wanted them destroyed, he would have liked his manuscripts to be—in the German Literature Archive, the main national collection of papers by German writers; in the National Library of Israel; or in the hands of the woman Brod had chosen to take care of them: Esther Hoffe, his former secretary. Kafka himself envisioned something like this situation in the haunting last story he wrote, “Josefine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,” about a fragile, vulnerable mouse singer intent on perfecting her extraordinary art. The mouse folk, her devoted followers, virtually imprisoned, fear that when she leaves all music will stop or disappear. As the story goes on, the less-than-sympathetic narrator begins to insinuate that Josefine perhaps isn’t all that talented, that her singing might be a series of squeaks rather than the rapturous coloraturas that the mouse people think they hear. At the end of the story, Josefine disappears, losing herself, with some relief, the reader imagines, in the “countless throng” of ordinary mice.
There is reason to suspect that Kafka, in that finicky mouse artist, had given us his self-portrait, that his wish not to have his papers preserved was due to his horror at the thought of seeing his unfinished work made widely available. But the option to disappear among his people—Josefine’s exit route—was not given to him even after death. The legal and moral motives people have given for laying claim to his literary remains are, taken on their own terms, perfectly understandable. The state of Israel, concerned about shoring up its own cultural legacy, wants to keep inside the country major cultural assets connected with the history of Judaism. The German Literature Archive in Marbach, which had already acquired the original manuscript of The Trial from Esther Hoffe and would like to own more, sees Kafka as an integral part of German literary history. Finally, Eva Hoffe, Esther’s surviving daughter and heir, sees the papers (and her right to decide whom to sell them to) as an integral part of her own financial survival.
There is the additional question of whether Germany, forever compromised by the Holocaust, should be allowed to have a place at the bidding table at all. While Kafka was an unreliable Zionist at best, he experienced his share of virulent anti-Semitism. In an unforgettable anecdote, shared with his sister Elli, he recounts sitting on a bench in Berlin’s botanical garden admiring a lovely, long-legged girl only to realize, belatedly, that the word she had called out to him was an insult: “Jude” (Jew). Elli and Kafka’s other two sisters perished in the death camps.
Benjamin Balint spent hours interviewing people, sitting through endless sessions in high-ceilinged Israeli courts, and going for walks through the streets of Tel Aviv with Eva Hoffe. He also did a fair amount of reading, particularly of the works of the prolific Brod, Kafka’s most faithful faithless friend. But he keeps himself largely out of the story, appearing mostly as a capable reporter and patient interlocutor, summarizing the opinions of others (“in this view”) rather than disclosing his own. His narrative proceeds in spurts, with necessary information often withheld until long after it was needed, a structural principle that I found at first disconcerting but then came to accept as a rather fitting equivalent for the convoluted nature of his material.
And though Balint agrees with the canard of Brod’s lack of greatness, he ironically makes him the subject of the book’s most memorable, beautifully conceived vignettes: Brod fleeing Prague on the last train out, carrying a tattered suitcase with Kafka manuscripts; Brod in a permanent state of displacement in Israel, hampered by his lack of fluency in Hebrew; Brod, aged 84, dying in a Tel Aviv hospital, liberated from his wrist restraints by the ever-present Esther Hoffe. Brod’s desperate grandeur and his attempts to make sense of a world that no longer needs the likes of him are touching. Gershom Scholem once lamented the curious twist of fate by which Kafka’s reputation had become intertwined with such a mediocrity. But while it is generally accepted that no one would recognize Brod’s name today were it not for Kafka, I wonder if the opposite might be true also: that Brod’s entanglement with Kafka’s estate has prevented us from considering such an interesting figure (who was, incidentally, a composer as well as writer) on his own merits.
Some plot elements of Balint’s tale evoke that archetypal story of literary possessiveness, Henry James’s The Aspern Papers (1888). Eva Hoffe’s righteous indignation at the intrusions of the Israeli state into her affairs does remind us of the fury of Miss Bordereau, erstwhile lover of the poet Jeffrey Aspern, and her piercing scream, at the end of the novella, when she finds the narrator attempting to break into her shrine of manuscripts: “Ah, you publishing scoundrel!” But Balint’s story has little of the simmering eroticism of James’s work—and it certainly never matches the magic of Kafka’s fictions. His characters don’t come as shockingly alive as Kafka’s figures do, whose every feature, from the tattered clothes they wear to the perspiration that gathers on their foreheads, invades and then permanently inhabits the reader’s consciousness. This is not Balint’s fault. All in all, the battle over Kafka’s literary remains, fought by mostly reasonable people with mostly reasonable claims, is insistently mundane, never turning into the parable of our darkest fears Kafka would have made of it.
And unlike Kafka’s novels, Kafka’s Last Trial has a happy ending of sorts. On August 7, 2016, Israel’s high court ruled that Kafka’s papers, along with Brod’s own estate, belonged in the National Library of Israel. Hoffe, at best a flawed guardian of Kafka’s manuscripts, felt disenfranchised, even “raped,” by the judges, but I was impressed by the care and literary acumen that some of them displayed in their written opinions. The National Library has promised to digitize Kafka’s manuscripts. Yet what might be the archival scholar’s dream-come-true would, arguably, have been Kafka-Josefine’s worst nightmare: the imperfections of his work laid bare, for everyone to see, a mere mouse-click (pun intended) away.