Kafka’s Last Trial by Benjamin Balint review – long battle over a literary legacy

By John Banville

The world was Kafkaesque before Franz Kafka; all he did was contribute the adjective. He was certainly not the first literary artist to identify the essential uncanniness of quotidian reality. From Catullus through Jonathan Swift and on to Heinrich von Kleist, ETA Hoffmann and Dostoevsky, the fictions we spin in order that life might be sustainable have been questioned, derided and upended, over and over. All the same, Kafka remains a special case. As George Steiner pointed out, no other great writer, not even Shakespeare, managed to arrogate to himself and make uniquely his own a letter of the alphabet. In the darker realm of literature, at least, K is king.

The adjective “Kafkaesque” has, of course, become a cliche. Kafka’s name, according to Philip Roth, “is plastered indiscriminately on almost any baffling or unusually opaque event that is not easily translatable into the going simplifications”. Even Max Brod, his friend and the man we must thank for disregarding Kafka’s specific, written instructions that all his unpublished work should be destroyed, protested against the “repulsive expression ‘Kafkaesque’”, adding that “Kafkaesque is that which Kafka was not!” But neither was he what Brod claimed him to be, a “saint of our time”.

And Theodor Adorno was right to insist that he was not “a poet of the Judaic homeland”. Indeed, one of the themes running throughout Benjamin Balint’s fascinating and forensically scrupulous account of the history of Kafka’s papers is the writer’s deeply ambiguous relationship – if it can even be called that – with Israel, or, as it still was in his time, Palestine. While Brod, a typical Mitteleuropean man of letters, “came,” according to the journalist and Zionist Robert Weltsch, “to complete identification with the Jewish people”, Kafka maintained a sceptical attitude on the “Jewish question”, both in the personal and the public spheres. “What have I in common with the Jews?” he asks in his diary, adding with typically lugubrious humour, “I have hardly anything in common with myself.”

It was not until he discovered what Balint describes as “an unlikely source of vitality” in the performances of a Yiddish theatre troupe in Prague’s Cafe Savoy that he began to appreciate his Jewish inheritance. “The café was tawdry,” Balint writes, “its doorman a part-time pimp,” yet the burlesque performances had the peculiar effect of making Kafka’s “cheeks tremble”.

Kafka filled more than a 100 pages of his diary, Balint tells us, with accounts of the Yiddish players and their plays. “He was impressed by their authenticity and ‘vigour’ (Urwüchsigkeit), and by the ironic idiom itself – in which high and low, biblical and vernacular rattled against each other.” Samuel Beckett must have undergone the same kind of Damascene moment when he first began to look seriously at the miniature tragicomic epics of Buster Keaton.

Entrusted his archive with instructions to destroy it … Franz Kafka in 1906.
Entrusted his archive with instructions to destroy it … Franz Kafka in 1906. Photograph: History and Art Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

Whether his glimpse of a shared Jewish past turned Kafka into a “Jewish” writer is doubtful. True, he did teach himself Hebrew, as his friend Georg Langer, a scholar of the Kabbalah, attested: “He, who always insisted that he was not a Zionist, learned our language at an advanced age and with great diligence.” Yet as Kafka himself wrote not long before his death: “What is Hebrew, but news from far away?” As to Palestine itself, it seems to have been for Kafka not so much the promised as the improbable land. As he scathingly remarked: “Many people prowl around Mt Sinai.” Perhaps the matter is best expressed by the Swiss critic Jean Starobinski: “In the face of Judaism, Kafka is an exile, albeit one who ceaselessly asks for news of the land he has left.”

All these aspects of the extremely vexed Jewish question are pertinent to Balint’s subject, which is the battle between Germany and Israel for possession of Kafka’s literary remains, and the plight of the two women caught in the crossfire – although it must be acknowledged that Esther Hoffe and her daughter Eva exploded quite a few bombs themselves.

The Israeli case was succinctly stated by Meir Heller, the hard-nosed lawyer who through eight years of intricate, sometimes bitter, and – yes, alas – Kafkaesque litigation represented the National Library of Israel: “Like many other Jews who contributed to western civilisation, we think, his legacy ... [and] his manuscripts should be placed here in the Jewish state.”

The other interested party was the German Literature Archive at Marbach, under the direction of Ulrich Raulff, which, as Balint writes, “wished to add Kafka’s manuscripts to the estates of more than 1,400 writers … held in storage facilities kept at a constant 18C–19C (about 66F) and a relative humidity of 50 percent-55 percent”. So far, so German; one of the less temperate comments came from the publisher and Kafka scholar Klaus Wagenbach: “The Israelis seem to have become crazed.”

The squabble – and it was a squabble, despite the many high-minded pronouncements that the affair called forth – centred not on Kafka himself, or his wishes as to the fate of his papers, running to tens of thousands of pages, but to the ambiguities of the will left behind by Brod, the original keeper of the archive. A tireless, prolific and for the most part mediocre writer and journalist, Brod was Kafka’s closest friend and confidant, and regarded him with, as he confessed, “fanatical veneration”, finding even his chronic hypochondria “inventive and entertaining”.

After the second world war, Brod settled in Palestine, not without doubts and difficulties, and with less of an enthusiastic reception than he might justifiably have expected. In Israel’s defence, the new state was more in need of people of action than of another central European intellectual, even one carrying a bulging suitcase of papers left behind by one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, indeed of all the centuries.

Kafka had entrusted his archive to Brod with instructions to destroy it, instructions that Brod insisted he assured Kafka he had no intention of carrying out. In Tel Aviv, Brod became friends with another German exile, Otto Hoffe, and his much younger wife, Esther. Brod, whose own wife had recently died and whose lover had left him, latched on to the Hoffes, and in time took on Esther as his secretary, and perhaps more – although Esther’s daughter Eva insisted that Esther’s relation to Brod “wasn’t carnal, it was spiritual”.

Whatever the nature of the connection between the two, on his death in 1968 Brod left Esther in possession of the great bulk of Kafka’s papers, including original manuscripts of novels and stories, and a wealth of correspondence. Balint, who is a library fellow at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, emphasises that for decades the Israeli state showed no interest in securing the papers, and did not even react when Esther put some manuscripts up for auction.

In time, Esther left what remained of them – a substantial haul, despite those auctions – to Eva, still living in Tel Aviv. At once Israel, in the form of its National Library, moved to contest Esther’s will, provoking the Marbach Literature Archive to weigh in with its own case. Since it had already been in negotiation with Esther to buy Brod’s estate, including the Kafka papers, the archive’s director held that it had the right at least to make a bid against the Israeli claim. There followed no fewer than three trials in Israel, which ended with the supreme court’s decision that Eva must hand over, without recompense, the entire Brod papers, including Kafka’s legacy, to the library.

Who was in the right, or could there even be a “right” decision in such a case, involving the claims of the Jewish state against a nation that had permitted the murder of 6 million Jews? The real loser was not the Marbach archive, for all the affront it suffered, but Eva, who died in August 2018. Balint, in a passage that Kafka would surely have admired, sums up the matter eloquently and movingly when he writes: “Like the man from the country in Kafka’s parable ‘Before the Law’, Eva Hoffe remained stranded and confounded outside the door of the law … Her inheritance was the trial itself. Paradoxically, she had inherited her disinheritance, inherited the impossibility of carrying out her mother’s will. She possessed only her dispossession.”

Kafka’s Last Trial is published by Picador. To order a copy for £13.19 (RRP £14.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.