Kafka’s Last Trial Courtesy the National Library of Israel
An undated photograph of Franz Kafka.
By ELIF BATUMAN
During his lifetime, Franz Kafka burned an estimated 90 percent of his work. After his death at age 41, in 1924, a letter was discovered in his desk in Prague, addressed to his friend Max Brod. “Dearest Max,” it began. “My last request: Everything I leave behind me . . . in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches and so on, to be burned unread.” Less than two months later, Brod, disregarding Kafka’s request, signed an agreement to prepare a posthumous edition of Kafka’s unpublished novels. “The Trial” came out in 1925, followed by “The Castle” (1926) and “Amerika” (1927). In 1939, carrying a suitcase stuffed with Kafka’s papers, Brod set out for Palestine on the last train to leave Prague, five minutes before the Nazis closed the Czech border. Thanks largely to Brod’s efforts, Kafka’s slim, enigmatic corpus was gradually recognized as one of the great monuments of 20th-century literature.
- Times Topic: Franz Kafka
Enlarge This Image Natan Dvir/Polaris
Eva Hoffe near her home, which may contain many of Kafka’s remaining papers, in Tel Aviv.
The contents of Brod’s suitcase, meanwhile, became subject to more than 50 years of legal wrangling. While about two-thirds of the Kafka estate eventually found its way to Oxford’s Bodleian Library, the remainder — believed to comprise drawings, travel diaries, letters and drafts — stayed in Brod’s possession until his death in Israel in 1968, when it passed to his secretary and presumed lover, Esther Hoffe. After Hoffe’s death in late 2007, at age 101, the National Library of Israel challenged the legality of her will, which bequeaths the materials to her two septuagenarian daughters, Eva Hoffe and Ruth Wiesler. The library is claiming a right to the papers under the terms of Brod’s will. The case has dragged on for more than two years. If the court finds in the sisters’ favor, they will be free to follow Eva’s stated plan to sell some or all of the papers to the German Literature Archive in Marbach. They will also be free to keep whatever they don’t sell in their multiple Swiss and Israeli bank vaults and in the Tel Aviv apartment that Eva shares with an untold number of cats.
The situation has repeatedly been called Kafkaesque, reflecting, perhaps, the strangeness of the idea that Kafka can be anyone’s private property. Isn’t that what Brod demonstrated, when he disregarded Kafka’s last testament: that Kafka’s works weren’t even Kafka’s private property but, rather, belonged to humanity?
In May, I attended a session at the Tel Aviv district courthouse, dealing with the fate of the papers. Heading to the courtroom, I found myself in a small and dilapidated elevator with flickering fluorescent lights and a stated maximum occupancy of four people. I was reminded of “The Trial,” the novel that opens with the unexplained arrest of Josef K. by a mysterious court that turns out to have its offices in attics all over Prague, running its course somehow separately from the normal criminal-justice system. Half-expecting the elevator to deposit me in the upper stories of a low-income residential building, I emerged instead into a standard municipal-looking hallway with faux-marble floors. Black-robed lawyers paced around, carrying laptops or giant file folders tucked under their arms; many dragged still more files behind them in black wheeled suitcases.
Some minutes later, a barely perceptible charge in the air signaled the arrival of the sisters. Ruth, with her white sneakers, pearl earrings and short, bleached hair, looked like somebody’s grandmother (which she is). Eva, a former El Al employee who was by all accounts a great beauty in her youth, was dressed entirely in black, with a black plastic clip holding back her long auburn hair. Ruth wore a white shoulder bag, while Eva carried a plastic Iams bag with a paw-print logo.
Of five rows of wooden benches in the courtroom, the first three were occupied by more than a dozen lawyers: two lawyers for the National Library; a representative of the Israeli government office that is responsible for estate hearings; and five court-appointed executors: three representing Esther Hoffe’s will (which the National Library considers irrelevant to the case) and two representing Brod’s estate (which the sisters’ attorneys consider essentially irrelevant to the case). The German Literature Archive in Marbach, which has supposedly offered an undisclosed sum for the papers (said to be worth millions), was also represented by Israeli counsel. Ruth’s lawyer and Eva’s three lawyers rounded out the crowd. It’s impressive that the sisters had between them four lawyers, although, to put things in perspective, Josef K. at one point meets a defendant who has six. When he informs K. that he is negotiating with a seventh, K. asks why anyone should need so many lawyers. The defendant grimly replies, “I need them all.”
The events leading up to the hearing that day were set into motion many decades earlier. In Prague in the 1930s, Brod, a passionate Zionist, began mentioning plans to deposit the Kafka papers in the library of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where his and Kafka’s mutual friend Hugo Bergmann was then librarian and rector. Brod renewed these plans after his emigration to Palestine in 1939, but somehow nothing ever came of them, and the papers passed to Esther Hoffe. In 1988, Hoffe made headlines by auctioning the manuscript of “The Trial” for nearly $2 million; it ended up at the German Literature Archive. Philip Roth characterized this outcome as “yet another lurid Kafkaesque irony” that was being “perpetrated on 20th-century Western culture,” observing not only that Kafka was not German but also that his three sisters perished in Nazi death camps.