Archive | April, 2012

The strange case of the Franz Kafka archive: epilogue

21 Apr

Epilogue: Life is merely terrible

(parts one and two and three here and here and here)

I was 19 when I first read “The Metamorphosis.” I was shocked by its beautiful weirdness. I promptly read “Judgment Day” and “In the Penal Colony,” as well as chapters of a piss poor biography. I thought I understood Kafka: trouble with overbearing father, full of self-doubt, uses fiction for recrimination and revenge. A stormy, doomed and de-sexed wraith wandering around in human clothing. His initial influence was vast; I felt kinship to this solitary outsider terrified of the beast with two backs.[1] I felt invaded by his thoughts. He recast my life story as an extension of his own. Looking into the mirror late at night, I sensed his eyes looking through my own.

Basically, I fell in love.

He was my favorite author for a long time, and then in the pantheon for years. My first stories were imitations of his. My first novel (it’s terrible and shall remain unread)—I started shortly after reading Kafka for the first time—was infused with his casual weirdness, the detachment of his characters.

As time passes, however, I feel his influence less and less. I reread segments of his novels. I watched movie adaptations. I visited various websites devoted to his oeuvre. The more I learn, the less I understand. He’s slippery and difficult to pin down. Whereas I once thought he was fascinating, I now find reading him an exercise in futility and frustration. The translations are often loose, a touch flabby. His works all seem unfinished, even a tad undercooked. Little wonder, then, that a case study on his papers would also prove to be equally frustrating.

The bulk of the information in this case study came from Elif Batuman’s lengthy article in the New York Times Magazine, as well as the Guardian’s ongoing coverage. The books provided details into the principle figures’ lives. No one has written a biography of Hoffe. When contacted, Batuman was friendly, but refused to answer any questions on the case, her research, or the article. She was strangely adamant on this point, despite taking time to respond to my emails. Instead, she pointed me to Haaretz, one of the premiere Israeli newspapers. Dozens of short articles covered facets of the case, and I came across a quote from a state archivist, “No material that is of importance to the history of the Jewish people will leave the State of Israel. . . .We will not permit the materials’ removal without fulfilling the law.”

Perhaps this answer was the most definitive information I would find. The laws in question are Israeli laws, as are the lawyers and judge involved. Israel won’t let the papers leave, I’m sure of it.

Reporter Ofer Aderat was the major writer assigned to the trial. He wrote most of the articles, and I tried to contact him, too, tried and failed.

I was beginning to feel a profound frustration. I felt alone, stuck in this complex case without any cipher. Sort of like one of Kafka’s protagonists, which it turns out, is a theme related to this case. There’s a strange distortion field around it. Everyone has an opinion. No one seems to have all of the information.

I turned to the German Literature Archive. They didn’t respond for weeks. I grew worried, contacted the Harry Ransom archive in Texas, at least to get some insight into the rationale under which this sort of archive operates. The Texas librarian was curt, dismissive and even a touch combative. He flat-out lied about the way his archive operates, and he offered me very little. Another dead end.

The German archive responded, finally, and I sent them the questions. Worry set in as days passed with no response from them, either. What was it about this case? Was it unimportant, too important, or just some thing that no one really cared about? Was I missing something? Was something being hidden from me?

I felt alienated and confused, bound to an assignment that had no answers and defied logic or meaning. In short, I was beginning to feel like a protagonist in a Kafka novel. Others have felt the same way. There is something about this case.

I discovered Hawes late in my research, and he helped guide me back to firmer ground. The very myths he punctures in his book—Kafka as a lonely, abused outsider, a prophet of the Holocaust and an unloved loner terrified of sex—were some of the biggest obstacles in the way of my understanding the case.[2] He presents a different Kafka, meaner and worldlier. He also offers a way of studying Kafka that is straight-forward and rewarding. Basically, he liberated me from my own preconceived notions.

Every book maintains Kafka’s importance to world letters, but can after this essential point agree on little else. Even the final resting place of his papers. I don’t think there is any fixed or absolute answer in this case. The papers will go where the papers will go. Knowing how quirky and unpredictable the case has been so far—the spirit of Kafka in his own affairs—there’s no telling how or when the case will conclude. I keep thinking of the anecdotal story in The Trial, of the man who is waiting at a door of justice to be called. In waiting, he grows old. He is offered no answers, no explanations. He never finds meaning, or what he is looking for. The answer to why no one else has come through the door. “No one else could enter the door,” the guard explains, “because it was only meant for you. I’ll go and close it now.”

Kafka found his stories hilarious. The world finds them melancholy, horrifying, strange, full of black humor, infuriating and complex, but not funny. It turns out Kafka had a unique vision and version of himself, just like the rest of us.

And this is what he leaves us: contradictory impressions of his life and work, a series of interlocking puzzles, an ornate Chinese puzzle box, a legal case that spans 90 years and most of 20th century history, a case that could perpetuate itself for years, a big legal and moral question mark.

Kafka once wrote, “I doubt I am a human being.” Perhaps he was a ghost from the start, determined to bedevil any and all who wander into his impenetrable mazes, real or imagined.


[1] He didn’t help my dating/social life at all. I wandered through parties with my thoughts stuck in some foggy Hapsburg past.

[2] A similar thing happened to Johnny Cash. Producer Rick Rubin glommed onto the Christ-haunted troubador of backroads America for the final albums. They’re great, but they ignore Cash’s other, rascally, more playful, rockabilly roots.

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The strange case of the Franz Kafka archive, part 8.

21 Apr

Conclusion: It really could be the plot of a Kafka novel

The major issue of the day for archives and libraries is digitization, and adapting to the ever-increasing digital world. The issues related to the Internet, library services, and self-definition and how libraries go forward are conspicuously absent from this old fashioned case of private property versus public good. The case is also about big, abstract ideas, a collision of art and politics and history and money.

The issues at play have a deep abiding relevance to the messiness of real life, as opposed to the orderly and organized world of archives and libraries. Archives serve real purposes—my questions to the contrary were more for playing devil’s advocate—but their value is subjective and unquantifiable. Vast sums of money can be involved, and with money, prestige, competition, and deceit. The money at stake here is in the millions.

The underlying politics of this case serve as the second layer of complexity. Both countries want to claim Kafka, perhaps the 20th century’s most famous author, worldwide. Both countries have a valid claim. Neither is willing to compromise in an all or nothing game. There will be one clear winner and one clear loser. With the macabre and brutal history of these two countries, reputations beyond just Kafka’s are in peril.

The notion of a permanent archive of a writer’s work is more complicated than most people know. Ownership of a creative oeuvre becomes tricky after a writer’s death, and in Kafka’s case, the various moral strands are absurdly complex. The importance of an archive, in the realms of the social and political, is enormous, proven by the fierce fighting over the papers in this case. The archive is important; too many people care too much for this to be something so abstract as the personal property rights of two septuagenarian sisters. This is a major international story with legs. Other European writers with disputed papers would not get a front-page treatment in the New York Times.

The consequences of the case, and the arguments that the various agencies involved are putting forth, touch on the moral questions underneath many of the assumptions that go into an archive of any kind. The Israeli side argues that there is a basic immorality to Kafka’s papers ending up in Germany. They have a point. But, Kafka never set foot in Israel and died two decades before it became a country. What moral right does Israel have to the papers? The major argument, it seems to me, is essentially that the papers were brought to Israel. A matter of luck, and not a very strong claim to the papers.

This sort of thing could happen to another writer, but there’s something right about this sort of thing happening to Kafka. Kafka is unique. Normality does not suit his life’s work. The ongoing debate over the nature of Kafka’s life and work, it’s meaning and value, and the emerging revelations over his own collection of erotica, all add to the uncertainty.

His work will last, but what form will the scholarship take in forty years? Sixty? Will he be seen as one of the first Zionist authors, a Jewish writer inheriting the strange comedy of Yiddish theatre and the alienated politics of two thousand years? Or, a German modernist, who helped open literature up to new vistas of expression? Where his papers end up will shape this discussion. How Kafka is read will be influenced by this legal case. Writers know it, the agencies involved know it, and this is a big part of the explanation of why the case has merited so much attention.

The papers will remain in Israel, and probably should. When Kafka died and asked his closest friend to destroy his life’s work, he ceded control over his writings. Despite his shortcomings, Brod did the world an enormous favor. But, as Kafka’s reputation and import has grown, he has ceased to be controllable by any one person, editor, writer, or point of view. He defies categorization—he exists independent of our reading of him—and therefore his papers do not belong to any one person; they belong to the world. At some point, Brod intended to give the papers to Israel. Later confusion doesn’t negate this fact. Besieged with allegations of human rights violations and cruelty against the Palestinians, and themselves the victims of a genocidal purge, Israelis have a vested interest in keeping Kafka’s papers in their home. The political overtones in this case are real. Germany perpetuated one of the worst atrocities in the history of mankind. Their primary target was European Jewry, a group that Kafka was a member of (reluctantly or not). The German people and their collective psyche have gone through various stages of atonement. Time has passed. Things have changed. But to Kafka’s poor sisters, no amount of apology can be enough.

Not a smile but a smirk; Kafka's laughing at us from beyond the grave.

The strange case of the Franz Kafka archive, part 7.

21 Apr

Part 7: Nothing ever ends

In mid-July, an Israeli judge confirmed the injunction, preventing the sisters from selling the papers, until the entire archive—spread out over two countries and half a dozen storage places—could be inventoried. Given the disjointed nature of the collection, with its multiple location points and total lack of organization, this could take months.

Or longer. On November 1, lawyers from both the German archive and the sisters have asked for extensions to the boxes being opened. The sisters argue that it is an invasion of their privacy. The Germans argue that the papers could be damaged in the cataloging process. The cataloging stopped. Reported negotiations are taking place.

Relations between the Israeli National Library and the German Literature Archive remain frosty. In late 2009, the Israelis demanded that the German archive give back the manuscript of The Trial, they had acquired over 20 years earlier. The German Archive refused, citing familiar arguments concerning Hoffe’s ownership of the papers.

The Kafka papers not located in Israel continue to appear at auctions, despite Israeli attempts to stop them. In late 2009, two letters sold in Switzerland for large sums of money. The buyer and seller remained anonymous.

Throughout this study, I kept wondering: what is the purpose of an archive of this type anyway? Kafka’s work has been pored over by scholars for decades. The difficult work of exegetics has been completed. We have six volumes of his diaries, three novels, a few dozens short stories, and volumes of his letters. Even if the archive has copious amounts of new material, it is unlikely that anything truly revelatory will emerge. Brod milked his friend’s output for all it was worth. We’re most likely talking about detritus, notes and cast off diary entries and doodles. Some odds and ends.

One of the major U.S. archives of this type—dedicated to cultural artifacts from authors and willing to pay top dollar for them—is the University of Texas Harry Ransom Center. I contacted them with some of these questions, curious what they would say concerning the rationale for paying a lot of money for what is, by most accounting, useless.

Richard Workman, an associate librarian on staff there, responded. “One person’s trivial material is another scholar’s gold mine,” he said. “When letters or diaries are published, they are not always exhaustive, and much remains in the archive that’s not published.” Workman went on to explain that their reading room was in constant use, frequented by scholars from all over the world. The value of the material could not be decided until it was studied at length.

When asked about competing with another archive for the letters of an author, Workman was curt and abrupt, dismissing the idea. “As a rule, we don’t ‘compete’ with other archives for papers,” he said. Each archive has its niche; the Harry Ransom archive, for example, focuses on artists from England, the U.S., and France. He elaborated further on their archive’s mission: “What matters is whether the author influenced other creators, either negatively or positively, or was important historically. We are trying to create a comprehensive picture of the period for which we collect.”

Workman’s answer is misleading and disingenuous[1]. University archives, national archives, personal archives—it’s a constant collision of interests, egos, money, and needs. They are expensive to maintain. They are expensive to expand. Their benefit extends to a very select few. An argument could be made that the study of literature and its exegesis, extends to all of humanity, but this is a stretch and I think even hardcore scholars would have a hard time arguing this point with a straight face.

A final wrinkle is the Kafka archive already set up in Oxford, England. Oxford University has its own Kafka center, with original manuscripts, at the Bodleian Library. They acquired the manuscripts through a third party, who had received them from Kafka’s European publisher back in the 1940s. The Oxford Kafka Research Centre holds conferences promoting Kafka studies, as well as a visiting scholar program. They haven’t entered the legal arena and have no public intention of doing so, but I think they could make a case that the archive should be kept in one place, and that they should be given care of the papers.

And, I wonder, how different this current legal trial would be in tone and structure if the English were trying to buy it, instead of the Germans?

As of this writing, the archive was still being inventoried, running past the projected deadline. Considering the nature of Kafka’s work and the absurd odyssey his papers have taken up to this point, it wouldn’t surprise me if the inventory is never completed. If the Israeli courts side with the sisters, the papers will be sold to Germany and leave Israel forever. Ten, twenty, fifty years from now, Kafka will be situated within German literary culture and traditions, a hinge writer who paved the way for a new type of literature and new European voices. If the Israeli courts side with the Israeli National Library, Kafka’s papers will end up archived there. And, ten, twenty, fifty years from now, he was will be read primarily as a Jewish author, and probably connected to Zionism and the formation of the state of Israel.

Israel has one Kafka, Germany the other. He belongs to both and neither. He would have valued the contradiction.


[1] In the June 11, 2007, the New Yorker had an extended profile of the archive, reporting a number of instances where the archive competed with other archives for writers’ work, often controversially.

The strange case of the Franz Kafka archive, part 6.

21 Apr

Part 6: Perhaps it’s all about the top shelf

Why not more strangeness? A new group of revisionists have been looking at Kafka and his work in a new light. Perhaps the strongest voice in this movement is a British academic and author named James Hawes.

A decidedly different take on the lonely Czech.

Hawes offers a different reading that might also shed some light on why Brod, and later Hoffe, guarded the archive so closely. Hawes has recently published the book Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life, focusing on Kafka’s collection of erotica and pornography[1]. Hawes argues that Kafka was a handsome, all-too-human time waster who was influenced by his interest in the erotic. He was, by way of example, a subscriber to Der Amethyst, an early pornographic magazine. The Bodleian Library has some of these issues in their Kafka archive, although the pictures are secured, as Hawes puts it, “on the top shelf.” The sexual encounters in Kafka’s novels are often read as a man who is terrified of sex, but the other reading, of an author possessing a kinky sexual point of view is also valid. In a 2008 interview, Hawes said of this ignored stash of erotica, “They are undoubtedly porn. . . . Some of it is quite dark. . . . The Kafka industry doesn’t want to know such things about its idol.”

An example of content from Der Amethyst, and perhaps why the archive's contents are still shrouded in secrecy.

Perhaps the archive reflects this ignored interest of Kafka’s. Perhaps the archive contains drawings, photos or some other items of a prurient nature that Eva and Ruth don’t know what to do with. Conjecture, true, but just as valid as the other interpretations of the man and his work.[2]

It gets worse. Hawes argues that Kafka was not some romantic literary outsider, but rather a glad hander and social climber who had support from his parents and help from his friends. He was also, according to Hawes, a militant nationalist, a supporter of Austrian hegemonic military action, and a coddled wealthy bourgeois member of management. In this interpretation, the German Literature Archive has a strong case. If Kafka considered himself Austrian, Prussian, or German, then perhaps he belongs in Germany after all.

One thing is clear: there isn’t one Kafka, or two, or even a dozen, but thousands. Hawes has his Kafka, Smith has hers, as do Coetzee, Murray, Brod, Eva and Ruth, and I do, too. He is different things to different people, and how we interpret his life and his work affects how we feel about the case.


[1] As well as his financial independence and publishing connections.

[2] I’ve seen some of the pictures. They are perverse, unquestionably pornographic, and strange, a combination of voyeurism, sex and violence, including one picture of a homunculus-type creature performing fellatio on a phallus-shaped tree.

The strange case of the Franz Kafka archive, part 5.

21 Apr

Part 5: Those sharp lawyers and their knives

Eva and Ruth want to sell the papers to the German Literature Archive. The National Library of Israel wants to keep the papers. Some basic questions over private property, public good, and intellectual property rights are at play.

The three sides are all battling it out in the Israel courts. Legal ambiguities abound, centering on Brod’s will to Hoffe and then Hoffe’s will to her daughters. As long as Hoffe’s will is in dispute, the daughters are unable to inherit the large amount of money involved, much of it earned from the sale of the manuscript of The Trial some 40 years ago.

The salient and interlocking questions:

What was Brod’s intention with the archive? And how does the will bear this out?

Was Hoffe the executor of Brod’s will, or the beneficiary?

Do Eva and Ruth have the right to sell Kafka’s papers to the German archive?

Does Israel have eminent domain?

Does Brod’s letter of intent somehow trump physical ownership?

All of the legal questions circle around the larger philosophical issue of who, if anyone, owns Kafka’s papers. This is the major question. Some argue that his work, as he is a seminal writer of the 20th Century, belongs to the world. Brod’s daughters argue that the papers belong to them, are private property. Both archives want to preserve the work, but the conflict speaks to some major concerns in the library/archive field of study. Kafka wasn’t German. He was Czech, a Jewish minority in the Hapsburg kingdom. But he wrote in German. His Jewishness—and his ambiguous feelings towards his own ethnic and religious identity—clouds the picture further. Most of the papers are in Israel, some are in Switzerland, some are in England, and together the papers are worth millions. It’s complex, pitting property rights of two individuals against the future image and influence of a world-renowned author.

This much is clear: the papers are symbolically important. They are worth a lot of money and prestige. And because of their importance, they have been sucked into the complicated political quagmire of Israel, the Holocaust, Zionism, and collective German guilt. For the case holds one more unbelievable twist. Kafka’s three sisters, some seventy years ago, were all killed in a Nazi concentration camp.

The specter of the Holocaust hangs over the proceedings, punctuated by Kafka’s sisters and their horrifying fate. And this specter has brought international attention to the trial. Various Jewish writers have condemned the move of Kafka’s papers to Germany. They understandably, and perhaps predictably, bring up the Nazi atrocities.

Returning to the nature of Kafka’s work itself, his novels and stories seem open to dozens of different interpretations. Some see his work as religious in nature. Others see them as humanist, existentialist, anti-capitalist, anti-totalitarian, iconoclastic, modernist, anti-modernist, monomythic, and on and on. The vague nature of his plots and his refusal to explain the meaning of his strange metaphors makes his work resistant to hard definitions. Existentialist hero or plagued Jewish everyman? Forerunner to European modernism or apotheosis of Yiddish comic traditions? All readings are valid. But the reading Kafka intended?

Regardless, the various sides continue to press their points. The German Literature Archive asserts that they can care for the Kafka papers better than their Israeli counterparts, adding to the controversy and tendentiousness of the situation. I contacted the Archive to see what they had to say about the case. They responded with long silence, and then asked me for the questions. I sent them the questions, and then they responded with yet more silence. Their core legal argument is that Eva and Ruth are the owners of Kafka’s papers. Their cultural argument is that Kafka wrote in German. They never provided me with answers.

The National Library of Israel has its own arguments. One of the major arguments put forth by the Library of Israel is that Brod named Hoffe the executor of the will, and not the beneficiary. In this line of reasoning, her control over the archive only extended to her death, and is not transferable to her children. In an earlier version of his will, Brod gave the papers to the Municipal Library at Tel Aviv, or to the forerunner of the NLI. But, before dying Brod wrote a letter to Hoffe, promising her ownership of the papers, outright. The letter is another piece of contested evidence, unverified and apparently edited. The letter rests at the center of the trial, and is still being studied and scrutinized.

Eva and Ruth have physical possession and control over the papers, an incontrovertible fact that lends their case credence. But as the bulk of the papers reside in the state of Israel, they are subject to Israeli laws. A peculiarity in Israeli law has prolonged the case; Israel cannot forcibly seize the papers, but they can prevent them from leaving the country. This protracted stalemate angered everyone involved. The world waited. The contents remained a secret.

The strange case of the Franz Kafka archive, part 4.

20 Apr

Part 4: Three Lonely Old Ladies

(adapted from a case study I wrote for grad school; bibliography available upon request)

Hoffe was in her sixties when Kafka’s papers came into her hands. She had worked as Brod’s secretary for over 20 years. In her role as secretary to Brod, she had worked on and with the papers, and, believing what many writers have intimated, she had been intimate with Brod for years. Her physical closeness to Kafka’s papers has never been called into question. But the extent of her ownership, and what that ownership entitled her to, was questioned from the beginning.

Hoffe made her intentions clear early on. In 1974, she sold some of Kafka’s letters to unknown, private buyers in Germany. This raised the ire of the Library of Israel, who had her arrested for not following proper archival procedures with the Kafka papers. (She attempted to sell original materials without making copies, first.) Jewish authors around the world, including Philip Roth, were outraged.

Her profits continued. In 1988, she auctioned off a manuscript of The Trial for millions. The German Literature Archive purchased the manuscript. She then negotiated to sell all of the Kafka archive, including Brod’s papers, to the German Literature Archive. This was a controversial decision, for reasons we will soon explore.

Located in Marbach, the German Literature Archive exists to “awaken knowledge of original sources and to awaken joy in literature.” Focused on German literature, the archive promotes conferences, scholarships and workshops. They have an extensive collection of German manuscripts, a large staff, and a stunning array of museums and buildings. They also have a devoted archive to 20th century German literature, a category which both makes sense for Kafka and doesn’t make sense at all.[1] The German Literature Archive is state of the art, a well-funded research and public space.

The deal, however, was never completed. Hoffe died in 2007. The papers went to her aged daughters, Eva and Ruth. The two daughters were in their seventies when they inherited the papers, and although they’ve never said so to the press, they see the papers as an inheritance that they can do with as they please.

Eva carried some of the papers to her house, which is, to quote the New York Times, “inhabited by . . . between 40 and 100 cats.” The unhygienic nature of this type of habitat makes scholars nervous. As the archive was never fully cataloged—over the years a number of archivists have tried to survey and catalog the existing papers, but the physical distance between the various papers, and the reluctance of Eva and Ruth, makes this task close to impossible—the content of the archive is unknown. This ambiguity makes scholars doubly nervous, as pieces can go missing without anyone knowing they were there in the first place.

Large sums of money are involved, but Eva and Ruth seem to be pathological in their insistence of ownership of Kafka’s papers. They are also secretive and reclusive. They have refused to give any interviews, instead communicating through their lawyer. By all accounts, they were and are intractable in their belief that they have the right to sell the papers. They set about to do so, and the byzantine affair seemed to be at an end.

But then, an injunction was filed. Eva and Ruth, the German Literature Archive, and the National Library of Israel all hired lawyers.


[1] I contacted the German Literature Archive a number of times concerning the case, they responded up to a point, but never actually answered any questions or conveyed any information.

The strange case of the Franz Kafka archive, part 3.

16 Apr

Part 3: The fleeing dandy finds a home

The rise of the Nazi party in Germany and the rising anti-Semitism forced Brod to leave his homeland. In 1939, Brod fled Europe, settling in Palestine before Israel formed their new state. He carried a suitcase full of Kafka’s papers with him[1]. In Palestine, he made a new life for himself, and also began managing his dead friend’s career.

Brod’s first wife died in 1942. He began spending time with Esther Hoffe, his secretary. Professionally, she spent much of her life working on Kafka’s output. Their relationship is difficult to understand—she was married, and Brod often spent his holidays with Esther and her husband, just the three of them—but crucial to the legal wrangling that comes decades later.

For the rest of his life, Brod controlled Kafka’s output. He helped shape the first editions, as well as translations. He edited the manuscripts and arranged the order of the unfinished novels. Sparingly, he helped augment later editions with deleted passages, variant pieces, and foreword information. He played the role of gatekeeper to his friend’s work. He did well by Kafka, and most of Kafka’s reputation rests on Brod’s diligence. But, Brod’s influence came at a price. His interpretation of Kafka was limited, small, and provincial. Kafka was a more complex writer than Brod. Kafka possessed a keener literary vision than Brod. Kafka was great, whereas Brod was not. Brod was aware that Kafka was an important writer, but he also knew that the better Kafka’s reputation was, the more important he was. He was trapped by his friend’s success. Without Brod, there would not be a Kafka. But Brod never really relinquished his version of Kafka, and attempted to control the output so that his vision would remain dominant.

Max Brod, looking menacing and aloof.

And, an ardent Zionist, Brod (intentionally or no) formed a vision of Kafka the writer as essentially Jewish—in both a cultural and religious sense—growing out of the Yiddish tradition. Attributing a deep Jewishness to Kafka’s writings is another kink in the coming conflict over his papers.

As time passed, Brod understood the importance, and financial worth, of Kafka’s papers. In a telling move, he also combined his papers with his best friend’s. The archive has his diaries, notes, and manuscripts, as well. (Some believe that it is the prurient nature of some of the entries—visits to brothels, minor infidelities, and the like—that has driven Hoffe to such privacy.[2] I will return to this theme later.)

And then, things turned strange. Brod and Kafka’s European publisher, a man named Salman Schocken, had a falling out. Schocken refused to return the manuscripts in his possession, and they were moved to a safe haven in Zurich. The nature of this falling out isn’t clear, and both men have been dead for a long time. These papers made their way to one of Kafka’s nephews, who transferred them to a professor in England. (He held on to the papers for years, and then they were moved to the Bodleian Library at Oxford, where they remain.)

Brod got older. He kept his intentions with the Kafka papers hidden. At some point he willed them to the library of Israel, in a letter of intent. And then he named Hoffe as the beneficiary of his will.

In 1956, after a build up of arms in Egypt and increasingly bellicose behavior from Egyptian prime minister Gamal Nasser and neighboring countries Syria and Jordan[3], Israel, aided by European allies, attacked. The resulting violent, if short-lived, war scared Brod and he moved some, but not all, of the archive to Zurich, yet another strange splintering of Kafka’s remaining papers. With some of the papers in Zurich, the legal case that occurred fifty years later was made more complicated.

Nobel prize winning J.M. Coetze, in his essay on translating Kafka, argues that the way his original translators viewed his work colored the choices they made when translating. (The first translators saw his body of work in religious terms, and thus made translation decisions that reflected, and in many instances amplified, this approach.) These decisions, in turn, colored subsequent translators, as well as critics and readers. The same thing can be said for Brod and for the Kafka papers. Some see Brod as a savior. Others see him as an opportunist. Perhaps both are true. Regardless, Brod never made a firm decision concerning the archive. “Brod always knew that he couldn’t hole on to Kafka forever,” journalist Batuman writes, “but he never really faced up to it, and this is the result.”

Novelist Zadie Smith, in a recent essay, also sees Brod as misunderstanding the author he saved. “The problem is not solely Brod’s flat-footed interpretations, it’s his interventions in the texts themselves.” Brod, she argues, arranged and organized many of Kafka’s texts, with his own biases, issues and values in mind.

Brod died in 1968. His will concerning the Kafka archive was ambiguous. Depending on who is asked, he left it to his secretary (and reported lover) Esther Hoffe, or the National Library of Israel. Hoffe ended up with the papers, spread out over various bank vaults, deposit boxes, and shoeboxes. The strange odyssey of Kafka’s papers entered a new phase.


[1] The letters he sent to his various girlfriends are lost, most likely destroyed by fires, bombings, and the pandemonium the Nazis, and later the Soviets, wrought in their invasion of Prague.

[2] Or perhaps its just money.

[3] I’m simplifying. France and England were involved, too, all over control of the Suez Canal.