The Strange Case of the Franz Kafka Archive, part 1.

15 Apr

Introduction: The Shroud of history

(The following entries adapted from a case study. Bibliography available on request)

The story of Franz Kafka and his archive is a strange tale of ego and hubris, betrayal and greed, legal battle and literary obsession, and elicit sex and pornography: a case over 80 years in the making. It’s also the story of the importance, and limitations, of archives, and the role they play in maintaining, expanding, controlling or even harming a writer’s reputation. The case also reveals the deep symbolic and political importance of a writer’s legacy, and how the final resting place of a writer’s work—and how the materials are cared for, treated, and handled—can influence how he or she is read for generations.

In academic terms, Kafka is one of history’s most successful authors, despite being relatively unknown in his lifetime and, sadly, misunderstood after his death. “The Metamorphosis” is required reading in most high schools. Hundreds of doctoral papers are published every year. Thousands of graduate students focus on his slim body of work. Thousands of books, exegetical and biographical, have been published in almost every conceivable language. His name itself has become synonymous with a certain approach to reality.

And, what has happened to his papers is indeed Kafkaesque.

Those dark eyes still withhold secrets.

The short version of the story goes like this: The dying Kafka asked his friend, Max Brod, to destroy his papers, letters, diaries and manuscripts. Brod ignored this request, and, fleeing the Nazi invasion of Europe, carried the papers with him to the new state of Israel. He facilitated publication of Kafka’s work, controlled its output, and promised the unpublished papers to the national library of Israel as well as to his secretary. His secretary kept them, sold some of the papers, and then willed them to her daughters. They’ve kept the papers until recently, when they tried to sell them to the German National Archive. The Israel national library sued, and now the papers—holding mysterious contents—are in physical and metaphorical limbo. Competing interests have locked the papers in a bizarre struggle. Money, prestige, and politics—the papers sit at the center of a complex quagmire.

Various agencies vying for the archive, multiple languages, dozens of lawyers, an underlying eeriness close to déjà vu, a murky morality and endless, labyrinthine bureaucratic complications: it could be the plot of a Kafka novel.

I conducted interviews, read the current articles in papers from around the world, poured over the various theoretical approaches to his work, and read all the up to date books on the subject. Most of the parties involved did not respond to my entreaties. Others responded but refused to answer questions. Still others responded with evasions, answering easy questions but dodging difficult ones. An underlying reticence reverberated throughout the process, a touch of the strange, as if the ghost of Kafka were meddling with worldly affairs. As if Kafka didn’t want things to be clear, or even make sense. As if Kafka wanted to make this case study as frustrating as possible.

The story of Kafka’s papers is imminently stranger than the story of Kafka’s life. The story is complex, bizarre, contentious and important, but to understand the various agencies in the case, we have to go back to the author himself.

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One Response to “The Strange Case of the Franz Kafka Archive, part 1.”

  1. donato paz October 29, 2012 at 5:55 am #

    Just stumbled on your posts about Kafka and really enjoyed them, some great insights in the functions of archival material– I study archival science and am actually currently writing a paper about issues in archival acquisition in relation to the legal battle over the remaining papers (in fact reading your posts was part of a diversionary procrastination process in the guise of the ever necessary further research… should just finish writing instead since its due quite soon!). Could you share your bibliography? I would appreciate it.

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