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.

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One Response to “The strange case of the Franz Kafka archive, part 3.”

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  1. The strange case of the Franz Kafka archive: epilogue « simoneandthesilversurfer - April 21, 2012

    […] (parts one and two and three here and here and here) […]

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