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.


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