By Benjamin Balint
Norton 2018 - 227 pages
You might think everyone is familiar with Franz Kafka – but I suspect lots of people know the name and perhaps the expression "Kafkaesque" and not much more. The phrase, as a matter of fact, connotes the absurdity of being helplessly caught up in an opaque bureaucratic labyrinth.
I am racking my brain trying to recall which classics professor at Brooklyn College in the 1970s assigned us to read The Metamorphosis (written in 1912). However, I never forgot the first line of the book: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
And I still own the Schocken bilingual German-English edition that I bought used for $1.45.
The other opening Kafka line that has stayed with me is from The Trial which begins (at least in my translation): “Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.”
I remember having to look up the word “traduced” which means defamed or slandered. I’m still waiting for a chance to use “traduced” in daily conversation.
Kafka’s books are not about the characters so much as they are about the situations in which they find themselves. If European Jewish philosopher Gunther Anders (1902-1992) is correct, Kafka could be pegged as the kind of skeptic who doubts his own skepticism.
The Kafka basics are as follows: He was born in 1883 in Prague then part of Austria-Hungary into a German-speaking acculturated Jewish family.
His day job after law school was as a risk-assessor at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Company. He wrote in his spare time and published little in his lifetime.
In today’s parlance, we’d say Kafka had “issues.” His father who made his money in haberdashery goes down in history as domineering and aloof. The son as suffering from neuroses, low self-esteem (exemplified by how he denigrated his own writings) and difficulty forming lasting relationships with women.
In a letter lashing out at his father, Franz wrote him: “You have been too strong for me. Sometimes, I imagine the map of the world spread out, and you stretched diagonally across it. Moreover, I feel as if I could consider living in only those regions that are not covered by you…”
His mother was of little comfort. Julie Lowy came from a well-to-do family but was no less ill-equipped for parenthood. What Franz may not have appreciated is that both his parents came from dysfunctional homes. They had their own issues.
All this may have influenced how they reared their six children Franz being the first-born.
Franz correctly viewed the Judaism they passed down to him as perfunctory. He was both drawn to and repelled by his heritage.
Attraction-Rejection epitomized Kafka’s personality.
Attraction-Rejection epitomized Kafka’s personality.
“My Hebrew name is Amschel, after my mother’s maternal grandfather, whom my mother – she was six at the time of his death – remembers as a very pious and learned man with a long white beard,” Kafka recorded mordantly in 1911.
At age 28 he took an interest in Yiddish theater. Kafka even gave a talk, in 1912, about the Yiddish language. He read the Hebrew Bible. He subscribed to Zionist periodicals. He studied Jewish history. He seems to have been a thinker who grappled with Jewish civilization, not someone who capriciously rejected it.
Fortunately, Franz Kafka did not serve in the Great War (WWI). He suffered from headaches, insomnia not to mention hypochondria. Mainly, however, his induction was deferred because his insurance company employers insisted that he was indispensable. He had what we baby boomers might call a draft card with a classification that made it unlikely he’d be called up.
By 1917 (WWI began in 1914 and did not end until November 1918) he was diagnosed with tuberculosis for which at the time there was no cure.
In and out of TB sanatoriums he died June 3, 1924 (at almost age 41) leaving an oeuvre of challenging writings behind.
What happened and what should happen to these writings is at the core of Benjamin Balint’s engaging book Kafka’s Last Trial: The Case of a Literary Legacy.
Kafka was no social animal, but in 1902 at Charles University he made one particularly good friend in the writer Max Brod. He was to Kafka what Paul the Apostle was to Jesus (though Jesus and Paul probably never met).
Had there been no Max Brod it is doubtful readers in 2019 would be acquainted with Franz Kafka who published little during his lifetime – and then only under urging from Brod.
When Kafka died, Brod gathered his friend’s manuscripts, notebooks and sketchings and – instead of burning them as was Kafka’s written dying wish – organized, edited and embarked on their publication.
Bang, bang, bang – Brod brought out three unfinished works – The Trial (1925) The Castle (1926) and Amerika (1927).
If Kafka wanted his manuscripts destroyed, he asked the wrong guy. As Balint points out, “Even in self-renunciation Kafka was beset by indecision."
Brod believed that Kafka’s surviving works were masterful. He convinced the German (later American and Israeli) publisher Salman Schocken to publish Kafka. When he moved briefly to Palestine from Germany, Schocken bought the Hebrew newspaper Haaretz in 1935 and left it to his son Gershom to run.
Brod arrived in Palestine in 1939 with a suitcase full of original Kafka papers. He soon entrusted this cache to Schocken the elder to put in his fireproof safe.
Kafka as literature
The central figures in Kafka’s seemingly simple “naturalistic” stories which are full of irony and symbolism exist outside the parameter’s normal life. They're thrust into bewildering situations in which they struggle to understand what is happening to them and who they are – issues that go unresolved.
In this sense, Kafka is in the vanguard of modernist literature.
Some think that Kafka anticipated “the dehumanizing effects of faceless bureaucracies,” in Balint’s terms. Kafka's characters find themselves brutalized for no crime at all as people did later in Nazi concentration camps, Soviet gulags, during Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” or at the hands of Islamist terrorists.
Writing in brilliantly organized cleverly non-linear and compelling prose, Balint reveals the many shades of Kafka’s identity because resolving who Kafka was is central to determining what should happen to the original material that Kafka left behind.
As Balint frames it the issue is whether the (a) Jewish people or (b) the State of Israel have a claim on his literary heritage or (c) should his papers be deposited in a repository that specializes in German-language literature? After all, he wrote in German.
More broadly, can an Israel that is ambivalent toward Diaspora Jewish culture claim to be the custodian of European literature survived that the Nazis? Post-Holocaust Zionists might have believed in the negation of the Galut but not in losing the Diaspora’s rich Jewish cultural heritage.
Balint informs us that after WWII, before the 1948 establishment of Israel, a committee of Zionists worked to salvage owner-less Jewish books and bring them safely to Israel for archiving. They were in a race to head off forfeiture of these books to the dustbins and junkyards of Europe. But they were also in competition with champions of Diaspora supremacy such as Hannah Arendt who wanted to bring the books to the US.
In Balint’s telling Kafka was no "ASHamed" Jew ala the "Finkler" character created by British Jewish author Howard Jacobson.
Was he a Zionist? Was he in some fashion a believer in divine salvation? Unclear. Was he a nihilistic existentialist wholly alienated from his heritage? Extremely unlikely, as I read Balint tell it. After all, how did he rebel against his father’s vacuous Judaism? By becoming after a fashion engaged in Yiddishkeit.
Moreover, Kafka was touched personally by Jew-hatred. The only thing he was ambivalent about was what to do about it.
He wrote in 1914 to a friend of his fiancée Felice Bauer – of course, he was unsure about Felice too, and they never married despite being engaged twice – that, “I admire Zionism and am nauseated by it.”
Of course, if Kafka had jumped off the fence, he would not have been Kafka.
Elsewhere, in 1914, Kafka had written, “What have I in common with the Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.”
The year before he had attended the Eleventh World Zionist Congress in Vienna. Kafka had to be in the city anyway for work, Balint reports.
I find myself puzzled by Kafka’s thoughts about his Jewish identity like this one cited by Balint: “The insecure position of the Jews, insecure within themselves, insecure among people, should explain better than anything else why they might think they own only what they hold in their hands or between their teeth, that furthermore only tangible possessions give them a right to live and that once they have lost something they will never again regain it, rather it will drift blissfully away from them forever.”
However, Balint references Kafka’s friend Georg Langer writing in 1941 from Tel Aviv, and I feel buoyed: “Yes, Kafka spoke Hebrew. In his later years, we always spoke Hebrew together. He, who always insisted that he was not a Zionist, learned our language at an advanced age and with great diligence. Moreover, unlike the Prague Zionists, he spoke Hebrew fluently, which gave him special satisfaction, and I don’t think that I’m exaggerating when I say he was secretly proud of it…”
In Israel Kafka gets Cold Shoulder
After the state was established, Kafka did not become part of the Israeli literary canon, Balint observes. Nor has any city named a street after him. His works have not been systematically translated.
In part, this is because Kafka worked in the German language and in the years immediately following the destruction of European Jewry, many Zionists were viscerally revolted by all things German – reading it, hearing it spoken in public, listening to German composers (Richard Wagner, for example) even taking West German financial reparations for Hitler’s genocide.
But also, because, as Balint astutely observes “Kafka’s motifs – humiliation and powerlessness, anomie and alienation, debilitating guilt and self-condemnation – were the very preoccupation Israel’s founding generations sought to overcome.”
The Zionists had little use for wishy-washy handwringing as in this 1921 epistle to Brod: “I can love only what I can place so high above me that I cannot reach it.”
Balint allows that “Kafka allowed himself to imagine moving to Palestine only when his illness was so far advanced as to make the move impossible.”
He also sketches Kafka’s fraught romantic life. Besides the many women along the way, he was engaged to Julie Wohryzek (a Yiddish-speaking Zionist), in a relationship with his translator Milena Jesenska (who was not Jewish but married to a Jew) and was tended to by his lover Dora Diamant (who had volunteered in the Jewish TB camp where they met) as his life was slipping away. She, not incidentally, did burn a few of his papers as he requested while he looked on.
Prolific and better known, Max Brod (1884-1968) saved Kafka from obscurity. Since no good deed goes unpunished, Brod is today mostly remembered for his Kafka-connection rather than in his own right as a composer, author, playwright and newspaper columnist.
Like Kafka, Brod was a Czech-born Jew who worked in the German language. Brod had the good fortune to escape the Nazi onslaught – just – and the daunting task of finding a place for himself in a Tel Aviv where his earlier Prague stature held little currency. (*)
He settled for a less than prestigious job at the Habimah Theater in Tel Aviv and made the best of it.
Brod may not have been a passionate Zionist, but he did affiliate with the movement (seven years before meeting Kafka) when he joined Prague's Bar Kochba Association, which Balint tells us had only 52 members.
Brod’s subsequent literary work struggles with how the Creator of the Universe can allow evil – thinking of Hitler and the Holocaust – to have free reign.
While still in Prague, he wrote a novel about Kafka (1928) and began arranging for the publication of his late friend’s work. He also wrote a biography of Kafka that came out in 1937.
As Balint characterizes it, Kafka and Brod were soulmates. Brod: “We completed each other and had so much to give one another.” Yet they were cut from a different cloth. Brod knew how to enjoy life; Kafka did go to brothels with him, but these were fundamentally different types. Brod was a high-volume writer who had many interests. Kafka took little pleasure from life, miserably destroyed some of what he wrote yet, parodoxically, found purpose only in his writing.
“Brod,” writes Balint “obsessively collected anything that Kafka put his hand to. Kafka, in contrast, felt the impulse to shed everything.”
In the winter of 1981, I went to the Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street which was devoting a significant exhibit to Kafka. As a brand, Kafka is an easy sell. You can see that when you visit Prague today. Back in 1981, I purchased a Kafka portrait poster that now hangs in my study. His face is haunting; he looks downhearted and waning. He would soon be dead.
The New York Jewish Museum curators decided Kafka wrote as a Jew and that his books The Metamorphosis, for instance, might best be understood in allegorical terms about the Jewish predicament in the period leading up to the First World War (though not only).
Balint’s book opens in 2016 at the Supreme Court of Israel. At issue: “Does the estate of the German-speaking Prague writer Max Brod, who died at the end of 1968 nearing age 85, belong to Eva Hoffe or the National Library of Israel, or would it be best housed at the German Literature Archive in Marbach, Germany?”
Eva Hoffe’s late mother Esther was Brod’s secretary and close friend. Esther and her husband Otto met Max Brod (whose wife Elsa had died in 1942) in Hebrew-language ulpan class. Max quickly developed into an honorary member of the Hoffe family. He and Esther in due course became intimate, according to Balint.
A childless man, Brod was loved by Esther’s daughters Eva and Ruthie.
In a will written in 1948, Brod identified Esther Hoffe as his only heir and executor. Whether the Kafka papers, part of Brod’s estate, were an outright gift to Esther or part of her inheritance became a matter of legal debate.
As the story opens, Eva Hoffe now herself aging is in physical possession of the Kafka and Brod material. She is fighting to hold on to these manuscripts that her late mother Esther inherited or was gifted and left to her and her sister Ruth (who died age 80 in 2012).
The State of Israel had tried to take the Kafka papers soon after Brod died seeing them as the heritage of the Jewish people. In 1974, in Tel Aviv District Court, Judge Yitzhak Shilo probated Brod’s will ruling that Esther Hoffe “during her lifetime” could do whatever she wanted with her inheritance.
With Brod deceased, Esther Hoffe began selling Kafka papers starting in 1988. She wanted to continue to sell them to the Marbach archive to make money.
Esther Hoffe died in 2007 and Eva probated her mother will. The National Library of Israel had been monitoring what was happening with the Kafka papers and went to Family Court to argue that Brod had intended Esther Hoffe give them to a reputable archive.
It appears that Brod wanted his literary estate turned over to the National Library or some other repository while Esther Hoffe was still around. Did that include the Kafka papers? Not clear.
Judge Talia Kopelman ruled that the Kafka papers were not part of the inheritance case since Brod gifted them to Esther Hoffe while he was alive.
In 2012, a Tel Aviv Family Court held that “Brod had bequeathed his estate – Kafka papers included – to Esther Hoffe not as a gift but in trust,” writes Balint. So, the papers should have gone to a public archive during her lifetime.
Her daughters, Eva and Ruth certainly could not keep them.
In 2015, the case wound its way to the Tel Aviv District court which rendered its verdict against Eva Hoffe. The court held that the Kafka material was part of Brod’s literary estate and he had instructed her to have them deposited at the National Library (or some other appropriate archive).
Worth mentioning is Brod’s view about ownership. He saw as his property some of the manuscripts and the Kafka’s letters to him. “Everything else belongs to the heirs of Kafka.” Balint informs us that Kafka does have distant relations in London but they appear not to claim ownership and – if I understand correctly – want to see the literary legacy safely in a public archive.
In 2016 Israel’s Supreme Court ordered Eva Hoffe to turn over Brod’s literary estate to the National Library (she would get royalties for any branded products generated). The court also asserted that Brod had possessed Kafka’s papers (the very ones Kafka wanted to be destroyed) but he did not legally own them.
The Kafka papers saga which Balint sets forth as plainly as possible is – at least to me – still confusing.
In 1956, Salman Schocken purportedly moved Kafka material (entrusted to him by Brod) to a vault in Switzerland. These manuscripts than somehow made their way to Oxford’s Bodleian Library. To further muddy matters, Esther Hoffe also moved some Kafka papers to a Swiss bank vault.
So, as I understand it, some Kafka papers are in Marbach; some in Oxford; some were in the Tel Aviv apartment – these by now in the National Library. Some had already been sold. No one seems to know precisely which papers were in the Hoffe home in Tel Aviv and which were stashed in safe deposit boxes outside Israel.
For those of us who want closure, Balint reminds us that with Kafka things are never straightforward. “In Kafka’s imagination,” he writes “intelligibility will not illuminate our messages until the Messiah comes. And yet the Messiah himself arrives too late. ‘The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary,” Kafka writes.”
If you are first now embarking on an exploration of Kafka, start with Balint’s multi-layered book. It is an excellent introduction to Kafka as literature, and it’s about who owns Kafka not just legally or literally but politically and morally.
The Nightmare of Reason by Ernst Pawel
(*) Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933. World War II began in September 1939.