Kafka Manuscripts: The Fight Over Kafka

In a bank vault in staid Zurich an episode of high literary drama unfolded recently. A safety deposit box was opened and inside was revealed a handwritten manuscript of a story by Franz Kafka. At that same moment, an Israeli woman named Eve Hoffe ran into the bank building seeking to prevent the box from being opened, shouting: "It's mine, it's mine."

Who does Kafka belong to? The court case in Israel over the past two years will eventually decide the proper ownership of certain manuscripts of Kafka's. "It's mine, it's mine" is low comedy or high drama, or old-fashioned melodrama. In our era of laptops and e-books, the very idea of a handwritten manuscript feels old fashioned. But maybe just for that reason, such a manuscript is all the more precious.

Especially a manuscript of Franz Kafka's, one of the most widely read writers on the planet, who twenty years after his death in 1924 rose to prophetic status with works like The Trial and The Penal Colony. Kafka's strange humor and pain seemed to describe our predicament after the cruel bureaucracy of the Holocaust and the frozen bureaucracies of the cold war. Does he have more to tell us? Is there in these boxes a previously unknown story by the enigmatic master, a message in a bottle for us today? 85 years after his death, it's intriguing to think fate left us a new original, undestroyed manuscript by Kafka.

'"Undestroyed" because Kafka spent a lot of his life writing and then burning his manuscripts. The scholar Reiner Stach estimates he burned 3400 pages, or 90% of everything he ever wrote. Kafka had a very severe, very special attitude towards his writing. He divided it into two categories. Writing and scribbling. And the scribbling was destined for the flames.

As for what he considered real writing, it too had a brush with fire, for Kafka discovered when he wrote his first great story "The Judgment" that only the writing in which all ordinary personal associations had been burned away in the alchemy of "a great fire" were worth preserving. He also required that such work be written all in one sitting, all night long if necessary.

So he burned much of his work when alive, and left a note--actually two notes--to his good friend and literary executor, Max Brod, to burn whatever remained. But as most anyone familiar with the Kafka story knows, Max Brod did not obey his friend's directive. Instead he served as Kafka's faithful editor and champion for another four and a half decades. Through his editing Brod essentially created The Trial and The Castle, as we know them today. These two unfinished masterpieces of Kafka, are essential to our current view of him and most readers feel grateful for Brod's disobedience.

When Brod fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939, he carried with him suitcases full of Kafka manuscripts, some of them under contest today. Great forces are at work here: the German Literature Archive, in Marbach, Germany, and the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem contend for their possession, each with a worthy nationalistic claim on Kafka. "It's mine, it's mine." Does Kafka belong to the Germans or the Jews?

At his death in 1968, Brod left the manuscripts to his secretary Esther Hoffe, who died three years ago, and she left them to her two daughters, Ruti and Eve Hoffe. They have kept them secreted in safety deposit boxes in Tel Aviv and Zurich, while all along denying their existence. But now the boxes are being opened as part of the court proceedings.

The dueling libraries add another element. Kafka is read in every language you can think of, from Turkish to Icelandic. He's well known in Japan and a bigger success in Korea. He's read all through Latin America. Germany, the United States, France and Great Britain are all centers for important Kafka scholarship. According to his thousand page bibliography, there's been a new book on Kafka published somewhere in the world every ten days for the past fourteen years.

So who does he belong to? Is he a German language writer who happened to be Jewish, or a Jewish writer who made German somehow a new Jewish holy language? Is Kafka purely secular or surprisingly religious? (Gershom Scholem claimed he was a modern day kabbalist.) Does he belong to the whole world or more particularly to the Jewish people, about whom he was often ambivalent.

We do know this: in the last year of his life Kafka lived in Berlin in an apartment with the adorable young hasidic beauty, Dora Dyamant. And even though he was in the last stages of illness with tuberculosis and his actual hopes of emigration to Palestine were slim, he was studying Hebrew, including the very practical vocabulary for farm implements. In Palestine he saw a future as a gardener. He also mused with Dora about a new life in Tel Aviv where they'd open a restaurant: Dora as cook, Kafka as waiter. They practiced this fantasy for hours at a time, as Kakfa playacted waiting tables, all the while laughing together.

Kafka had found real love as he was dying, and he clung to the impossible fantasy of emigration to Palestine with real intensity. So it seems a kind of fulfillment that after his death his manuscripts made it the promised land, even if he never could. And perhaps there they should stay.

But Kafka himself saw the issue as far more tortured and complicated. In a late letter to Brod, he described his plight as a Jewish writer writing in German. "Most young Jews who began to write in German wanted to leave Jewishness behind them, and their fathers approved of this, but vaguely (this vagueness was what was outrageous to them). But with their posterior legs they were still glued to their father's Jewishness and with their waving anterior legs they found no new ground. The ensuing despair became their inspiration. "

Despair and inspiration both, Kafka's literary legacy is now up in the air looking for some new ground. Does Kafka belong to today's Germany or to Israel where he dreamed of emigrating or to the Czech republic and Prague where he lived and wrote?

No matter which library eventually gets hold of the physical manuscripts, Kafka's actual literary legacy will always be ineffable, and slightly out of grasp. He just won't be pinned down, his legs still flailing. He belongs to all of his identities, to all of them and to all of us.

Rodger Kamenetz, the author of The Jew in the Lotus and The History of Last Night's Dream, lives in New Orleans where he works as a dream therapist. He is retired LSU Distinguished Professor of English and Religious Studies. He has just completed Burnt Books, a dual biography of Franz Kafka and Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, which Schocken Books/Nextbook will release in October. His website is http://kamenetz.com