July 6, 2015

An end to the Kafkaesque fate of Kafka’s papers


Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka

Shortly before he died of tuberculosis in 1924, Franz Kafka sent all of his existing papers–he’d burned an estimated 90% of his work, and most of what remained had never been published–to his friend Max Brod and instructed him to destroy them. Brod, who had been one of the earliest champions of Kafka’s work said that he would do no such thing–and he didn’t. It’s because of Brod that some of the most significant works of the 20th century–The Trial and Amerika among them–were published at all.

Brod took the material with him from Prague to Israel when he fled Nazi persecution in 1938, and when he died there thirty years later, the papers were passed on to his secretary (and presumed paramour) Esther Hoffe. They have since become mired in such opaque, bureaucratic nonsense that they’ve come resemble the subjects of a Kafka story themselves–which Elif Batuman noted in her excellent piece for the New York Times magazine in 2010.

When Hoffe died, the manuscripts went to her two daughters, Eva Hoffe and Ruth Wiesler, who then attempted to auction off the material–tens of thousands of pages stored in Hoffe’s apartment and 10 safety deposit boxes in Tel Aviv and Zurich. The National Library of Israel, however, got wind of their intentions and claimed that according to the terms of Brod’s estate, the papers were meant to be preserved within a public institution and in fact belonged to them.

On Monday, the Tel Aviv District Court ordered Eva Hoffe, Esther Hoffe’s only surviving daughter, to hand over the papers to the National Library. The judges called the whole thing an “outrageous injustice.” “As far as Kafka is concerned,” they asked, “is the placing of his personal writings, which he ordered to be destroyed, for public sale to the highest bidder by the secretary of his friend and by her daughters in keeping with justice? It seems that the answer to this is clear.” The decision puts and end to a years’ long trial and means that we may soon see Kafka’s notebooks, correspondence, and other unfinished work, which the National Library pledges to make available online.

Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.