Monday, October 4, 2010

It's You-Know-Who Esque

The New York Times magazine is running a great story about the on-going court battle for Franz Kafka's papers.

The basics of the story of Franz Kafka and Max Brod are well-known:  Kafka's friend Brod disregarded Kafka's last request that his writings be "burned unread" after his death.  Instead, Brod saved Kafka's works, and eventually published them.  The world was enriched, Kafka's wishes were ignored, and an unresolvable debate about who has rights to great works of art began.  (For an excellent analysis of the right to destroy property, see Lior Strahilevitz's The Right to Destroy).


Kafka and Brod met when both were law students at the Charles University Faculty of Law in Prague (where I had the great good fortune to teach this summer; Kafka's father actually owned a shop in what is now the Czech National Gallery, a building that is subject to a restitution claim).  Brod escaped from Prague in 1939 as the Nazis were closing the borders and emigrated to Israel. 

In his will, Brod gave what was left of Kafka's manuscripts and letters in his estate to what is now the National Library in Israel; the problem is that during his life, he may have already given them by letter to his paramour, the now-deceased Esther Hoffe.  Esther sold the manuscript of "The Trial" to the German Literature Archive for $2 million.  She was still negotiating over the rest (which apparently contained over 50 feet of files) when she died, and her estate -- perhaps including those files, depending on what the court rules -- passed to her daughter Eva, who apparently lives in a Tel Aviv apartment with up to 100 cats.  Some of those papers may be in there with the cats; others are in bank vaults in Israel and Switzerland. 

Now, the German Literature Archive, the National Library of Israel, and Hoffe are battling for them.  The German Literature Archive is arguing that it should be allowed to purchase the papers from Eva Hoffe because it is best equipped to care for the papers, and it points out that Kafka was a European and wrote in German, making his work part of its cultural heritage.  The National Library of Israel has pointed out that (1) that's irrelevant if the papers are not Eva Hoffe's to sell, and (2) Kafka wasn't German, and (3) his siblings were murdered by the Germans during the Holocaust, so their claim to cultural heritage is ironic at best.  Hoffe seems to be, frankly, a crazy cat lady, without a lot to say that's coherent, but she wants to sell the papers.  The National Library apparently has produced at trial some missing pages from the 'gift letter' that suggest Esther was only meant to hold the papers as administrator of the estate.

While the fight continues, the court has ordered that the collection in Hoffe's possession be inventoried -- a process which is ongoing.  The collection may even contain further instructions from Brod, or from Kafka himself. 

Regardless, like Kafka's work itself, the story is at once byzantine, ironic and bleakly, absurdly comic.  I like to imagine, without any justification whatsoever, that Kafka would enjoy finding this link, because he would realize that 'the story' is not now the stories he wrote (which, after all, he wanted "burned unread"), nor even the story about how his stories were preserved by Brod, but rather the story about the story about how his stories were preserved.  He might even crack the ghost of a smile.

Mark A. Edwards

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