Balint brings voluminous knowledge to bear on the trials and modulates gracefully between reportage, biography, and literary criticism. He successfully balances the tasks of bringing to life the narrative’s dramatis personae—principally Kafka and Brod in the past, and Eva Hoffe in the present—with teasing out the literary, political, and philosophical stakes of the conflict ... As Balint illustrates, Kafka has never been a major literary figure in Israel the way he has been in other parts of the world ... It’s strange, then, to think about the Jewish state claiming ownership of a writer on the basis of his Jewishness when his work productively engaged with that Jewishness in a way that is utterly irreconcilable with the self-assured, militantly nationalist Jewishness the state embodies and advances ... any national archive, though it may have some interest in literature as literature, is at least equally concerned with literature as a source of national stature and power. Balint is particularly poetic and poignant on this subject. 'A national literary archive, whether in Marbach or Jerusalem or anywhere else, is neither a neutral repository nor an arbitrary accumulation; it is a shrine to national memory and to the continuity of that memory. Like a church consecrated by its relics, or a temple by its Holy Ark, the archive as reliquary participates in the effort of a nation to distinguish itself from other nations ... They decide what material to archive, how to order it, and who may access it.'
It’s a tale pitting two Goliaths against one octogenarian David, untangled in exacting, riveting detail by Israeli author Benjamin Balint in his new book, Kafka’s Last Trial: The Case of a Literary Legacy. The story Balint tells is one of an interminable trial between doomed parties, in which physical struggles morph into questions about identity, self, and existential belonging. If only there were some author whose name is now an adjective used to describe exactly such stories! At stake is the literary estate of Max Brod, the German-speaking Prague author who famously disobeyed his best friend’s dying wish. Brod became Kafka’s literary executor, introducing the 20th century to its greatest writer—and, needless to say, hanging on to every scrap of paper Kafka touched that he could find.
If Kafka could read Kafka’s Last Trial, Benjamin Balint’s dramatic and illuminating new book about the fate of his work, he would surely be astonished to learn that his 'scribbling' turned out to be incredibly valuable—not just in literary terms, but financially and even geopolitically. At the heart of Balint’s book is a court case that dragged through the Israeli judicial system for years, concerning the ownership of some surviving manuscripts of Kafka’s that had ended up in private hands in Tel Aviv. Because the case was widely reported on at the time, it’s not a spoiler to say that in 2016 control of the manuscripts was taken from Eva Hoffe, the elderly woman who possessed them, and awarded to the National Library of Israel ... In Balint’s account, however, the case involves much more than the minutiae of wills and laws. It raises momentous questions about nationality, religion, literature, and even the Holocaust—in which Kafka’s three sisters died, and which he escaped only by dying young, of tuberculosis.
When Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and tireless advocate, decided not to honor the writer’s request that he burn his papers upon his death in 1924, instead overseeing the publication of Kafka’s revolutionary work, he inadvertently catalyzed decades of legal skirmishes. Balint tracks them all with pinpoint detail and narrative drive, first bringing Kafka and Brod into focus as literary, German-speaking Jews in anti-Semitic Prague.
Balint fascinatingly examines how much was at stake for Germany and Israel in claiming Kafka as their man ... Balint... has minutely researched every twist and turn of this politico-legal saga, and tells it with even-handed seriousness. Although his ceaseless namechecking of all the participating librarians and lawyers can become tedious, he is astute in presenting the action in Kafkaesque terms ... This is the story of the cultural struggle between two nations obsessed with the past, for possession of a literary saint. It is also a fascinating study of the saint himself, whose sense of his own ambivalence gives the book a lovely epilogue.
Mr. Balint’s story has its roots in the most forgivable betrayal in literary history: Brod’s famous refusal to burn Kafka’s papers, as the writer had directed Brod to do after his death in 1924 ... Mr. Balint gives a touching chronicle of their friendship. The two enjoyed traveling together and dreamed up plans for a series of 'on the cheap' travel guides, with the motto 'Just dare.' They read each other’s drafts and even collaborated on a novel ... Mr. Balint takes an evenhanded approach...
It is an unusual hybrid: part courtroom procedural, part double portrait of Kafka and Brod, part account of the postwar construction of Israeli and German national identity ... Balint writes most naturally in the interrogative mode, preferring the probing of difficult questions to easy resolutions. A gifted cultural historian with a scholarly sensibility, he is perhaps less suited to the role of investigative reporter ... The latter material, dense with the names of lawyers and the convolutions of the proceedings, feels plodding at times. Balint never quite manages to illuminate the motivations ... Whatever the case, one comes to tire of the courtroom rigmarole, longing to return to the roomier vistas of Kafka’s mind.
Benjamin Balint’s account of this saga is both a fine journalistic telling of that half century of courtroom drama, and a revealing examination of the writer and the relationships at its heart ... Balint brings all of these forces and arguments to vivid life as the appeal edges toward a verdict.
... a highly entertaining story of literary friendship, epic legal battles and cultural politics centred on one of the most enigmatic writers of the 20th century ... Balint does a good job of weighing up the competing claims, and is careful not to get bogged down in legal details. What we get is an exquisitely human drama peopled with an eccentric cast of characters that beautifully evokes the early days of Israel, the sadness of the exiles, and the long shadow cast by the Holocaust — a tragedy that claimed the lives of Kafka’s three sisters. But his book is at its best in its portrait of Kafka as a man...
Journalist and translator Balint seeks to explain to literature lovers the convoluted story of what happened to Kafka’s manuscripts and papers after his death in 1924. The first chapter of this legal/literary history takes place in an Israeli court, where three parties, including 82-year-old Eva Hoffe, are fighting over some Kafka manuscripts. In order to better understand the complexities of the case, Balint provides the compelling backstory. It’s famous knowledge that Max Brod, who had a 'fanatical veneration' for his beloved friend, was ordered by Kafka to destroy all of his writings after he died: 'Everything I leave behind…is to be burned unread and to the last page.' Brod, however, 'preferred to act as a self-appointed literary executor rather than as literary executioner.' ... A fascinating tale of literary friendship, loyalty, political power, and feckless law.
Balint, a research fellow at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, delivers a lively and balanced account of the international battle—fought in Israeli courts—for Franz Kafka’s manuscripts, letters, and diaries. Heard in 2016, the case involved three parties: the National Library of Israel, the German Literature Archive in Marbach, and Eva Hoffe, who inherited the documents from her mother. But the story begins much earlier, in 1924, when Kafka died of tuberculosis and his close friend, Max Brod, could not bring himself to follow Kafka’s last instructions to burn his remaining papers. Instead, Brod devoted most of his life to promoting Kafka’s legacy ... Well-researched and insightful, this...work illuminates the complex relationship between literature, religion, culture, and nationality.