The story of the legal battle over ownership of Franz Kafka’s papers among the National Library of Israel, the German Literature Archive in Marbach, and Eva Hoffe, who possessed the documents and wanted to gift them to the Israel library. Kafka’s last instruction to destroy all his papers upon his death went unheeded to his closest friend, Max Brod, who'd devoted his life to championing Kafka’s writing, rescuing his legacy from obscurity and physical destruction.
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.