"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Bruce Chatwin by Bike and Who Owns Kafka?

What is the connection between Bruce Chatwin and cycling?  And you thought the exams were over now? The answer is that he pops up on next week's (27th July) episode of Britain by Bike, a series in which presenter Clare Balding follows in the footsteps (or is that pedals in the groove of?) a 1950s classic bicycle tour guide.  The series opens tonight on BBC 4 at 20.30 and next week's show at the same time has Clare striding across a lawn in the Welsh borders to encounter me just about to spout on the subject of Chatwin (about whom I wrote a book in 1993) who stayed at the house in the Welsh Marches where the filming took place, while writing his novel On the Black Hill.


[You can now see this in BBC iplayer for a limited period. Click here


Yesterday I had a call from the BBC World Service to appear live on their early evening news programme to be interviewed about the controversy surrounding the Kafka archive.  Ten boxes of material formerly owned by Esther Hoffe, secretary to Kafka's friend, Max Brod, who left them to her and who famously defied Kafka's request that all his unpublished writings be destroyed, are being currently fought over.  Hoffe's two daughters are engaged in legal battles to stop the boxes being opened but no one knows what they contain.  Yesterday one of the boxes, in a bank vault in Zurich, was being examined by a scholar under the instruction of the court so we may still not know for some time what is on the inventory.  On the programme I suggested that it is unlikely that they will contain any major unpublished work, since Brod dedicated himself to promoting and massaging Kafka's reputation and would surely not have missed a chance to publish more of it.  Probably, they will contain Brod's own diaries and letters, though "drawings" have been mentioned in the press.  There is bound to be much of interest but we will have to wait.  Meanwhile both the Jewish National Library in Israel and the German Literary Archives in Marbach are fighting to acquire the eventual material.  As I suggested on the programme, Kafka's body is spread out on a table, all four limbs being tugged in different directions: born in Prague in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1883 and thus an Austrian, waking up in 1918 to find himself a citizen of the Czech Republic, a Jew, and a master of modern German prose.  According to the Israelis his archive belongs as of right to them, but the Germans surely have an equal right since language is always the defining issue when considering a writer, and what about the Czechs?

We will have to be patient.

6 comments:

Andrew Kenneally said...

The Czechs would seem to me to have the only tenable claim. If James Joyce material was unearthed would the British state and the Roman Catholic Church not be laughed to scorn if they tried to assert claims? - the English on language grounds, or like the Austrians on political; & the Vatican on religious.

cantueso said...

But if it were not for Max Brod, Kafka would probably be unknown, and wasn't Brod Jewish? So, though the language is German, Kafka is mainly a Jewish creation; by the way, where are Einstein's papers?

Andrew Kenneally said...

Kafka is mainly a Jewish creation? And so Joyce is mainly a Catholic creation & the Vatican should in given scenario assert its rights? . . . Makes no sense to me. I also consider a human an autonomous living entity, certainly not the creation of an abstract thought system, such as Judaism, Catholicism, etc. and for representatives of such systems to claim ownership of other humans . . . are we all slaves or something?

Nicholas Murray said...

I think there are two issues here: what we might call the legal, international copyright law etc position which makes one think the two sisters, goldiggers or not, can do what they like with the stuff, and then there is the question of a kind of moral or tribal right. I think the Joyce analogy is a good one and most of his manuscripts are not in Ireland and are in Texas and other places. So I think anyone can have the manuscripts provided they give unfettered access to scholars and I agree that no one owns a writer culturally. They are what they are and their work is what it is. It is owned by our imaginations.

Andrew Kenneally said...

I would certainly agree with Nicholas. It would be interesting tangentially to look at the logic of the Jewish claims to Kafka: it presumably, for it to make any kind of sense, means Kafka is being claimed specifically as a 'Jewish' thinker/writer, or representative of Judaism. Now Kafka for all his genius, or rather by the means of his genius, emanates a deeply guilt-ridden and paranoid worldview - for all the brevity of this I think it is broadly unanswerable. And yet the Jewish library wishes to claim 'possession' of Kafka as ideologically a Jewish footsoldier; otherwise the logic of their claims - not territorial but necesarily ideological - are nosensical.

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