My comment in the Guardian's "Comment is Free" section appeared yesterday:-
The remarkable announcement this week by the Bodleian Library and the German Literary Archive at Marbach that they have agreed jointly to purchase a collection of more than 100 letters and postcards from Franz Kafka to his sister Ottla will cause great excitement amongst Kafka biographers and scholars. New archival material about this exhaustively covered writer is an increasing rarity.
The new material will offer a chance to learn more about Kafka's favourite sister, who is a remarkable woman in her own right. Ottilie ("Ottla") David was totally dedicated to her brother. She divorced her non-Jewish Czech husband, Josef David ("Pepa") in order to save his life, declared herself a Jew to the Nazi authorities and, on arrival at Theresienstadt concentration camp, volunteered to accompany around 1,200 children on a "special transport" to Auschwitz, where she was gassed to death on arrival.
The Bodleian has not yet itemised the material in detail so it is difficult to know exactly how much of this material is genuinely new (a volume Letters to Ottla and the Family was published in 1974) but it is clear from the joint statement by the two institutions that there is at least some brand new material unseen by any scholars and biographers to date. In particular there are said to be new letters from Kafka's last lover Dora Diamant and the young Hungarian medical student and friend of Kafka's on his deathbed, Robert Klopstock.
In a novel arrangement, the Bodleian and Marbach are to share ownership of the new letters, which would otherwise have been auctioned off on 19 April in a sale in Germany by family descendants.
Part of the deal is that the financial sums involved remain secret. Almost all the newly acquired papers have actually been sitting in the Bodleian archive for 40 years. They were acquired by the enterprising Kafka scholar and translator Professor Malcolm Pasley, who had earlier rescued other Kafka manuscripts, including the famous 'blue octavo notebooks', which I remember handling with awe when researching my biography of Kafka.
This bold and unusual initiative points to a sharp contrast with the seemingly endless and bitter wrangles over that other collection of Kafka papers, currently in Israel in the firm possession of the daughters of Esther Hoffe, former secretary and putative lover of Kafka's friend Max Brod, who famously defied Kafka's request that he destroy all his unpublished manuscripts.
In Israel the row is about Who Owns Kafka?, as Judith Butler titled her sardonic London Review of Books lecture given on the subject in London last month, with the National Library of Israel and the Marbach archive in Germany slugging it out in the courts over who should get custody of the papers. The Israelis appear to argue that Kafka's Jewishness (avowedly important to him) makes him the property of the state of Israel. Those who see him as a master of modern German prose see his allegiance as being to the German language. The Czechs, of course, have always been lukewarm in their designs on him. In my view Kafka belongs to no one but himself. A writer is not the property of the state, and his true curators are his readers. Kafka, like Joyce, flies past those nets of nationalism that would seek to bring down his flight. He belongs to the imagination of the world.
Back in Oxford it is to be hoped that, as well as offering valuable new material on Kafka, this new cache of papers will help to give more prominence to Ottilie David, who, however hard I struggle to overcome vulgar biographical reductionism, is always present in my mind when I read the "soft, plaintive voice" of Gregor Samsa's sister in Metamorphosis asking, after his transformation into a repellent thing: "Gregor? Aren't you well? Is there anything you want?"
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