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

Sunday, 21 October 2012

The Kafka Papers Latest

In "A Week in Books" in the Guardian Review of 20 October 2012 I wrote:

Anyone who has ever worked in the great literary archives like the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin, Texas knows that Yukon moment when, late in the afternoon, after another interminable box has been opened, the grey sand swishes to one side and a fragment of gold glitters in the pan.

So much of the greatness of Kafka resides in riddling fragments that it is inconceivable that the archive ordered by an Israeli court to be released to the Israeli National Library in Jerusalem will not contain something of vital interest, but anyone expecting the manuscript of another Trial is not advised to hold their breath.

Ever since this story first broke a few years ago there has been copious speculation about what the archive, owned by the implacable daughters of Esther Hoffe, former secretary and mistress of Kafka’s friend and biographer, Max Brod, might contain.  It is worth recalling, however, that Brod was the man who countermanded Kafka’s request that his unpublished work be destroyed (a bonfire that would have included all the major novels) and the idea that he would have allowed major work by Kafka to have languished for years in a bottom drawer is ludicrous.

But the simple fact is that no one knows what is about to be liberated by decree of the court from safe-deposit boxes in Tel Aviv and Zurich.  “We don’t know what’s in there exactly,” said David Blumberg, chairman of the Israeli National Library, in a welcome moment of candour this week.  The best guess is that it will contain Brod’s manuscript diaries, which must certainly have material about his close friend, as well as Kafka’s Hebrew notebooks.  And somewhere in all that heap of paper we must hope there will be at least one gleaming fragment.

The archive began its journey to Israel when Brod fled the Nazis in 1939 bearing a suitcase stuffed with manuscripts.  His 1948 will stated that it should go to “the library of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem or the Tel Aviv municipal library” but there was an ambivalent coda “or that of any other public institution in Israel or abroad”.  Up to now that has allowed others, like the German Literature Archive at Marbach, to stake a claim to the papers, Kafka being, after all, one of the great masters of modern German prose, born an Austrian citizen in Prague in the last years of the Habsburg Empire.  Marbach has already shelled out $2 million to the Hoffe sisters for the manuscript of The Trial – back in 1988 when the pair had begun to flog off bits of the archive to the highest bidder.  

The ruling of the Tel Aviv District Family Court on 11 October by Judge Talia Pardo Kupelman was that the papers were not a gift to the plaintiffs but intended by Brod’s will for a national collection.  The surviving daughter, Eva Hoffe, intends to appeal.

Behind this court drama is the insistent fact of Kafka’s Jewishness, vitally important to him, though critics continue to fight over its significance for his art. Fortunately for us, the latter is the private property of no one.

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