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Kafka’s Legacy on Trial

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Franz Kafka’s The Trial revolves around a surrealistic legal procedure governed by a nontransparent logic. At times it seems a criticism of what scholars call “legal indeterminacy,” that is, the inability of the legal system to provide clear rules for decision. “The right understanding of any matter and a misunderstanding of the same matter do not wholly exclude each other,” Kafka writes at one point. Now a set of manuscripts that at least at one point included the text of The Trial has become the subject of legal proceedings in Israel that seem as contradictory and interminable as the novel itself. Der Spiegel reports:

[B]efore he died of complications connected with tuberculosis in 1924, [Franz Kafka] entrusted [Max] Brod with a sheaf of handwritten documents and asked him to destroy the unpublished manuscripts after his death. Brod ignored his friend’s last wishes. When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, he packed the documents in a suitcase and fled to Tel Aviv. Brod died there in 1968 and bequeathed these papers to his secretary Ester Hoffe. When she died two years ago at the age of 101, her two daughters, Eva Hoffe and the older sister Ruth Wiesler, inherited the collection — at least that’s what they thought.

Now this literary legacy has become the subject of a Kafkaesque dispute that will have to be resolved in court. Much of the controversy remains puzzling, the claims made by various parties are difficult to understand, and no one seems to know what the mysterious treasure may still contain. The Israeli National Library has filed for an injunction on the execution of the will. Even during Ester Hoffe’s lifetime, this institution had tried in vain to acquire the rights to the Kafka/Brod archive. For over a year now, the Hoffe daughters have been awaiting a decision by the Tel Aviv family court. An increasing number of parties want to take part in the trial. The lawsuit launched by the Israeli library even alleges that Ester Hoffe unlawfully took possession of papers from Brod and illegally sold a portion of them abroad. Sure enough, in 1988 Sotheby’s in London auctioned off the original manuscript of Kafka’s novel The Trial. It went for DM3.5 million (€1.8 million) to the German Literature Archive in Marbach.

When the Germans recently announced they had secured correspondence from Max Brod, the Israeli National Library insinuated it must have been sold by the sisters. But the Hoffe sisters are not talking about this, what they still hold, or what they intend to do with it. Moreover, the secrecy surrounding the Brod archive continues to inspire the curiosity of Kafka scholars. Are there still unpublished treasurers to be found in these papers? Clues that will facilitate a better understanding of his major works?

The litigation has attracted other claimants. One is the Israeli publisher Amos Schocken, owner of a prominent publishing house and of Ha’aretz newspaper. His grandfather Salman had secured the rights to publish the manuscripts from Kafka’s parents and did much to promote Kafka’s works. In addition to the Israeli National Library, the German Literature Archive in Marbach is also aggressively wooing the Hoffe sisters, offering itself as a new home for the Kafka papers. It has asked the Tel Aviv court for permission to appear in the litigation to defend its interests.

If the Israeli court stays faithful to the Kafka style, then the case may furnish the makings of another good novel. But Kafka scholars and students will gaze on in dismay.

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