Kafka's Unseen Papers

Reports emerge of unseen and unpublished manuscripts by Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka Memorial Statue in Prague

Papers belonging to Franz Kafka have been found in an apartment in Tel Aviv. The apartment belonged to Esther Hoffe, secretary to Kafka's literary executor Max Brod, who has kept the papers under wraps since Brod's death in 1968. No one is sure what condition these papers are in; no one is sure whether the papers are legible; no one is even sure what the papers concern. But everyone is interested in finding out. You can read the BBC news story here.

Franz Kafka's work has been the centre of controversy since its initial publication, when Max Brod over-ruled Kafka's request to have all of his personal papers destroyed. The resulting works were often, at best, incomplete masterpieces, edited and abridged by Brod's own creative interpretations. (I'd recommend J. M. Coetzee's essay 'Translating Kafka' for a more thorough exploration of Kafka's publishing history.) Brod is almost certain to have published everything he thought worthy of public attention, and it seems ironic now that papers he wished to keep secret have resurfaced since his death.

What strikes me as interesting is what these unseen papers may reveal. Could they be the missing fragments of The Trial or The Castle that people have speculated about for decades? Could they complete lost personal correspondence with one of his friends or lovers? Or could they constitute part of the Octavo notebooks, or the journal entries that painted less than complimentary portraits of his family, friends and loved ones. (But, as Brod himself has noted, journals are often an opportunity to vent spleen concerning those closest to us, which is why he decided to omit many of Kafka's negative gripes and observations.)

Whatever the answer to this question, to publish these papers poses a kind of ethical question. Kafka requested that his papers be destroyed, and now that Brod has passed away his request falls to a new generation. If what is written does enter the public domain, then the reader is placed in a tricky, even voyeuristic, position. What does it mean to read a book, or a journal entry, that was never intended for public consumption?

Just a few years ago Nirvana fans were placed in an identical position when Courtney Love decided to publish journals belonging to the band's lead singer Kurt Cobain. Whether it was an earnest attempt to reveal the man to his fans, or a crass marketing scam, is almost beyond the point. If Kurt Cobain didn't authorize the publication himself, is it right that they are published at all? Furthermore, is it right for a fan to read them?

Max Brod continually attempted to justify his decision over the years, at one point suggesting that it was in fact Kafka's secret wish that his work become freely available. Whether Brod was right or wrong to do what he did is not my place to decide, it's far too complex to get into on a Saturday afternoon. The weather is just too nice outside.

What remains certain is that Brod's decision brought us, rightly or wrongly, some of the greatest works of twentieth century literature. Books that have not only illuminated something of the modern condition, and suggested the dangers that were to come, but helped a lot of people come to terms with aspects of their own lives and of their own identities. Reading Kafka changed me forever, and I'm thankful for that.

I think the real question is this: if the papers are published, would I read them? The answer: yes, I think I would. I know that I would.