27.2.11

Judith Butler on Franz Kafka

Leading contemporary thinker discusses Kafka's literary estate

Who owns Kafka? As legal disputes continue over the status of Franz Kafka's literary estate, critical and cultural theorist Judith Butler unravels its complicated history in the London Review of Books (via The Casual Optimist):
An ongoing trial in Tel Aviv is set to determine who will have stewardship of several boxes of Kafka’s original writings, including primary drafts of his published works, currently stored in Zurich and Tel Aviv. As is well known, Kafka left his published and unpublished work to Max Brod, along with the explicit instruction that the work should be destroyed on Kafka’s death. Indeed, Kafka had apparently already burned much of the work himself. Brod refused to honour the request, although he did not publish everything that was bequeathed to him. He published the novels The Trial, The Castle and Amerika between 1925 and 1927. In 1935, he published the collected works, but then put most of the rest away in suitcases, perhaps honouring Kafka’s wish not to have it published, but surely refusing the wish to have it destroyed. Brod’s compromise with himself turned out to be consequential, and in some ways we are now living out the consequences of the non-resolution of Kafka’s bequest.

Brod fled Europe for Palestine in 1939, and though many of the manuscripts in his custody ended up at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, he held on to a substantial number of them until his death in 1968. It was to his secretary Esther Hoffe, with whom he appears to have had an amorous relationship, that Brod bequeathed the manuscripts, and she kept most of them until her own death in 2007 at the age of 101. For the most part Esther did as Max did, holding on to the various boxes, stashing them in vaults, but in 1988 she sold the manuscript of The Trial for $2 million, at which point it became clear that one could turn quite a profit from Kafka. What no one could have predicted, however, is that a trial would eventually take place after Esther’s death in which her daughters, Eva and Ruth, would claim that no one needs to inventory the materials and that the value of the manuscripts should be determined by their weight – quite literally, by what they weigh. As one of the attorneys representing Hoffe’s estate explained: ‘If we get an agreement, the material will be offered for sale as a single entity, in one package. It will be sold by weight … They’ll say: “There’s a kilogram of papers here, the highest bidder will be able to approach and see what’s there.” The National Library [of Israel] can get in line and make an offer, too.’ [Read more]

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