James Hawes

Squabbling over Kafka

Should he be considered German? Or Israeli? Or German, Jewish, non-Israeli? Or Czech? The squabbling has become a black comedy

Benjamin Balint’s Kafka’s Last Trial is a legal and philosophical black comedy of the first water, complete, like all the best adventure stories, with a physical treasure to be won or lost. Balint lays out with cool, collected passion the full absurdity of the 2011 court struggle which climaxed when a couple of boxes of aged, yellowing jottings, upon which an elderly Tel Aviv lady had allegedly allowed her cats to sit for many years, were taken under armed guard, besieged by writs and counter-writs, to the highest court in Israel.

Until 1973, you see, these boxes had belonged to Max Brod, best friend of Franz Kafka, the legendary Nostradamus of Prague who (as any fool knows) somehow predicted the Holocaust. Scholars had gradually become convinced that they might hold great unpublished works. At the risk of bragging, I did warn people on Newsnight in July 2010 that they wouldn’t (they don’t), on the simple grounds that if they did, Brod, founder of the worldwide Kafka industry, would certainly have published them decades earlier.

Balint’s agenda isn’t to debunk Brod, or his myth of Kafka. He still cleaves, indeed, to the hoary legend that Kafka was almost unknown in his lifetime. In 1915 The Metamorphosis and The Judgement were given the prize-money from Germany’s biggest literary award in a bizarre insider deal, and Kafka’s publishers followed up with a full-page advert which cited five glowing reviews, all of them by friends of Kafka’s and/or Brod’s. So, not very unknown at all. But this doesn’t matter, because Balint’s book isn’t for the tiny world of Kafka scholars. It’s really a deep yet entertaining look at something we should all care very much about: the absurdity of our modern obsession with ‘authenticity’ and ‘ownership’.

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