Kafka’s Last Trial
By ELIF BATUMAN
The New York Times
, September 22, 2010
During his lifetime, Franz Kafka burned an estimated 90 percent of his work. After his death at age 41, in 1924, a letter was discovered in his desk in Prague, addressed to his friend Max Brod. “Dearest Max,” it began. “My last request: Everything I leave behind me . . . in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches and so on, to be burned unread.” Less than two months later, Brod, disregarding Kafka’s request, signed an agreement to prepare a posthumous edition of Kafka’s unpublished novels. “The Trial” came out in 1925, followed by “The Castle” (1926) and “Amerika” (1927). In 1939, carrying a suitcase stuffed with Kafka’s papers, Brod set out for Palestine on the last train to leave Prague, five minutes before the Nazis closed the Czech border. Thanks largely to Brod’s efforts, Kafka’s slim, enigmatic corpus was gradually recognized as one of the great monuments of 20th-century literature.
The contents of Brod’s suitcase, meanwhile, became subject to more than 50 years of legal wrangling. While about two-thirds of the Kafka estate eventually found its way to Oxford’s Bodleian Library, the remainder — believed to comprise drawings, travel diaries, letters and drafts — stayed in Brod’s possession until his death in Israel in 1968, when it passed to his secretary and presumed lover, Esther Hoffe. After Hoffe’s death in late 2007, at age 101, the National Library of Israel challenged the legality of her will, which bequeaths the materials to her two septuagenarian daughters, Eva Hoffe and Ruth Wiesler. The library is claiming a right to the papers under the terms of Brod’s will. The case has dragged on for more than two years. If the court finds in the sisters’ favor, they will be free to follow Eva’s stated plan to sell some or all of the papers to the German Literature Archive in Marbach. They will also be free to keep whatever they don’t sell in their multiple Swiss and Israeli bank vaults and in the Tel Aviv apartment that Eva shares with an untold number of cats.
The situation has repeatedly been called Kafkaesque, reflecting, perhaps, the strangeness of the idea that Kafka can be anyone’s private property. Isn’t that what Brod demonstrated, when he disregarded Kafka’s last testament: that Kafka’s works weren’t even Kafka’s private property but, rather, belonged to humanity?
In May, I attended a session at the Tel Aviv district courthouse, dealing with the fate of the papers. Heading to the courtroom, I found myself in a small and dilapidated elevator with flickering fluorescent lights and a stated maximum occupancy of four people. I was reminded of “The Trial,” the novel that opens with the unexplained arrest of Josef K. by a mysterious court that turns out to have its offices in attics all over Prague, running its course somehow separately from the normal criminal-justice system. Half-expecting the elevator to deposit me in the upper stories of a low-income residential building, I emerged instead into a standard municipal-looking hallway with faux-marble floors. Black-robed lawyers paced around, carrying laptops or giant file folders tucked under their arms; many dragged still more files behind them in black wheeled suitcases.
Some minutes later, a barely perceptible charge in the air signaled the arrival of the sisters. Ruth, with her white sneakers, pearl earrings and short, bleached hair, looked like somebody’s grandmother (which she is). Eva, a former El Al employee who was by all accounts a great beauty in her youth, was dressed entirely in black, with a black plastic clip holding back her long auburn hair. Ruth wore a white shoulder bag, while Eva carried a plastic Iams bag with a paw-print logo.
Of five rows of wooden benches in the courtroom, the first three were occupied by more than a dozen lawyers: two lawyers for the National Library; a representative of the Israeli government office that is responsible for estate hearings; and five court-appointed executors: three representing Esther Hoffe’s will (which the National Library considers irrelevant to the case) and two representing Brod’s estate (which the sisters’ attorneys consider essentially irrelevant to the case). The German Literature Archive in Marbach, which has supposedly offered an undisclosed sum for the papers (said to be worth millions), was also represented by Israeli counsel. Ruth’s lawyer and Eva’s three lawyers rounded out the crowd. It’s impressive that the sisters had between them four lawyers, although, to put things in perspective, Josef K. at one point meets a defendant who has six. When he informs K. that he is negotiating with a seventh, K. asks why anyone should need so many lawyers. The defendant grimly replies, “I need them all.”
The events leading up to the hearing that day were set into motion many decades earlier. In Prague in the 1930s, Brod, a passionate Zionist, began mentioning plans to deposit the Kafka papers in the library of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where his and Kafka’s mutual friend Hugo Bergmann was then librarian and rector. Brod renewed these plans after his emigration to Palestine in 1939, but somehow nothing ever came of them, and the papers passed to Esther Hoffe. In 1988, Hoffe made headlines by auctioning the manuscript of “The Trial” for nearly $2 million; it ended up at the German Literature Archive. Philip Roth characterized this outcome as “yet another lurid Kafkaesque irony” that was being “perpetrated on 20th-century Western culture,” observing not only that Kafka was not German but also that his three sisters perished in Nazi death camps.
In later years, Hoffe engaged in negotiations to place the Kafka papers — as well as the rest of the Brod estate, which includes Brod’s voluminous diaries and correspondence with countless German-Jewish intellectual luminaries — at the archive in Marbach. Nevertheless, at the time of her death, no transaction had been completed. The bulk of the collection remained divided among an apartment on Spinoza Street in central Tel Aviv and 10 safe-deposit boxes in Tel Aviv and Zurich. It is unclear how much of Brod’s estate is still housed in the Spinoza Street apartment, which is currently inhabited by Eva Hoffe and between 40 and 100 cats. Eva’s neighbors, as well as members of the international scholarly community, have expressed concern regarding the effects of these cats on their surroundings. More than once, municipal authorities have removed some of the animals from the premises, but the missing cats always seem to be replaced.
In 2008, when the sisters tried to probate their mother’s will, they were opposed by the National Library. The library contends that Brod left the Kafka papers to Esther Hoffe as an executor rather than as a beneficiary, meaning that, after Hoffe’s death, the papers reverted to the Brod estate. Brod’s will, dated 1961, specifies that his literary estate be placed “with the library of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Municipal Library in Tel Aviv or another public archive in Israel or abroad.” The Municipal Library in Tel Aviv has renounced any claim to the estate, making the Hebrew University Library — today, the National Library of Israel — the only claimant specifically named by Brod.
The National Library’s argument is complicated by Brod’s so-called gift letter of 1952. The most crucial and enigmatic document in the case, it appears to give all of the Kafka papers outright, during Brod’s lifetime, to Esther Hoffe. The sisters presented the court with a two-page photocopy of this letter. The National Library, however, produced a photocopy of a four-page version of the letter, of which the two missing middle pages appear to clarify the limitations of Brod’s gift. When the court ordered a forensic examination, the sisters were unable to produce the original letter.
Last year, the court decided to grant the National Library’s request that the papers in the sisters’ possession be inventoried: some evidence suggests that the vaults contain further documentation clarifying Brod’s intentions for the papers. The sisters appealed the decision, maintaining that the state has no right to search private property for documents whose existence can’t be proven beforehand. The hearing I attended was to determine the outcome of their appeal.
Eva and Ruth, who fled Nazi-occupied Prague as children, are elusive figures who keep out of the public eye. The fact that they are represented by separate counsel reflects Eva’s greater investment in the case. While Ruth married and left home, Eva lived with their mother, and with the papers, for 40 years. Her attorney Oded Hacohen characterizes Eva’s relationship to the manuscripts as “almost biological.” “For her,” he told me, “intruding on those safe-deposits is like a rape.” (When asked whether Eva had used the word “rape” herself, Hacohen looked a bit tired. “Many times,” he said.)
As long as Esther Hoffe’s will is debated, Eva and Ruth are unable to touch any part of their inheritance, which includes more than $1 million in cash. According to Hacohen, the money is a Holocaust compensation from the German government. The National Library argues that the sum could just as easily represent the proceeds from the sale of “The Trial,” which the library considers to have been a violation of Brod’s will. Eva, who claims to live in direst poverty, has unsuccessfully petitioned for a partial probate, which would have released the money before a decision was reached about the papers.
The hearing I attended brought no good news for the sisters. Their appeal was overruled that day by the district court, and again the next month by the Supreme Court. In late July, one safe-deposit box in Tel Aviv and all four Zurich vaults were inventoried. Witnesses in Tel Aviv reported seeing Eva run into the bank after the lawyers shouting: “It’s mine! It’s mine!” Eva also somehow turned up at the bank in Zurich but wasn’t allowed into the vault.
Five of the safe-deposit boxes in Tel Aviv initially resisted inspection. Some of the keys obtained after strenuous negotiations with Eva turned out not to match the locks. By now, most of the boxes have been opened. According to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, the banks have already yielded “a huge amount” of original Kafka material, including notebooks and the manuscript of a previously published short story. The specific contents, including any documents that might illuminate the question of ownership, will be made public once everything has been cataloged — a process estimated to last another month. In the meantime, the world continues to wait.
Kafka's life passed almost entirely within the space of a few city blocks in Prague, where he was born in 1883, attended school and university and, as an adult, lived with his parents and worked in an insurance agency. Kafka and Brod met in 1902, at Charles University, where both were studying law. Brod was 18 — one year younger than Kafka — but already a literary sensation. According to Brod’s biography of Kafka, the two met at a lecture Brod gave on Schopenhauer, during which Kafka objected to Brod’s characterization of Nietzsche as a fraud. Walking home together afterward, they discussed their favorite writers. Brod praised a passage from the story “Purple Death” in which Gustav Meyrink “compared butterflies to great opened-out books of magic.” Kafka, who took no stock in magic butterflies, countered with a phrase from Hugo von Hoffmansthal: “the smell of damp flags in a hall.” Having uttered these words, he fell into a profound silence that left a great impression on Brod.
For years, Brod had no idea that Kafka also did a bit of writing in his free time. Nonetheless, he began right away to commit Kafka’s utterances to his diary, starting with “Talk comes straight out of his mouth like a walking stick” (an observation about an over-assertive classmate). In 1905, Kafka showed Brod his story “Description of a Struggle.” Brod directly adopted a lifelong mission “to bring Kafka’s works before the public.” (An uncannily perspicacious talent-spotter, Brod also brought early recognition to Jaroslav Hasek and Leos Janacek.) In a Berlin weekly in 1907, Brod named a handful of contemporary authors maintaining the “exalted standards” of German literature: Franz Blei, Heinrich Mann, Frank Wedekind, Meyrink and Kafka. The first four were big names of the time; Kafka had yet to publish a single word. After much prodding by Brod, Kafka began publishing literary sketches in 1908, which were collected in a book in 1913.
In most respects, Brod and Kafka could not have been more different. An extrovert, Zionist, womanizer, novelist, poet, critic, composer and constitutional optimist, Brod had a tremendous capacity for survival. In his biography of Kafka, Ernst Pawel recounts how Brod, having been given a diagnosis at age 4 of a life-threatening spinal curvature, was sent to a miracle healer in the Black Forest, “a shoemaker by trade, who built him a monstrous harness into which he was strapped day and night.” Brod spent an entire year in the care of this shoemaker, emerging with a permanent hunchbacklike deformity, which did not impede him in a lifelong series of overlapping relationships with attractive blondes.
Kafka, tall, dark and broodingly handsome, had fewer and more anguished relations with women. From an early age, he was deeply concerned with his health, clothes and personal hygiene. (“The afternoons I spent on my hair,” a 1912 diary entry reads.) He practiced vegetarianism, “Fletcherizing” (a system of chewing each bite for several minutes), “Müllerizing” (an exercise regimen) and various natural healing programs. He worried about dandruff and constipation to an extent that occasionally exasperated even Brod (“for instance, in Lugano, when he refused to take any laxative . . . but ruined the days for me with his moanings”). He wasn’t a good decision maker, and he didn’t have good luck. After years of complaining about his job at the insurance office, he finally worked up the nerve to mail his parents a letter saying that he was going to move to Berlin and write for a living — less than a week before the outbreak of World War I, which obliged him to stay in Prague. In 1917, he was given a diagnosis of tuberculosis. In 1921, he told Brod that his last testament would consist of “a request to you to burn everything.” Brod promptly replied that he would do no such thing: his main justification, in later years, for overriding Kafka’s wishes.
In 1923, Kafka met Dora Diamant, a 25-year-old runaway from a conservative Hasidic family in Galicia. She was his last and happiest love. The six-foot-tall Kafka at that point weighed 118 pounds. The couple lived for some months in a rental room in Berlin but moved in 1924 to a sanitarium in the Austrian town of Kierling, where Kafka, unable to eat, drink or speak, edited the proofs of his story “The Hunger Artist” and eventually died in Dora’s arms, having published, in his lifetime, fewer than 450 pages.
Kafka studies now proliferate at a rate inversely proportional to that of Kafka’s own production: according to a recent estimate, a new book on his work has been published every 10 days for the past 14 years. Brod, in his 84 years on this planet, published 83 books, most of them now out of print.
In his role in Kafka’s estate, Brod presents the paradox of a radically un-Kafkaesque protagonist in a Kafkaesque plot. This was a recurring theme in their friendship. After graduating from law school, Brod, already a published author, allowed himself to be convinced by Kafka’s thesis that “breadwinning and the art of writing must be kept absolutely apart” and took a job in the post office. Brod later bitterly regretted “the hundreds of joyless hours” squandered in offices by himself and the author of “The Trial.”
Four years after Kafka’s death, Brod published a novel, “The Enchanted Kingdom of Love,” featuring a moribund, Kafka-like character called Richard Garta: “a saint of our day” whose brother turns up on a kibbutz in Eastern Galilee and unmasks Richard, posthumously, as a fervent Zionist. In 1937, Brod wrote his biography of Kafka, which, alongside genuinely brilliant insights into Kafka’s life and work, also quotes wholesale from the descriptions of Richard Garta in “The Enchanted Kingdom,” advancing the thesis that Kafka was, if not “a perfect saint,” then still “on the road to becoming one,” and that his most seemingly ambiguous literary works are essentially religious treatments of the transcendental homelessness of European Jewry.
Brod’s biography of Kafka was not well received. According to Walter Benjamin, it testifies to a “lack of any deep understanding of Kafka’s life,” one great riddle of which is, indeed, Kafka’s choice of such a philistine for a best friend. “I will never get to the bottom of the Brod mystery,” Milan Kundera writes, marveling that Brod was astute enough to preserve Kafka’s novels for posterity, yet capable of doing so in such sentimental, vulgar and politically tendentious books. The received image of Brod in Kafka studies is a well-meaning hack who displayed extraordinary prescience, energy and selflessness in the promotion of his more talented friend, about whom, however, he understood nothing and whose dying wishes he was thus able to ignore.
The truth is more complicated. Although the loss, within a few years, of both Kafka and Europe could easily have driven Brod to despair, he instead resolved to transform it into the foundation for a new future, adopting a lifelong determination to fuse his two favorite causes — Kafka and Zionism — into a single, future-bearing entity. Kafka’s life and work became a uniform and inherently meaningful body, in which every last detail had the same supreme importance: in the “22 years of our unclouded friendship,” Brod recalled, “I never once threw away the smallest scrap of paper that came from him, no, not even a postcard.” Whatever Brod thought that Kafka was going to do for mankind, it was definitely something huge. “If humanity would only better understand what has been presented to it in the person and work of Kafka,” Brod writes, “it would undoubtedly be in a quite different position.”
Pinning his hopes of a new world order onto Kafka’s oeuvre — onto, that is, a collection of abstruse literary fiction, mostly dealing with the lives of Prague white-collar workers and animals — Brod was following a dream logic common to Kafka’s own characters. In “Amerika,” Karl believes that he can “have a direct effect upon his American environment” by playing the piano in a certain way; Josephine the Mouse Singer believes that when the Mouse Folk “are in a bad way politically or economically, her singing” will save them. In 1941, Brod published an extraordinary column in the Hebrew paper Davar, recounting his arrival in Palestine with “only one plan” rising from a “mist of many obscure thoughts”: “to act for the memory of my friend Franz Kafka in this country that he missed.” (According to Brod, only Kafka’s “sickness and sudden death prevented his immigration.”) Having transported Kafka’s manuscripts by train and ship to the soil of Zion, Brod had already found a few fellow thinkers “for whom Kafka is more than any other modern writer — he is the 20th-century Job.” Once they had fulfilled their true purpose — namely, the establishment of a Kafka archive and a Kafka club in Palestine — “the Hitler era, the era of destruction” would be followed by an age of “the infinite creation in the spirit of Kafka,” “a good era for humanity, and for Judaism, which has again professed salvation to the peoples by one of its finest sons.”
Kafka’s actual relationship to Zionism and Jewish culture was, like his relationship to most things, highly ambivalent. (In 1922, Kafka compiled a list of things he had failed at, including piano, languages, gardening, Zionism and anti-Zionism.) Although Brod’s attempts to convert Kafka to Zionism were a source of tension in the early years of their friendship, Kafka grew increasingly sympathetic to the cause. As early as 1912, he discussed a journey to Palestine with Felice Bauer, a dictating-machine representative with whom he was to pursue a long, anguished, mainly epistolary romance. (The two were twice engaged to be married before separating in 1917.) In 1918, Kafka drew up his vision of an early kibbutz. The only nourishment would be bread, dates and water; notably, in light of recent developments, there would be no legal courts: “Palestine needs earth,” Kafka wrote, “but it does not need lawyers.”
Kafka’s plans to move to Palestine grew more concrete only as their fulfillment grew less likely. He began studying Hebrew in 1921. According to his teacher, Puah Ben-Tovim, “he already knew he was dying” and seemed to regard their lessons “as a kind of miracle cure,” preparing “long lists of words he wanted to know”; rendered speechless by coughing, he would implore his teacher “with those huge dark eyes of his to stay for one more word, and another, and yet another.” In 1923, Ben-Tovim visited Kafka and Dora Diamant in Berlin. She found them living in bohemian squalor, reading to each other in Hebrew and fantasizing about opening a restaurant in Tel Aviv, where Diamant would work in the kitchen and Kafka would wait on tables. “Dora didn’t know how to cook, and he would have been hopeless as a waiter,” Ben-Tovim observed. Then again, “in those days most restaurants in Tel Aviv were run by couples just like them.” Ben-Tovim left one of Kafka’s Hebrew notebooks in the National Library, where I saw it this spring: a long list of those words from which Kafka expected such miracles: “tuberculosis,” “to languish,” “sorrow,” “affliction,” “genius,” “pestilence,” “belt.”
Brod's interpretation of Kafka as a Zionist manqué is now on trial: if not, technically, in the court of law, then certainly in the court of public opinion. “Why does Kafka belong here?” asks Mark Gelber, a literature professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “Because the Zionist enterprise was important to him.” Gelber told me he considers Kafka’s animal stories to participate in a Zionist discourse, from which “Kafka removes the particularist markers, erases the particularist traces.” (This lack of “particularist markers” makes Kafka particularly susceptible to different interpretations and ascriptions: those same animal stories caused Elias Canetti to call Kafka “the only essentially Chinese writer to be found in the West.”) Many European critics — for example, Reiner Stach, Kafka’s most recent and thorough biographer — object to the view of Kafka as “a Zionist or a religious author.” “The fact that specifically Jewish experiences are reflected in his works does not — as Brod believed — make him the protagonist of a ‘Jewish’ literature,” Stach told me. Rather, “Kafka’s oeuvre stands in the context of European literary modernity, and his texts are among the foundational documents of this modernity.”
In a perfect world, Kafka could be both engaged with a specifically Jewish discourse and a foundational author of European modernity. As Brod himself observes of “The Castle,” a “specifically Jewish interpretation goes hand in hand with what is common to humanity, without either excluding or even disturbing the other.” But an original manuscript can be in only one place at a time. The choice between Israel and Germany could not be more symbolically fraught.
For the proponents of Marbach, the debate is really about storage conditions. “In Israel there is no place to keep the papers so well as in Germany,” Eva Hoffe has stated; Stach corroborates that “scholars everywhere outside of Israel are in agreement” that the papers would be better off in Marbach. Anyway, Marbach already has “The Trial,” and it would be more convenient for scholars to have everything in one place. In hopes of securing the cooperation of the National Library, Marbach has proposed to grant Israeli scholars priority access to the collection and to lend the papers to Jerusalem for a temporary exhibit.
But in a battle between expediency and ideals, the two sides are speaking different languages. Otto Dov Kulka, an emeritus professor of history specializing in the situation of Jews during the Third Reich, describes the claim that Israel doesn’t have the resources to take care of the papers as “outrageous and hypocritical.” I spoke with Kulka in his office at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where I found him editing a document titled, in an enormous font legible from across the room, “Between the Periphery and the Metropolis of Death.” A diminutive, dynamic figure in his 70s, wearing ergonomic sandals and a short-sleeved khaki shirt that exposed a five-digit number tattooed on his forearm, he repeatedly jumped up from his chair to retrieve books from the shelves that towered above us.
Kulka produced and read aloud from a long list of German-Jewish intellectuals whose papers are in the National Library: Albert Einstein, Stefan Zweig, Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin, Else Lasker-Schüler, Martin Buber. “We are taking care of Einstein’s theory of relativity, and we will take care of Kafka,” he said. “They say the papers will be safer in Germany, the Germans will take very good care of them. Well, the Germans don’t have a very good history of taking care of Kafka’s things. They didn’t take good care of his sisters.” He fell silent. “I was together with Kafka’s sister Ottla,” he added, in a conversational tone.
“Oh, really?” I said, not understanding what he meant.
“Yes,” he said, smiling vaguely. “In Theresienstadt, before she was murdered.” Kulka, 9 years old at the time, never spoke to Ottla but described her as a kind and selfless person, who voluntarily escorted a group of Jewish orphans from Bialystok to Auschwitz.
Oded Hacohen, Eva Hoffe’s attorney, maintains that “moral positions” about Germany are irrelevant to the case. “People ask me, ‘Don’t you care that those manuscripts could end up in Germany?’ ” he said. “I care much more that those Holocaust refugees cannot pay their electricity bills here in Israel.”
Brod met his future secretary Esther Hoffe and her husband, Otto, shortly after his arrival in Tel Aviv. After Brod’s wife died in 1942, he and the Hoffes became extremely close. “Our home was his home; he didn’t have another one,” Esther told a reporter for Ha’aretz in 1968. Esther had an office in Brod’s apartment. She and Otto and Max took vacations together in Switzerland. Although acquaintances of Brod described the relationship as a “ménage à trois,” Eva has denied that her mother and Brod were romantically involved. The relationship will presumably be illuminated in Brod’s diaries, which are believed to be in one of the vaults.
The opening of the safe-deposit boxes might also elucidate the central mystery in this case: given Brod’s evident intention for the papers to end up in an archive, why did he make them a gift to a private individual? And why did he choose an individual who proved capable of hanging onto them for 40 years?
Brod’s surviving acquaintances at the Hebrew University, including Otto Dov Kulka, are convinced that the 1952 gift letter, in which he seemingly bequeathed the papers to Esther, has been altered and that Brod never wavered in his intention for Kafka’s work to remain in Israel. They maintain that the vaults will yield proof that Brod changed his will in later years to name a new executor: Felix Weltsch, a Zionist and philosopher who worked at the Jerusalem library. (Brod mentions this change in a 1964 letter to Weltsch, but the codicil has never been found.)
Reiner Stach, Kafka’s biographer, sees things differently. He maintains that Brod was torn between Marbach, with its impressive facilities, and the library in Jerusalem, where so many of his friends worked. Unable to announce that he was leaving Kafka’s papers to “the country of the perpetrators,” as Stach puts it, Brod left Hoffe to play the bad cop. Stach also suggests that although Brod didn’t wish to profit financially from Kafka, he might have wanted to compensate Hoffe for her long years of secretarial work by allowing her to sell the materials to a well-financed institute.
Etgar Keret, a best-selling Israeli short-story writer who considers Kafka to be his greatest influence, proposes that Brod had no idea that Hoffe would sit on the papers for so long. “Half of us are married to people who say, ‘I’m just going to buy a pack of cigarettes,’ and never return,” he told me. “I think this is the literary version of that, with this Hoffe chick.” Keret characterizes Brod as “a good judge of texts, for sure, but a very bad judge of human characters.” If Brod could see what was happening now, Keret says, he would be “horrified.” Kafka, on the other hand, might be O.K. with it: “The next best thing to having your stuff burned, if you’re ambivalent, is giving it to some guy who gives it to some lady who gives it to her daughters who keep it in an apartment full of cats, right?”
Kafka wasn’t the only ambivalent one. Some part of Brod clearly wasn’t ready to let the papers out of the vaults. Most scholars agree that Brod was reluctant to give up his control over Kafka’s image. Materials in the estate will probably testify to the friends’ visits to prostitutes — which Brod excised from his edition of Kafka’s diaries — or to Kafka’s occasional anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic comments, like the wish he once expressed “to stuff all Jews (myself included) into a drawer of a laundry basket.” Furthermore, Brod’s view of Kafka as the savior of mankind made the papers a huge, life-consuming responsibility, which Brod himself must occasionally have wished to stuff into the drawer of a laundry basket. Everything was at stake — the memory of Kafka, the fate of world literature, the future of Israel — and nobody could be trusted.
Meir Heller, an attorney for the National Library, told me he believes that Brod turned to Hoffe when, in his old age, he began to suspect everyone else of distorting his friend’s legacy. “She was wiping him, she was making his food,” Heller said. “He thought, I can trust her.” He describes Brod’s school of interpretation of Kafka as a “sect” into which only true believers were permitted. Heller mentioned a 1957 letter from Brod to Hoffe, specifying that, after Esther’s death, the Kafka papers should pass to one of Brod’s friends (although her daughters would still receive royalties from their publication); in later years Brod periodically returned to this letter, adding and subtracting the names of those he considered trustworthy. The publisher Klaus Wagenbach was there for a while, but Brod crossed him out after Wagenbach published a Kafka biography that Brod didn’t like.
Heller’s recurring metaphor for the papers comes from “The Lord of the Rings.” “You remember the ‘precious’?” he said, alluding to the magic ring that causes its possessor to guard it obsessively. “That’s how it is. Whoever touches these papers — it distorts their vision.”
One afternoon during my stay in Tel Aviv, I headed to Spinoza Street on the off-chance that Eva Hoffe was home and felt like talking to the press. I was accompanied by Avi Steinberg, an American writer living at the time in Jerusalem. I had become acquainted with Steinberg two months earlier, when he mailed me the galleys of a memoir he wrote about his experiences as a prison librarian. In subsequent correspondence, I mentioned my impending Kafkaesque assignment to report on a “Kafka archive kept for decades in a cat-infested Tel Aviv flat,” confessing to some apprehensions that I would be unable to locate the apartment. Steinberg promptly replied that the address was 23 Spinoza Street, that he had recently rung the doorbell himself but had no answer and that “last week in court, Eva Hoffe’s sweater was covered in animal hairs, possibly originating from a cat or cats.”
Walking through the city center, we discussed the mystery of Kafka’s testament. Steinberg saw in Kafka’s cryptic letter to Brod another version of the parable of Abraham and Isaac. (Kafka wrote several retellings of this story in 1921, the same year he first mentioned to Brod that he wanted his work to be burned.) Kafka, Steinberg suggested, wanted to prove that he was ready to incinerate the child of his creation, simultaneously knowing and not knowing that Brod would step in and play the role of the angel.
“The thing is,” Steinberg said, “we only have Brod’s word for any of this. What if Kafka never even told him to burn his stuff? Has anyone ever seen that letter? What if this is all some big idea Brod had?”
Similarly paranoid thoughts cross the mind of nearly everyone who studies Kafka. At a certain point you realize that everything — even the picture of Brod as a good-natured busybody who ignored Kafka’s wishes — comes from Brod himself. “Don’t write this down — I don’t want to be the laughingstock of the academic community,” one scholar told me, having ventured the idea that Brod himself had composed all of Kafka’s writings and, alarmed by their strangeness, attributed them to a reclusive friend who worked at an insurance office.
Spinoza Street is in a quiet residential neighborhood lined by flat-roofed stucco buildings. The dingy off-pink stucco facade of No. 23 was partly obscured by a tree with enormous glossy leaves that were apparently being eaten away by something. Parked under the tree were a broken shopping cart and an old bicycle. Behind a large protruding window, enclosed by two layers of metal grillwork, lay an indistinct heap of cats. Some commotion involving a blackbird took place in one of the trees, causing six or so cats to look up in unison, elongating their necks. The breeze turned. A terrible smell wafted toward us.
The smell was stronger inside the building. We knocked on Hoffe’s door several times. Someone or something was moving inside, but nobody answered. Steinberg, who has a mild cat allergy, began sneezing. The sneezes echoed terrifyingly in the empty stairwell.
Back in the yard, we squinted in the hazy sunlight. Two cats staggered out of a rhododendron bush, looking drunk. I kept remembering a line from “The Trial”: “The wooden steps explained nothing, no matter how long one stared at them.” Having taken the precaution of bringing some cat toys with me, I began waving an artificial mouse at a gray kitten I had just noticed under the shopping cart. After some hesitation, the kitten ran out from under the shopping cart and pounced on the mouse, then scooped it up with its little white paws and bounced it off its chest.
What would Brod have made of it all? The situation struck me as enormously sad. It was sad that Esther had gotten so terribly old and died, and that Eva, the beautiful girl whom Brod once taught to play the piano, was now making French headlines as the “cat woman septuagénaire” who guards Kafka’s papers amid “feline miasmas and angora toxoplasmosis.” Ostensibly trying to defend her privacy and financial interests, Eva was plagued at all hours by journalists, while presumably racking up a fortune in legal fees. Nor would Brod conceivably have been delighted that Kafka’s papers had generated decades of acrimony and become the playthings of lawyers. He might have felt gratified by his friend’s extraordinary fame; but it was thanks to that very fame, which Brod himself both predicted and created, that Kafka didn’t belong to Brod anymore. Brod always knew that he couldn’t hold on to Kafka forever, but he never really faced up to it, and this was the result.
The more I learned about the papers’ stormy history, the more convincing I found the “Lord of the Rings” analogy invoked by Meir Heller, the attorney for the National Library. Brod really does seem to have regarded Kafka’s work as “one ring to rule them all.” Ever since he brought it to Israel, it has been guarded with a secrecy and fanaticism unusual even within the contentious world of literary estates.
The first conflict over Kafka’s papers arose in the 1930s between Brod and Salman Schocken, a former department-store magnate who took over the publication of Kafka’s works in 1933. During the war, Schocken continued to publish Kafka from Palestine and, later, New York, but retained the original manuscripts at his library in Jerusalem. Several sources confirm a fraught letter exchange between the two, with Brod demanding the return of certain manuscripts. In 1956, Schocken moved the papers in his possession to Zurich. The Zurich papers were eventually acquired for the Bodleian Library at Oxford through the offices of Sir Malcolm Pasley, an Oxford Germanist and a friend of Kafka’s great-nephew Michael Steiner.
Esther Hoffe was notorious for her elusiveness regarding the papers that she inherited from Brod. According to Der Spiegel, she backed out of a plan to lend “The Trial” to a Kafka exhibition in Paris because she didn’t get a personal phone call from the French president. Later a German publisher reportedly paid her a five-digit sum for the rights to Brod’s diaries, but she never produced the goods.
In 1974, at the request of the Israeli State Archives, an Israeli court reviewed Hoffe’s claim to the Brod estate. The judge ruled that she could do whatever she wanted with the papers during her lifetime. The following year, Hoffe was arrested at the Tel Aviv airport on suspicion of smuggling Kafka manuscripts abroad without first leaving copies with the State Archives (a stipulation of the Israeli Archives Law of 1955). A search of her luggage yielded photocopies of letters written by Kafka and, reportedly, originals of Brod’s diaries. (An estimated 22 letters and 10 postcards from Kafka to Brod were sold the previous year, presumably by Hoffe, in private sales in Germany.)
Hoffe was released. Soon after, an archivist from the State Archives came to Spinoza Street and, in the presence of Esther, Eva and an attorney, tried to inventory the estate. The archivist reported finding more than 50 feet of files, including originals of Brod’s diaries, letters to Brod from Kafka and letters to Brod and Kafka from unspecified “personages.” Most of the files, however, consisted of photocopies. When asked about the originals, Hoffe’s attorney, according to the archivist, “hesitated for a moment, then said that the material is not here,” adding that he, the lawyer, “always counseled to leave a photocopy in Israel, in compliance with the Archives Law.”
The incompleteness of the inventory leaves many questions about the contents of the estate. The answers may well be in a more thorough catalog compiled in the ’80s by a philologist named Bernhard Echte, now the publisher of Nimbus Books in Switzerland. Copies of Echte’s inventory, which lists some 20,000 pages of material, are closely guarded. Heller has been trying vainly to get one for years.
Echte, the rare scholar whose brush with the Kafka papers doesn’t seem to have injured his sense for the magic of literary discovery, is also the only interviewee in this story who described Esther Hoffe with genuine warmth. Echte told me in an e-mail interview that Hoffe “really tried to fulfill Max Brod’s will because she admired and loved Max Brod like a young girl (and I liked her very much for it).” Although her preference for “books with a good and interesting story” led her to find Kafka “strange,” Echte said, she nonetheless recognized Kafka’s importance to world literature and was prevented only by old age from placing the papers at Marbach. Echte fondly recalled “all the discoveries we made — Mrs. Hoffe and me.” Inside “quite a normal folder” for example, they found “two or three sheets of paper with Kafka’s last notes from Kierling,” the sanitarium where Kafka died. In Zurich, they unearthed a letter that Kafka sent to Brod in 1910, enclosing two birthday gifts: “a small stone,” still in the envelope, and “a damaged book” — which turned up two years later at Spinoza Street and proved to be a novel by Robert Walser. Other treasures that Echte described to me included a copy of “Tristan Tzara’s ‘Première Aventure Céleste de M. Antipyrine,’ the first Dada publication, with a personal dedication of the author to Kafka. Imagine that!”
What else is in the vaults? Most experts agree that the estate is unlikely to contain any unknown major work by Kafka. On the other hand, Kafka often embedded lapidary parables and short-short stories in his letters and diaries. Brod published everything he saw fit, but Peter Fenves, a literature professor at Northwestern University, speculates that there might still be some “literary gems” left: “Perhaps a story like ‘Jackals and Arabs,’ which I can imagine Brod would have suppressed” if Kafka hadn’t published it himself. (In this fable, a European traveler is informed by some jackals — sometimes interpreted as a caricature of Jews — that they have been waiting for generations for him to slit the throats of their unclean enemies, the Arabs.)
The estate is of great interest not only to literary scholars but also to historians and biographers. Reiner Stach, who has already published Volumes 2 and 3 in his three-volume life of Kafka, told me that he has been waiting for years for the vaults to divulge materials necessary for Volume 1: an early notebook by Brod “that is said to contain ‘a good deal about Kafka’ ”; Brod’s unpublished diary from 1909; and letters from Kafka’s hitherto unknown “early friends.”
Kathi Diamant — Dora Diamant’s biographer and the founder of the San Diego-based Kafka Project, which in 2000 discovered Kafka’s old hairbrush at a kibbutz in Jezreel Valley — is eagerly awaiting the release from the vaults of 70 letters written by Dora to Brod. In one letter, Dora, to whom Kathi says she may or may not be related, confesses to having burned at Kafka’s request a number of his manuscripts, perhaps including an unpublished story about a blood-libel case in Kiev. But Dora also saved 20 notebooks and 35 letters, which were seized from her apartment by the Gestapo in 1933. Kathi says that information from the Brod correspondence may help her track down these materials, possibly to a sealed archive in Poland. Both Kathi and Zvi Diamant, Dora’s last living nephew, repeatedly tried to contact Esther Hoffe about the letters: “She refused to help and hung up,” Kathi recalled.
On my last night in Tel Aviv I found myself back at Spinoza Street, to meet the filmmaker Sagi Bornstein, who is working on a documentary about the Kafka case. We met at the end of the block, just as dark was falling. Bornstein, wearing a striped knit cap and a lapel button that said simply “K” (the gift of Dutch Kafkologists), was accompanied by two crew members and a medium-size dog named Babylon Fighter. We sat on a public bench, and Bornstein fitted me with a microphone. His crew filmed our conversation from the other side of the street, where they appeared to be standing in some bushes.
Bornstein was considering two titles for his film: “Kafka’s Last Story,” referring to Kafka’s will, and “Kafka’s Egg,” referring, he said, to “an Easter egg, or the egg of Columbus.”
“It’s something that everyone is trying to solve — but in the end, it’s only an egg,” Bornstein explained. He talked about his experiences shooting in Marbach, Prague, Berlin and Kierling, and about his fruitless efforts to interview Eva Hoffe. “I feel pretty sorry for her,” he said. “I think I understand her pretty well. It’s her life, and she doesn’t owe a report to anyone. Still, the story doesn’t belong only to her. She accidentally got into a story that’s bigger than all of us together.” He fell silent. A girl passed on a bicycle. Babylon Fighter, who does not wear a leash, seemed inclined to follow her, but Bornstein dissuaded him with a stern clicking noise. “So,” he said, turning to me. “You want to go knock on her door?”
I didn’t, frankly, but a job is a job. The crew emerged from the bushes, and we all headed back up Spinoza Street. The lights were on, although it was now past 10 p.m. Bornstein walked me to the door, standing away from the peephole; if she saw him, he said, she wouldn’t open the door.
“I don’t think she’s going to open the door anyway,” I said — accurately, as it turned out. We could hear voices inside. “She’s on the phone,” Bornstein said. Back outside, he speed-dialed Eva’s lawyer Oded Hacohen on his iPhone, and they spoke for some minutes. A large moth circled over our heads in the light of a streetlamp, its wings flapping like some great opened-up book of magic.
“We’ve been having the same conversation for a year,” Bornstein said, hanging up. “He just says we can’t talk to her now. He doesn’t say ‘never’ — just ‘not now.’ It’s ‘Before the Law.’ It’s the exact same thing.”
Bornstein was alluding to the famous parable in “The Trial” about a man who comes before the law but is turned away by the doorkeeper. The man asks if he will be allowed to enter later. “It’s possible, but not now,” says the doorkeeper, explaining that he is only the first in a series of increasingly powerful and terrifying doorkeepers (“The mere sight of the third is more than even I can bear”). The man sits next to the entrance for hours, days, years, waiting to be admitted to the law. In his dying breath, he asks the guard a question: Since the law is open to everyone, why has nobody else approached it in all these years? “This entrance was meant solely for you,” the guard says. “I’m going to go and shut it now.” Like many of Kafka’s stories, it carries the dreamlike impact of a great revelation, while nonetheless not making much immediately apparent sense.
Bornstein gave me a lift home on his moped, together with Babylon Fighter and a substantial amount of video equipment. As we whizzed through traffic and a pedestrian mall, narrowly missing a fateful encounter with a young man sprawled on a sheet and claiming to be the Messiah, I reflected on “Before the Law” — specifically, on the feelings the man projects onto the doorkeeper. “Over the many years,” Kafka writes, “the man observes the doorkeeper almost incessantly. He forgets the other doorkeepers and this first one seems to him the only obstacle to his admittance to the Law.”
Who is Eva Hoffe if not the doorkeeper, the one whom we observe incessantly, who seems to us the only obstacle to our understanding of Kafka? But in fact, beyond Eva lies a series of doorkeepers, most notably Brod, who has been reproached with everything under the sun: with making Kafka a saint, with refusing to burn his papers, with hiding the papers that he refused to burn, with writing such dreadful novels and, overall, with his general inescapability. And then, when we get past Brod, it’s only to face the most powerful doorkeeper of all, Kafka himself.
“With Kafka, people go crazy about getting the original manuscript — not a photocopy, not a facsimile,” Meir Heller once remarked to me. “With most writers, once there’s a copy, nobody cares.” We fetishize the original manuscripts, because they seem to offer some access to a definitive Kafka — a Kafka beyond Brod. But this, too, is an illusion. The manuscripts aren’t definitive, because definitiveness, for better or worse, is the product of deadlines and editors and publishers: things Kafka either went out of his way not to have or ended up not having because of bad luck, tuberculosis and the First World War. When Kafka did prepare manuscripts for publication, he spent much time correcting mistakes and decoding his own abbreviations, sometimes even enlisting Brod’s help; one critic thus speculates that “Brod’s version might, in the end, look more like what Kafka would have published” than the most meticulous German scholarly editions. Maybe there is no Kafka beyond Brod.
Nonetheless, like the man in the parable, we ultimately come back to our faith in the law. In the coming weeks, a court-appointed group will finish inventorying the remaining boxes, as well as the contents of the Spinoza Street apartment. It’s only a matter of time before the list is made public and most of the materials find their way to one archive or another. The last doorkeeper out of the way, we’ll be as close to Kafka as we’re ever going to get.
Elif Batuman is the author of “The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.”