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Whom Does Kafka Belong To?

(Maybe to a cat-lady)

Marc Tracy
September 28, 2010
Franz Kafka.(Random House)
Franz Kafka.(Random House)

Do read Elif Batuman’s Times Magazine feature on the battle over Franz Kafka’s extant papers, which pits the maybe-heirs of Kafka’s literary executor, Max Brod, against the state of Israel; a museum in (of all places) Germany is involved as well. Batuman’s article is worth your time not for the, yes, Kafkaesque legal intricacies—you probably won’t follow them all—but for sentences like, “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.”

Hanging over it all is the fact that, were it up to Kafka, none of this would be happening: Instead, his good friend Brod would have burned all of Kafka’s work, as per the author’s request. (Of course, as Tablet Magazine columnist Etgar Keret notes to Batuman, “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?”)

Rodger Kamenetz, whose Burnt Books, forthcoming from Nextbook Press, deals with Kafka’s wish extensively, wonders whether the documents shouldn’t stay in Israel: “Kafka had found real love as he was dying, and he clung to the impossible fantasy of emigration to Palestine with real intensity,” Kamenetz writes. “So it seems a kind of fulfillment that after his death his manuscripts made it [to] the promised land, even if he never could.”

Adds Kamenetz, “But Kafka himself saw the issue as far more tortured and complicated.” He would have, wouldn’t he?

After the jump: Batuman on Kafka’s flirtation with Zionism.

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.

Kafka’s Last Trial [New York Times Magazine]
Related: Kafka Manuscripts: The Fight Over Kafka [Huffington Post]
Burnt Books [Nextbook Press]
Earlier: New Kafka Papers To Be Revealed

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.