Who owns, or should be able to own, the work of a great artist? A trunk filled with unpublished work by Franz Kafka has sparked a court case that, as the philosopher Judith Butler reports in the current London Review of Books, raises a host of questions about national identity, cultural heritage, the commodification of art, and the meaning of ownership, whether individual or collective.
The facts are both straightforward, and, as with everything to do with Kafka, extraordinarily convoluted. Born in Prague to Jewish parents during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kafka spoke and wrote in German. After publishing a number of short stories and novellas, he died in 1924 leaving no will, but only a letter to his friend Max Brod:
Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me (in my bookcase, linen-cupboard, and my desk both at home and in the office, or anywhere else where anything may have got to and meets your eye), in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others'), sketches, and so on, to be burned unread; also all writings and sketches which you or others may possess; and ask those others for them in my name. Letters which they do not want to hand over to you, they should at least promise faithfully to burn themselves.Of course, Brod did not burn Kafka's work, but instead immediately began editing and arranging for the publication of his novels Der Prozess (The Trial, 1925), Das Schloss (The Castle, 1926), and Amerika (originally entitled Der Verschollene, or The Disappearance, 1927); a collection of short stories, parables, and other pieces, Beim Bau der chinesischen Mauer (The Great Wall of China, 1931); and an edition of his Gesammelte Schriften (Collected Works, 1935-37).
Brod, a longtime Zionist, emigrated to Palestine in 1939, carrying the Kafka manuscripts with him. He later edited editions of Kafka's diaries and letters, but refused to allow other scholars to have access to the manuscripts, or to place them in a library, museum or archive. However, as war loomed during the 1956 Suez Crisis, Brod sent the bulk of the manuscripts to safekeeping in a Swiss bank vault. After lengthy negotiations involving Brod, Kafka's publisher Salman Schocken, Kafka's niece and heir Marianne Steiner (daughter of Kafka's sister Valerie), and literary scholar Malcolm Pasley, the manuscripts were transferred in 1961 to the Bodleian Library at Oxford.
However, Brod still retained the manuscript of Der Prozess (which Kafka had given him in 1920) and an unknown quantity of unpublished material. On his death in 1968 these manuscripts were bequeathed to his secretary (and, apparently, lover) Esther Hoffe. In 1988, she put the manuscript of Der Prozess up for auction at Sotheby's, where it sold for $1.98 million. Herbert Tenschert, the West German book dealer who placed the winning bid on behalf of the Deutsche Literaturarchiv Marbach, was quoted after the auction as saying "This is perhaps the most important work in 20th-century German literature, and Germany had to have it." Kafka would surely have appreciated the multiple ironies: not only was he not German, but this wasn't the first time a German government had expressed keen interest in his work: the Nazis had seized 20 of his notebooks and a cache of letters from his lover Dora Diamant in Berlin in 1933, and probably burned them.
Kafka's work has now become a nexus of competing national, cultural, ethnic, and mercenary claims. Esther Hoffe's daughters, Eva and Ruth, have now inherited the remaining Kafka manuscripts, which they want to sell—by weight, without an inventory or any other kind of assessment. However, several parties are suing to contest the Hoffe sisters' claims to the manuscripts: the National Library of Israel asserts that the Kafka manuscripts are "cultural assets belonging to the Jewish people," and so belong in its collection (Kafka wrote in a 1914 diary entry, "What have I in common with the Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself..."). The Deutsche Literaturarchiv Marbach is also in court, suggesting that the remainder of the manuscripts ought to be reunited with Der Prozess in its collection. This isn't the first time that competing claims have been made about Kafka's work; Butler quotes a letter Kafka wrote in 1916 to Felice Bauer:
And incidentally, won't you tell me what I really am; in the last Neue Rundschau...the writer says: "There is something fundamentally German about K's narrative art." In Max's article on the other hand: "K's stories are among the most typically Jewish documents of our time." A difficult case. Am I a circus rider on two horses? Alas, I am no rider, but lie prostrate on the ground.
Further recommended reading: David Mairowitz and R. Crumb's Kafka (Fantagraphics Books, 2007). The latest edition of this book, valuable especially for Crumb's haunting illustrations of Kafka's life and works.