One of the most frequent uses of the word "Kafkaesque," evoking the dark absurdity of Franz Kafka's fiction, is in reference to his 1925 novel The Trial, which describes an illogical and convoluted court case that stretches on forever. Now 85 years later, in exactly the kind of dark irony that Kafka would have appreciated, an international and deeply Kafkaesque court case has raged for 50 years over the ownership of a large piece of Kafka's papers. The New York Times Magazine's Elif Batuman reports in a fascinating retrospective of the case:
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 [Kafka friend Max] 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.
An added irony: Kafka, who died in 1924 at age 41, bequeathed all of his papers to Brod with the sole request that they be burned. Brod ignored his friend's dying wish, and The Trial was just one of the historic novels to emerge from the papers. So even the most celebrated literary core of Kafka's legacy, which yielded the word Kafkaesque, is itself a result of Kafkaesque betrayal. Zany!
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.