Misha Vyrtsev

An admirer of Franz Kafka’s once presented him with a specially bound volume of three of his stories. Kafka’s reaction was vehement: “My scribbling … is nothing more than my own materialization of horror,” he replied. “It shouldn’t be printed at all. It should be burnt.” At the same time, Kafka believed that he had no purpose in life other than writing: “I am made of literature,” he said, “and cannot be anything else.” Clearly, Kafka’s ambivalence about his work was an expression of deep uncertainty about himself. Did he have the right to inflict his dreadful imaginative visions on the world? “If one can give no help one should remain silent,” he mused. “No one should let his own hopelessness cause the patient’s condition to deteriorate.”

Ironically, the hopelessness of Kafka’s work was precisely what ensured its place at the center of 20th-century literature. Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to discover that he has been transformed into an insect, and Joseph K., who is put on trial by an unofficial court for a crime no one will explain to him, have become archetypal modern figures. W. H. Auden proposed that Kafka was to the alienated, absurd 20th century what Dante or Shakespeare had been to their times—the writer who captured the essence of the age.

If Kafka could read Kafka’s Last Trial, Benjamin Balint’s dramatic and illuminating new book about the fate of his work, he would surely be astonished to learn that his “scribbling” turned out to be incredibly valuable—not just in literary terms, but financially and even geopolitically. At the heart of Balint’s book is a court case that dragged through the Israeli judicial system for years, concerning the ownership of some surviving manuscripts of Kafka’s that had ended up in private hands in Tel Aviv. Because the case was widely reported on at the time, it’s not a spoiler to say that in 2016 control of the manuscripts was taken from Eva Hoffe, the elderly woman who possessed them, and awarded to the National Library of Israel.

In Balint’s account, however, the case involves much more than the minutiae of wills and laws. It raises momentous questions about nationality, religion, literature, and even the Holocaust—in which Kafka’s three sisters died, and which he escaped only by dying young, of tuberculosis. Hoffe inherited the manuscripts from her mother, Esther, who had been given them by Max Brod, Kafka’s best friend and literary executor. She planned to sell them to the German Literature Archive, in Marbach, where they would join the works of other masters of German literature. This would have been a cultural coup for Germany, and an implied endorsement of the idea that Kafka is properly considered a German writer though he was never a German citizen, but a Jew who was born and lived in Prague. The National Library of Israel argued that Kafka’s writing forms part of the cultural heritage of the Jewish people, and so his manuscripts belong in the Jewish state.

At the time of his death, in 1924, at the age of 40, Kafka hardly seemed like a candidate for world fame. He had a minor reputation in German literary circles, but he had never been a professional writer. He spent his days working as a lawyer for an insurance company, a job he hated though he was good at it. He published a few stories in magazines and as slim volumes, but while these included masterpieces such as The Metamorphosis, “In the Penal Colony,” and “A Hunger Artist,” they received little attention. Kafka’s major novels, The Trial and The Castle, remained in manuscript form, unfinished and unknown to the world.

W. W. Norton

Famously, he had tried to keep it that way. Before he died, Kafka had written a letter to Brod, who found it when he went to clear out Kafka’s desk. In this “last will,” Kafka instructed Brod to burn all his manuscripts, including his letters and diaries. But Brod, who admired Kafka to the point of idolatry, refused to carry out his friend’s wishes. Instead, he devoted the rest of his life to editing, publishing, and promoting Kafka’s work—even writing a novel about him, in which Kafka was thinly disguised as a character named Richard Garta. In this way, Brod ensured not only Kafka’s immortality, but his own. Though Brod himself was a successful and prolific writer, today he is remembered almost exclusively for his role in Kafka’s story.

The question of whether Brod acted ethically in disregarding Kafka’s dying wishes is one of the great debates of literary history, and it lies at the core of Balint’s book. As he notes, “Brod was neither the first nor the last to confront such a dilemma.” Virgil wanted the Aeneid to be burned after his death, a wish that was also denied. Preserving an author’s work against his or her will implies that art belongs more to its audience than to its creator. And in strictly utilitarian terms, Brod undoubtedly made the right choice. Publishing Kafka’s work has brought pleasure and enlightenment to countless readers (and employment to hundreds of Kafka experts); destroying it would have benefited only a dead man.

But did Kafka, the man made of literature, really want his writing to disappear? The truth is that, if you read Kafka’s will closely, it is just as ambiguous, just as susceptible to multiple interpretations, as everything else he wrote. Not least, the will distinguished between his unpublished work and some of his published stories, which he described as “valid.” “I don’t mean that I want them reprinted,” he added, but “I’m not preventing anyone from keeping them if he wants to.” Kafka seemed to have a lingering hope that his work would find readers. And in choosing Brod as his executor, he picked the one person who was certain not to carry out his instructions. It was as if Kafka wanted to transmit his writing to posterity, but didn’t want the responsibility for doing so. “Even in self-renunciation Kafka was beset by indecision,” Balint writes.

Brod, for his part, had no doubts about the importance of his friend’s writing. He succeeded in finding publishers for The Trial and The Castle in the 1920s, but only in the ’30s did Kafka’s work slowly begin to find a real audience. The rise of Nazism convinced readers that they were indeed living in Kafka’s world of counterfeit laws and meaningless violence—even as Nazi anti-Semitism made it impossible to publish his books in Germany.

Brod fled Czechoslovakia on the very night the Nazis annexed the country, in March 1939, carrying Kafka’s manuscripts with him. He had been a committed Zionist for many years, and he made his way to Tel Aviv, where he lived until his death, in 1968. Balint shows that, like many immigrants from Germany, Brod had a difficult time remaking his life in Palestine. To his distress, he was slighted by the local literary world, which was interested only in Hebrew writing. Indeed, Balint points out that Kafka’s work has never been as popular in Israel as it is in Europe and the United States.

During the trial, German scholars argued that Kafka’s manuscripts should go to Germany, where they would be studied intensively, rather than be neglected in Jerusalem. One obvious counterargument was that it would be obscene for Kafka’s relics to end up in the country that had annihilated his family. Balint quotes an Israeli scholar who cuttingly observed, “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.” But the case for keeping Kafka in Israel went deeper, and involved a literary as well as a legal judgment. Balint writes that in awarding Kafka’s papers to the National Library of Israel, the judges “affirmed that Kafka was an essentially Jewish writer.” And this is the real question at the center of Kafka’s Last Trial: Is he a Jewish writer? What do we gain, or lose, by reading his work through a Jewish lens?

Biographically, Kafka’s Jewishness is obvious. He was born to a Jewish family and lived in a Jewish community beset by serious, sometimes violent anti-Semitism. Though he was raised with little knowledge of Judaism, Kafka developed a profound interest in Jewish culture. Yiddish theater and Hasidic folktales were important influences on his work, and in the last years of his life he dreamed of moving to Palestine, even studying Hebrew to prepare. (Kafka’s Hebrew workbook was among the items Eva Hoffe inherited.)

But if you didn’t know Kafka was Jewish, you could read his books without ever discovering that fact. The word Jew never appears in his fiction, and his characters have the universality of figures in a parable: Joseph K. could be anyone living in a modern urban society. And yet many Jewish readers—including critics from Walter Benjamin to Harold Bloom—have always understood Kafka’s work as growing out of, and commenting on, the Central-European Jewish experience. Kafka belonged to a Jewish generation that was cut off from the traditional Yiddish-speaking life of Eastern Europe, but that was also unable to assimilate fully into German culture, which treated Jews with disdain or hostility. In a letter to Brod, Kafka memorably wrote that the German Jewish writer was “stuck by his little hind legs in his forefathers’ faith, and with his front legs groping for, but never finding, new ground.”

Once you start looking for such figures in Kafka’s fiction, they are everywhere. The captive ape in “A Report to an Academy,” who has painfully learned how to join the world of human beings; the protagonist of “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,” whose squeaky art helps sustain her persecuted people; Joseph K. in The Trial, who is judged by alien rules he doesn’t understand—each is a legible comment on Kafka’s Jewish predicament. Above all, Kafka’s obsession with the idea of law, and his bafflement before legal systems whose workings seem incomprehensible, is practically theological, a product of his sense that Jewish law had been irretrievably lost.

Yet Kafka’s genius was to see that these Jewish experiences—what Balint calls his “stubborn homelessness and non-belonging”—were also archetypally modern experiences. In the 20th century, the condition of being cut off from tradition, manipulated by unfriendly institutions, and subjected to sudden violence became almost universal. For Bertolt Brecht, Kafka’s work constituted a kind of premonition, describing “the future concentration camps, the future instability of the law … the paralyzed, inadequately motivated, floundering lives of many individual people.” A writer whose name goes on to become an adjective functions as a kind of prophet, giving a name to experiences that are in store for everyone. That is why, in the end, it hardly matters whether Kafka’s relics reside in Germany or Israel. What counts is that we are all living in Kafka’s world.

This article appears in the September 2018 print edition with the headline “Who Gets to Claim Kafka?”

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