Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

In October 1916, Franz Kafka asked his fiancée Felice Bauer to tell him who he really was. A recent article had said there was something “fundamentally German” about his writing. Another had said his stories were “typically Jewish”.

“A difficult case,” Kafka concludes in his letter. “Am I a circus rider on two horses? Alas, I am no rider, but lie prostrate on the ground.”

It is a typically self-deprecating, tragicomic line from a writer whose work so brilliantly reflects the neuroses of the modern mind. Yet it is also prophetic. Nearly 100 years after his death an argument was still raging over who had the more valid claim to his literary legacy — Germany or the Jews.

The dispute is expertly described in Benjamin Balint’s Kafka’s Last Trial, a highly entertaining story of literary friendship, epic legal battles and cultural politics centred on one of the most enigmatic writers of the 20th century. At its heart is a profound question: how can any country or people claim ownership of a writer? Are not artists and intellectuals essentially stateless, citizens of both nowhere and everywhere?

Such a question is particularly pertinent in the case of Kafka, a Jewish writer, born in Prague, who wrote in German and lived in a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His uncanny parables and surreal flights of fancy — think Gregor Samsa, who wakes up transformed into a beetle, or Josef K, who is arrested for a crime that is never revealed to him — have a resonance that is universal. Any attempt to pigeonhole him seems to miss the point entirely.

There’s an added irony in the fight to own Kafka: in his lifetime, he was singularly unpossessive. As his biographer Reiner Stach wrote: “There is not a single known episode in his life in which he displayed any joy in ownership. He did not necessarily have to own what he loved.” And yet the tussle over ownership of his papers dragged on for years.

The fight had its roots in an act of betrayal. Kafka, who died of tuberculosis in an Austrian sanatorium in 1924, told his close friend Max Brod to burn all his remaining manuscripts on his death. Brod ignored the request and spent the rest of his life editing and publishing the work. A latter-day apostle, his tireless advocacy sealed Kafka’s reputation as one of the great writers of Modernism.

Brod brought Kafka’s papers with him when he fled from Prague to Palestine in 1939. On his death in 1968 he left them to Esther Hoffe, his secretary, who later bequeathed them to her daughters, Eva and Ruth. Balint’s book is about the complex legal case to determine the Brod estate’s final resting place: should it stay with Eva Hoffe, or reside with the National Library of Israel? Or would it best be housed at the German Literature Archive in Marbach, a kind of Valhalla of German culture? (In 2016, Jerusalem’s supreme court finally ruled that it should go to the national library.)

Balint does a good job of weighing up the competing claims and is careful not to get bogged down in legal details. What we get is an exquisitely human drama peopled with an eccentric cast of characters that beautifully evokes the early days of Israel, the sadness of the exiles, and the long shadow cast by the Holocaust — a tragedy that claimed the lives of Kafka’s three sisters.

But his book is at its best in its portrait of Kafka as a man, whose “infinite yearning for independence and freedom” left him in a state of “stubborn homelessness and non-belonging”.

“Kafka,” Balint writes, “was on the outside looking out, and he wasn’t about to be conscripted by those on the inside.” One wishes that those scrapping over his papers had realised as much.

© Financial Times, 2019