“Kafka’s Last Trial: The Case of a Literary Legacy” by Benjamin Balint— Preserving Kafka’s Literary Legacy

Balint, Benjamin. “Kafka’s Last Trial: The Case of a Literary Legacy”, W. W. Norton & Company  2018. Preserving Kafka’s Literary Legacy Amos Lassen
Benjamin Balint’s “Kafka’s Last Trial” begins with Kafka’s last instruction to his closest friend, Max Brod to destroy all his remaining papers upon his death. However, when the time came in 1924, Brod could not bring himself to burn the unpublished works of the man he considered a literary genius. Instead, Brod devoted his life to championing Kafka’s writing and rescuing his legacy. By the time of Brod’s own death in Tel Aviv in 1968, Kafka’s major works had been published and Kafka had been transformed from a little-know writer into one of the mainstays of literary modernism. Nonetheless, Brod left a wealth of still-unpublished papers to his secretary, who sold some, held on to the rest, and then gave the most of them to her daughters, who in turn refused to release them. What followed was an international legal battle to determine which country could claim ownership of Kafka’s work: Israel, where Kafka dreamed of living but never entered, or Germany, where Kafka’s three sisters perished in the Holocaust. Benjamin Balint gives us quite an account of the controversial trial in Israeli courts. It was filled with legal, ethical, and political dilemmas that determined the fate of Kafka’s manuscripts. This is a brilliant biographical portrait of a literary genius, and the story of two countries whose national obsessions with overcoming the traumas of the past came to a head in a courtroom to determine the right to claim Kafka’s literary legacy. Balint explores some of the most challenging ethical problems of our time in this rich courtroom drama. The book combines reportage, biography, and literary criticism and brings to life the cast— principally Kafka and Brod in the past, and Eva Hoffe in the present.

The hunt for Kafka’s rightful ownership begins as a local dispute in an Israeli family court but then becomes “modernity’s most bitterly contentious cultural conundrum of who should inherit Franz Kafka. Perhaps the papers should go to the woman into whose hands his manuscripts fortuitously fell or to Germany, the nation that murdered his sisters but claims his spirit or to Israel, asserting a sovereign yet intimate ancestral right. “Questions of language, of personal bequest, of friendship, of biographical evidence, of national pride, of justice, of deceit and betrayal, even of metaphysical allegiances play a part in Kafka’s final standing before the law.”
“Kafka’s Last Trial” shines light not only on Kafka and the fate of his work, but also on the larger question of who owns art or has a right to claim guardianship of it.”  We can see this as a “meditation on the nature of artistic genius and the proprietary claims any one individual or country has on the legacy of that genius.” We see what defines a Jewish writer by Balint’s dealing with Kafka’s Jewish identity and the struggle by Germany and Israel to claim his legacy.

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