Hopes and doubts over possible trove of Franz Kafka's manuscripts in Israel

By Alastair Macdonald
Fri Jul 11, 1:09 PM ET

Hopes and doubts over possible Kafka trove in Israel

Does the Tel Aviv apartment of a lately deceased centenarian hold a trove of moldering manuscripts that could rewrite our understanding of Franz Kafka?

Or does it hold, at best, the makings of footnotes in future editions of the German-speaking Jewish writer's work?

Generating an air of perplexing, "Kafka-esque" mystery, a Tel Aviv newspaper report this week marking the 125th anniversary of Kafka's birth has sparked a flurry of speculation among literary scholars and archivists in Israel and in Europe.

Leading experts said on Friday they did not expect material to emerge that would prompt major revisions. But diaries and other papers left by Kafka's friend and biographer Max Brod, whose late secretary owned the apartment, could shed new light on Kafka's life and times in Prague before he died in 1924.

The intrigue is all the greater because of the history of how Kafka's writings were saved from obscurity -- Brod defied his friend's dying wish that his unpublished work be destroyed and later fled Nazi Europe with a suitcase full of papers.

"It's very difficult to know what might be in her flat," said Ritchie Robertson, the professor of German at Oxford University, which holds the bulk of Kafka's known manuscripts.

"But my own suspicion would be that there would be nothing of any significance by Kafka," he said. Any of Brod's papers could nonetheless be interesting, he added, not least as they might give a different view of Kafka from the "saintly" figure that emerged from Brod's 1937 biography of his friend.

The two daughters of Brod's secretary Esther Hoffe, who died last year at 101, inherited the flat but have yet to grant access to any possible documents, Israel's Haaretz newspaper said this week, quoting Israeli scholars and officials.

Israel's state archivist told the newspaper that he would not let material important to Jewish history leave the country.

Brod eventually gave much that was Kafka's to the writer's niece by sending most manuscripts to a Swiss bank during the 1956 Suez crisis. They ended up in Oxford after a chance meeting between an English academic and the niece's son -- Kafka's great-nephew.

Then, when Brod died in Israel in 1968, his own archive passed to Hoffe. She frustrated scholars by denying them access to the papers -- though she sold Kafka's manuscript of his novel "The Trial" for a reported $2 million in the 1980s.

UNKNOWN TREASURES?

The handwritten version of the surreal story of Josef K, who wakes to find himself on trial for a crime his accusers refuse to specify, was bought by the Germany's Literature Archive.

Its keeper of manuscripts, Ulrich von Buelow, told German Radio this week he hoped that opening the Hoffe apartment might throw up fragments of Kafka's unfinished 1907 story "Wedding Preparations in the Country," as well as other material.

"We hope, too, that perhaps we might even find things that have been so far completely unknown," von Buelow said.

But some scholars have expressed concern about the state of any papers kept by Hoffe -- Haaretz quoted Tel Aviv officials as saying city workers removed cats and dogs from the flat before Hoffe's death after neighbors complained about the smell.

Robertson said he doubted that Hoffe would have resisted the temptation to sell any other particularly valuable Kafka items, despite her reputation for secrecy about her horde.

But documents left by Brod, himself a noted figure in the German literary world, would also be extremely interesting.

Brod's biography "does make Kafka out to be a bit of a saint," Robertson said, and Brod's letters and diaries might reveal other aspects to the writer of "The Castle" and "The Metamorphosis," the tale of a man transformed into an insect.

One leading Kafka scholar, who spoke privately, called the new interest in the archive "a media bubble": "As far as I know, Max Brod published everything he had," he said.

"There could be things that didn't seem important to him at the time that could be interesting now. But we should wait."

Paul Bilic, a London writer who has written a play based on how an Oxford don came to whisk Kafka's papers from Zurich to England by car in 1961, said the latest intrigue was fitting.

"The manuscript is the closest we get today to a religious relic," Bilic said. "This is a plot that Kafka, in his own enigmatic world of emblems and ciphers, would have appreciated."

(Editing by Jon Boyle)


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