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David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

Unpacking Kafka



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I was once walking down Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv when someone pointed to an elderly man on the far side and said, “That’s Max Brod.” I’ve no idea if it really was him, but it’s been enough to feed my imagination. Back in Prague in the early twentieth century, Max Brod was a close friend of Franz Kafka, and one of those who used to meet to listen to Kafka read his work aloud. They thought the stories were funny, Brod has recorded; how they all laughed! Kafka made Brod his literary executor, with instructions to burn his manuscripts. Brod didn’t.

A few years later, the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia, and Brod fled with a suitcase containing the unpublished work, including The Trial and The Castle. The world is in his debt for saving Kafka’s work not once but twice.

Kafka’s great theme is that everyone feels guilt without ever being able quite to find out why. Nobody before him had taken the measure of our times like that, but he has been proved right as totalitarianisms, political correctness, affirmative action, positive discrimination, the culture of apology and compensation, and all the rest of it tie us up in tangles of guilt about things for which we aren’t responsible — and in such a way that struggling to get free of the guilt only makes it worse.

There’s more illumination to come: Brod left that suitcase to his lady friend, Esther Hoffe, and she in turn bequeathed it to her two daughters, now in their seventies. They have prevented all researchers from looking at the material; presumably they hoped to sell what they have, and a German library is said to be their choice of buyer. The Israeli Supreme Court has now ordered that these papers be opened, and of course the Israeli National Library wants to acquire them as part of the Jewish heritage.

According to the latest news, there is indeed a complete unpublished story. This whole saga seems to prove Kafka’s vision, though whether any of us can still laugh about it is another matter.



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