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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Long-hidden Kafka works could emerge after decade-long legal battle over estate

I've come across an article about the estate of the German author, Franz Kafka, that is as bizarre as Kafka's own stories. I remember being fascinated by "The Trial" by Kafka years ago and thinking that real life legal cases could never be as strange. Perhaps I was wrong.

This is a real-life tale of executors who didn't do anything they were supposed to do and who were affected by world events no less than World War II. Kafka asked his executor, Max Brod, to burn any works he left behind, but instead Brod published at least 3 of the works (including "The Trial").  A few years later, Brod fled Germany for Israel when the Nazis took over, and smuggled out several of Kafka's unpublished works.

When Brod died, he left Kafka's works in the hands of Esther Hoffe with instructions to transfer them to an academic institution. Hoffe was no better at following instructions than Brod had been. Hoffe kept the papers hidden for 40 years, except for the ones she sold for literally millions of dollars. When Hoffe died in 2008, she left the papers to her two children. The children have since passed away and Hoffe's grandchildren are trying to keep the collection.

There is a battle, not surprisingly, over the ownership of the papers, the contents of which are unknown. The government seized the collection, saying that they are cultural assets. It's important to remember that when Brod published Kafka's novels, Kafka became a hugely influential voice. His books were all about "everyman" characters who became embroiled in bizarre or baffling legal processes. There is speculation as to whether the stash of papers contains unseen novels or endings to some existing works that are currently unfinished. When you consider that a German literature archive paid $1,800,000 for the manuscript of "The Trial", you start to see how much money is at stake.

A court in Zurich, Switzerland, has ruled that the contents of the boxes holding the collection may now be opened and the contents shipped to the Israeli National Library.

Is the world better off because Kafka's executor ignored his instructions? Yes, I think so. But nobody could say that the estate or the beneficiaries are better off.

To read a more in-depth article at the Globe and Mail about this battle, click here.

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