Carried out of Prague in a suitcase in 1939 and kept hidden for decades, a huge collection of documents by Franz Kafka and his friend Max Brod is set to be made public for the first time following a ruling by a Tel Aviv judge.
The long-running trial over the ownership of the manuscripts came to a conclusion on Sunday, when judge Talia Kopelman-Pardo ruled in Tel Aviv that the collection should be handed to the Israeli National Library in Jerusalem. The library has said that it will publish the documents, which run to tens of thousands of pages and include notebooks of Kafka's writing, online.
Kafka left his writing to his friend Max Brod on his death in 1924, ordering him to burn it. Instead, Brod released the novels – The Castle, The Trial and Amerika – which would make Kafka one of the greatest literary names of the 20th century. Much of the author's work remained unpublished, however, and Brod eventually fled Europe in 1939 for Palestine, carrying a suitcase filled with Kafka's manuscripts. On his death, Brod bequeathed his archive – which includes Brod's diary, Kafka's notebooks and letters - to his secretary Esther Hoffe, who sold part of it, and left it to her daughters when she died in 2007. They have argued that the collection, kept in safes in Tel Aviv and Zurich, was a gift, and were backed by the German Literature Archive, which wished to purchase the collection.
But Kopelman-Pardo ruled that "the Kafka manuscripts, like the Brod estate, were not given to the plaintiffs as gifts", and "should be handed to the archive", as Brod's 1948 will stipulated that his archive should go to "the library of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem or the Tel Aviv municipal library, or (that of) any other public institution in Israel or abroad".
"This case complicated by passions, was argued in court for quite a long time across seas, lands, and times. Not every day, and most definitely not as a matter of routine, does the opportunity befall a judge to delve into the depth of history as it unfolds before him in piecemeal fashion,"Kopelman-Pardo wrote in her ruling, saying that the trial provided "a window into the lives, desires, frustrations and the souls of two of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century".
Israeli National Library director Oren Weinberg welcomed the decisionand said the collection would be put online, "thus fulfilling Brod's wish of publishing Kafka's writings for all literature lovers in Israel and the world".
Aviad Stollman, curator of Judaica at the library, said: "These papers have been concealed for more than forty years, and we are satisfied that they will now become available for research and viewing. In view of the role of the library to collect, preserve and make accessible the cultural treasures of the State of Israel and the Jewish people, we see this as a great success".
Eva Hoffe, Esther Hoffe's surviving daughter, has said she will appeal the decision.
Kafka experts gave the ruling cautious praise. "It is certainly good news that these materials are to be publicly accessible. So long as they are available, especially online, it does not much matter where they are physically located," said Oxford University professor Ritchie Robertson. "Like others, I doubt if much significant material by Kafka himself will emerge; if it were there, it would surely have been made known long before now. But his Hebrew notebooks will at least tell us more about his language studies. And Max Brod's diaries will be of great interest. They may tell us more about Kafka (though Brod already quoted from them a lot in his biographical writings on Kafka) and they will certainly tell us about the social and intellectual milieu of early-20th-century Prague in which Kafka matured."
Booker-shortlisted novelist Will Self was less excited. "There's enough of what Milan Kundera terms 'Kafkaology' about as it is: seldom has a writer been as profitlessly anatomised – and that largely as a function of writings other than his fiction – as Kafka. This evolution will surely result only in more of this: more unread and unreadable doctoral theses, more bowdlerised applications of this or that critical theory to the Kafka corpus," he said. "Brod himself was intent on canonising Kafka as a Zionist saint, and the Israeli state holding the papers ensures that this falsification will continue apace – still, it matters not, the works are out there in all their contrariety, sparking different and heterodox sensations as legion as their readers."
(Alison Flood for guardian.co.uk)