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Kafkaesque legal dispute leads to Zurich

As Franz Kafka awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself the subject of an international legal dispute Keystone

An Israeli argument involving original manuscripts of Prague-born author Franz Kafka has come to Switzerland.

This content was published on July 21, 2010 - 07:55

A Tel Aviv court ordered the opening on Monday of four Zurich safe-deposit boxes allegedly containing hand-written and unpublished documents as part of a trial to sort out who owns the author’s literary estate.

Kafka, who died in Vienna in 1924, is one of the most influential novelists of the 20th century, with works such as The Trial and The Metamorphosis considered among the most original in Western literature.

Now, however, the master of the apparently absurd, who frequently satirised bureaucracy, has found himself at the heart of a dispute between private inheritance and state institutions.

The tale began in a Tel Aviv courtroom two years ago, when the Jewish National and University Library sued Eva and Ruth Hoffe, two sisters who had inherited Kafka’s estate from their mother, Esther, who had in turn inherited it from Kafka’s close friend and literary executor, Max Brod.

Esther Hoffe had worked as a secretary for Brod, who died in Tel Aviv in 1968.

The library is contesting the bequest, arguing that given Kafka’s Jewish background the papers constitute a national heritage which should be made accessible to the public.

The court order forced the Hoffe sisters’ ten safe-deposit boxes to be opened – four of which are in the UBS bank in Zurich.

A bank spokesman did not want to comment when approached by swissinfo.ch, citing client confidentiality.

Swiss influence

The fact that an author’s manuscripts can become a national affair is surprising for Reto Sorg, director of the Robert Walser Archive in Bern.

“On the one hand it’s nice to see literary texts being taken so seriously,” Sorg told swissinfo.ch.

“However, it’s a problem when they are declared cultural assets and national authorities lay their hands on them.”

Kafka was a contemporary of Swiss author Robert Walser, and although there is no recorded meeting between the two, Sorg said they had a lot in common.

“Both came from the edges of the German-speaking world and neither experienced the success they now enjoy while they were alive. What’s more, both tackled the issue of authority, which became one of the big themes of the 20th century,” he said.

“Kafka read Walser and particularly appreciated his humour.”

Sense of belonging

Zurich was also the site of several meetings between Brod and Carl Seelig, friends and later literary executors of both authors.

It is thanks to Brod that so much of Kafka’s work remains. When Kafka died, he requested that Brod destroy any of his unpublished works, including the two novels The Trial and The Castle.

“But as an advocate of an overriding cause, Brod did everything to preserve Kafka’s work and to arrange it and disseminate it to the world,” Sorg said.

At first glance it might appear surprising that Israel is claiming Kafka’s work, since the author wrote in German and was born in Prague.

For Sorg, “this conflict mirrors the historical circumstances in which Kafka lived and from which he suffered. He felt a sense of belonging to the German-speaking world as well as to Prague and, as a Jew, Jewish culture and Zionism.”

Cash cow

He says the question of who now has a valid claim to Kafka’s estate is a tough one to answer.

“The important thing is that the manuscripts aren’t scattered further.”

This concern is justified, because the Kafka industry has gone on to generate considerable amounts of money. The manuscript of The Trial was sold to the German Literature Archive in Marbach for $2 million (SFr2.1 million).

What exactly has been unearthed in Zurich remains a secret – for the time being – because the Hoffe sisters have obtained a legal gag order.

A literary scholar and Kafka expert is busy drawing up an inventory of the documents, on behalf of Israel’s national library.

This will form the basis of the Tel Aviv court’s decision on whether Kafka’s estate remains in private hands or whether it is put on display in Israel.

Susanne Schanda, swissinfo.ch (Translated from German by Thomas Stephens)

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka was born on July 3, 1883, to middle-class German-speaking Jewish parents in Prague, Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In 1902 he met Max Brod, who would later become his literary executor.

In 1906 Kafka finished studying law and began an apprenticeship in a court.

His first literary efforts were published in 1908.

His body of work includes the novels The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926) and Amerika (1927), short stories including The Metamorphosis (1915) and In the Penal Colony (1914).

Most of Kafka's output, much of it unfinished at the time of his death in June 1924 from tuberculosis – aged just 40 – was published by Brod posthumously.

Brod fled Prague before the Germans invaded in 1939. He travelled, with Kafka’s manuscripts, to Israel, where he died in 1968.

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