If you’ve enjoyed reading The Trial, do two things:
1. Thank Max Brod
2. Wipe your spit off Franz Kafka’s grave
I’m just kidding about number two– sort of. See, Kafka famously demanded on his deathbed that none of his fiction or letters ever be published. In fact, he implored his friend, Max Brod, to burn every last page of his remaining work.
But like we see fairly often, a great contribution to literature is borne from an act of personal betrayal. Brod went and had much of it published, and as a result we’ve had The Castle, Amerika, The Trial, and short fiction such as “The Metamorphosis.” Brod guarded the rest of the manuscripts– 40,000 pages– with his life, even smuggling them in a suitcase as he fled the Nazis. Encouraged by the public reception of his friend’s works, Brod went so far as to demand in his will that the rest of the surviving fiction and journals be donated to the public, preferably a library in Israel. His secretary’s daughters eventually ended up with the Kafka stacks, selling material here and there and insisting upon ownership because they were “a gift.”
But as reported yesterday by The Guardian, an Israeli judge ruled “no they weren’t,” and Ava Hoffe has to cough up the Kafka.
Maybe you react with unrepressed joy at the news of any archive releases or lost manuscripts, as in “Yay, More Books.” But allow me to inject some guilt into this conversation.
This is can be a sticky situation, ethically speaking. How seriously should one take a friend’s dying wish– the last thing he/she has on this earth? Also, how much should one value an artist’s control over his/her own legacy? We’ve run into this with Hemingway, Dickinson, Austen, and more recently David Foster Wallace– all authors with writings posthumously published without or against said author’s wishes.
If we’re going to be utilitarian about this, we’ll say screw your feelings, One Person: this is to the potential enjoyment of millions. But maybe– every now and then– authors are reasonable in holding back work they consider unfinished or subpar…
So the archivists, scholars, and editors will pore over the manuscripts for weeks to compile Kafka’s lost works and journals. What if, upon the project’s completion, we received a public statement from the National Library of Israel that went a little something like this:
We thought we knew better than the great Franz Kafka, that these lost pages would form a lasting tribute to world literature and mankind, or at the very least be publishable by some conceivable standard. We assumed the author’s reluctance toward releasing his own work was merely the result of a self-defeating neurosis. This, we have learned, is not so.
These writings are bad. Very, very bad. The National Library of Israel has reached a scholarly consensus that Kafka was not only justified, but morally obligated in his initiative to destroy the entire volume.
After endless shifts of panning through dense, unreadable bilge for so much as a silver nugget of artistry that would never emerge, the Library now makes these previously unreleased writings of Kafka available to the enquiring public. Realize, however, that the Library does so only in acquiescence to overwhelming popular demand and the desire not to invalidate its expenditures.
The Trial 2: Double Jeopardy is scheduled to print in December, with a new introduction by Philip Roth.