Saturday, July 3, 2010

July 3rd, Franz Kafka's Birthday - by Louise Tripp

Allow me to present to you an outstanding example of why I sometimes, in true super-nerd fashion, find research so surprising and exhilarating. In celebration of the birthday of Franz Kafka, the German-Czech author most famous for The Metamorphosis (as well as The Trial, which was later made into a film by Orson Welles), I wanted to write a little about him. Only, aside from his work, I didn't know much – so I turned to my trusty friend, Google. Google led me to my other friend, Wikipedia and there I found out a great deal about Kafka: that he grew up in a middle class family, that he worked as a law clerk and as an insurance officer at different times in his rather short life (he died at 41 of tuberculosis), that he was a libertarian socialist and, most interesting of all, that most of his work was published posthumously and against his wishes. The friends and former lovers he had left his diaries, letters, manuscripts, etc. with defied his last request for them to destroy them – but imagine if they hadn't?

This is where research took a turn: I followed a link on Wikipedia to a 2008 article on the UK newspaper, The Guardian's website. There it was reported that the remains of Kafka's estate were soon to be uncovered after spending years in the hands of Esther Hoffe, former secretary and alleged lover of Kafka's literary executor and friend, Max Brod. According to The Guardian, “the night before the Nazis entered Prague, Brod fled the city with two suitcases containing what he could of the estate.” Later, he gave most of the manuscripts to the Oxford University library. The rest he left in Hoffe's care and she hoarded them in her clammy apartment until her death at 101, despite urging by publishers and researchers to turn them over for more suitable keeping. Besides the treasured documents, Hoffe apparently also hoarded cats and dogs and her apartment in central Tel Aviv was described as “damp” - so there might not even be anything salvageable.

Because that article had been printed in 2008, I wanted to find something with more up-to-date information. I went back to Google and looked for “Franz Kafka estate, Tel Aviv.” What I found was this: as of May of this year, Hoffe's daughters and The Israel National Library are still in an ongoing trial. The trial is to determine the “real owner” of the estate and manuscripts and if it “was proper to allow it to be kept in private hands, away from the public eye and in inadequate conditions or should be moved to an archive.”

I'm interested in seeing how this turns out. One thing is for sure - that's some legacy. 86 years after his death, scholars and fans of Kafka are still itching to learn more about the mysterious author and the work that he requested be burned. 

Louise Tripp grew up in North Carolina. She currently lives in Chicago, where she is revising her first YA novel and working in a public library.

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