Kafka's Last Trial

Benjamin Balint

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20 September 2018
0 pages

When Franz Kafka died in 1924, his loyal friend and champion Max Brod could not bring himself to fulfil Kafka’s last instruction: to burn his remaining manuscripts. Instead, Brod devoted the rest of his life to canonizing Kafka as the most prescient chronicler of the twentieth century. By betraying Kafka’s last wish, Brod twice rescued his legacy – first from physical destruction, and then from obscurity. But that betrayal was also eventually to lead to an international legal battle over Kafka’s legacy: as a writer in German, should his papers come to rest with those of the other great German writers, in the country where his three sisters dies as victims of the Holocaust? Or, as Kafka was also a great Jewish writer, should they be considered part of the cultural inheritance of Israel, a state that did not exist at the time he died in 1924?

Alongside an acutely observed portrait of Kafka and Brod and the influential group of writers and intellectuals known as the Prague Circle, Kafka’s Last Trial also provides a gripping account of the recent series of Israeli court cases – cases that addressed dilemmas legal, ethical, and political – that determined the final fate of the manuscripts Brod had rescued when he fled from Prague to Palestine in 1939. It tells of a wrenching escape from Nazi invaders as the gates of Europe closed to Jews; of a love affair between exiles stranded in Tel Aviv; and of two countries whose national obsessions with overcoming the traumas of the past came to a head in the Israeli courts. Ultimately, Benjamin Balint invites us to question not only whether Kafka's legacy belongs by right to the country of his language, that of his birth, or that of his cultural and religious affinities – but of whether any nation state can lay calim to writers belong more naturally to the international republic of letters.

Thrilling and profound, Kafka’s Last Trial shines new light not only on the greatest writer of the 20th century and the fate of his work, but also on the larger question of who owns art or has a right to claim guardianship of it . . . [Balint's] research and lively intelligence deliver insights on every page.

Nicole Krauss

Though Benjamin Balint’s masterful hunt for Kafka’s rightful ownership begins as a local dispute in an Israeli Family Court, it soon thickens into modernity’s most bitterly contentious cultural conundrum . . . Searing questions of language, of personal bequest, of friendship, of biographical evidence, of national pride, of justice, of deceit and betrayal, even of metaphysical allegiance, burn through Balint’s scrupulous trackings of Kafka’s final standing before the law.

Cynthia Ozick, Orange prize-shortlisted author of Foreign Bodies