Wordplay: Even Kafka's Stories Come to an End

With the legal procedures relating to the future safekeeping of Kafkas manuscripts nearing an end, this is an auspicious time to recall the beginnings of this whole literary saga.

One-hundred years ago today, on October 19, 1912, in Munich, Germany, a publisher dispatched the following letter to one of his writers: "Thank you for your letter of yesterday; today I will give instructions to the printers to begin work immediately."

The publisher was Kurt Wolff, who at that time worked for Rowohlt Verlag. The author was Franz Kafka. And the book sent to print on that day was his very first one (a few short works appeared in literary periodicals in 1908-9 ): "Betrachtung" (Meditations), a collection of 18 small prose pieces.

The Tel Aviv District Family Court's ruling on Friday that a collection of manuscripts written by Franz Kafka and Max Brod will finally be transferred from private hands to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem couldn't have come at a better time. With the saga of Kafka's and Brod's manuscripts nearing a (hopefully happy - but for whom? ) end, it is an auspicious time to go back to the beginning of the public and published aspects of this story, a century ago.

Wolff (who left Germany in 1930 and eventually moved to the United States where, in 1942, he established Pantheon Books ) wrote in 1965, that his first encounter with Kafka "impressed itself on my memory with almost uncanny clarity."

Max Brod, who was associated with Rowohlt in Germany, brought a friend to the publisher's offices in Leipzig on June 29, 1912. Wolff writes in his memoirs, published first in German: "May Max Brod forgive me for what I am about to say, since I'm the last person who would want to diminish the incalculable service he performed for his friend, both during his lifetime and afterward - but in the very first moment I received an indelible impression: The impresario was presenting the star he had discovered."

What of the "star"? Wolff continues: "If the impression was embarrassing, it had to do with Kafka's personality; he was incapable of overcoming the awkwardness of the introduction with a casual gesture or a joke. Oh, how he suffered. Taciturn, ill at ease, frail, vulnerable, intimidated like a schoolboy facing his examiners, he was sure he could never live up to claims voiced so forcefully by his impresario. Why had he ever got himself into this spot; how could he have agreed to be presented to a potential buyer like a piece of merchandise! ... I breathed a sigh of relief when the visit was over, and said good-bye to this man with the most beautiful eyes and the most touching expression, someone who seemed to exist outside the category of age."

Five years after "Betrachtung" was published, in November 1917, Kafka wrote Brod that "102 copies ... sold in 1916-1917, an amazingly high number." Wolff quotes that letter in his memoirs - when the word "Kafkaesque" was already a fairly common adjective, used even by those who had never read a book by Kafka - but notes that the first run of 800 copies was in 1917 far from being depleted, adding: "Exceptions exist, but as a general rule one can predict that the success of a book which on first publication goes straight to the top of the best-seller list will be short lived. If, on the other hand, such a success develops years or even decades after first publication, it promises to be long lasting."

Wolff was the only person who published Kafka during his lifetime (he also published "The Castle" in 1926 and "Amerika" in 1927, both heavily edited by Brod, after the author's death in 1924 ). "One can say without exaggeration that everything published by Kafka during his lifetime failed to attract public notice," Wolff wrote.

That sentiment further highlights the immense service Brod did to both his friend and to world culture, by his blatant disregard of Kafka's unequivocal instructions: "Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me... in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others' ), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread .... Yours, Franz Kafka"

Brod did read - and decided not to burn - Kafka's manuscripts. Indeed, Brod spared no effort to ensure that the writings were read and appreciated. In 1925, he convinced the small avant-garde Berlin publisher Verlag Die Schmiede to publish "The Trial." In the afterword to that edition, he wrote: "My decision [rests] simply and solely on the fact that Kafka's unpublished work contains the most wonderful treasures, and, measured against his own work, the best things he has written. In all honesty, I must confess that this one fact of the literary and ethical value of what I am publishing would have been enough to make me decide to do so definitely, finally, and irresistibly, even if I had no single objection to raise against the validity of Kafka's last wishes."

That is how Kafka's masterpieces were saved from the flames (although he himself apparently incinerated most - some say 90 percent - of his writings ) the first time around. And although his name is often mentioned nowadays in the lists of authors of books burned by the Nazis (in Berlin, on the 10th of May 1933 and in many other places both before and after that ) - according to Arthur Samuelson, publisher of Schocken Books, New York (on the occasion of the printing of the 2002 edition of Kafka's writings in English ): "Kafka's works were not well enough known to be banned by the government or burned by nationalist students." Indeed, his name is not on the long list of authors and books targeted for destruction that appeared in a piece called "Principles of the Cleansing of Public Libraries" in the German financial newspaper Buchhandel on May 16, 1933. It is, however, on the much longer "list of harmful and undesirable writings" compiled in 1935.

Despite the specific circumstances surrounding Jews and books in Nazi Germany (when some publishers fled Germany and others were prohibited from printing books by Jews ), Max Brod managed to prepare and see to the publication of his friend's novels, stories, letters and diaries published, in a collected edition by Schocken Verlag. Founded in 1931 by department store magnate Salman Schocken, this small publishing company - exempt from the ban against publishing Jewish authors, on condition that its books be sold only to Jews - had already published the works of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, as well as those of the Hebrew writer S.Y. Agnon. Brod offered Schocken, the grandfather of current Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken, international publishing rights vis-a-vis all of Kafka's works. Kafka's widely published and translated works, especially the English translations - in addition to the Schockens' part in that story - deserve a separate article.

But the current, legal part of the story does not concern publishing rights, since Kafka's works are now in the public domain. It is all about ownership of the manuscripts, and not only Kafka's, but Brod's as well.

British publisher Frederic Warburg (who published English editions of Kafka's novels during the heavy bombing of London in World War II ) mentions in his book "All Authors are Equal" (he was also George Orwell's publisher ) an anecdote involving Brod, Kafka and their manuscripts. He attributes this story ("for whose authenticity I do not vouch" ) to Hannah Arendt, but does not provide a source. In it, Brod is strolling down a Prague street, a few days after Kafka's death, and meets a literary editor ("Let's call him Rudi," writes Warburg ):

Rudi: "You look sad, Max, indeed we are all sad at the shocking news of poor Kafka's death."

Max: "... my friend Franz placed on my shoulders a heavy burden. Franz has given me instructions that I am to burn all his unpublished work, all of it."

Rudi: "Well, you must burn it, then, as Franz wishes."

Max: "It is not so easy, my friend. I have read his work, his novels and stories, all of it. These are masterpieces. How can I burn them?"

Rudi: "Masterpieces, you say. Then you must not burn them, Max. You must have them published."

Max: "Against dear Franz's wishes, Rudi?"

Rudi (thinks hard, then in an emphatic voice ): "I have it, Max. Publish Franz's work and burn all your own."

“Betrachtung,” Kafka's first book, published in 1912.
A plaque in Prague.