“I’ll go get Kafka. A literary investigation”: who owns Franz Kafka?

One hundred years after Kafka wrote that he wanted them burned, his manuscripts are now the property of the National Library of Israel. After being saved by his friend Max Brod, who was also his executor, a refugee in Palestine during the Second World War, they languished for decades, with dozens of cats, in the apartment of Esther Hoffe, the heiress of Brod, and her daughter, Eva.

After completing a doctorate on the philosophical interpretations of Kafka’s work, Léa Veinstein needed to put the complete works of the unclassifiable author in her own suitcase and start their journey again. I’ll go get Kafka. A literary investigation, published by Flammarion, is the result of this quest.

To follow Kafka is to advance on the narrow ridge of a paradox. It means facing headwinds for eternity. It is also confronting the identity drama of a German-speaking Jewish writer, born in Prague well before the height of Nazism, attracted by the Judaism abandoned by his parents. Through her book, Léa Veinstein addresses questions that will forever remain unanswered. Did Kafka really want his friend to burn his manuscripts or was it more of a kind of literary posturing? Did he write it knowing full well that Max Brod would not resign himself to it? And then, was Kafka, who never knew Palestine, much less Israel, himself a Zionist?

“Kafka likes contradiction,” she notes in a telephone interview. I have the impression that it is a driving force for him and that, in fact, he suddenly gives up on resolving it. »

Of Kafka’s will, she says: “During Kafka’s lifetime, he and Max Brod had this conversation. Kafka told him he was going to leave this request to him [de brûler ses manuscrits]and Max always told him that he would not obey it […] Kafka still wrote it in his last wishes, knowing that Max Brod would not carry them out. And I wondered, it’s a hypothesis, if it wasn’t a bit like that Letter to fatherthat is to say documents which are in this kind of ambiguity, where we do not know if we are in literature, that is to say in a kind of fiction, in a literary text. she specifies.

Many have called Max Brod a traitor to Kafka, she notes, but the fact remains that, without him, the world would not have been able to read Kafka.

In 2018, the latest trial surrounding Kafka’s works was highly publicized in Israel. Like her mother Esther, Eva Hoffe, who needed money, tried to put up for sale some of the Prague author’s manuscripts, which she had jealously kept at home for years. The library in Marbach, Germany, was interested in the transaction. Didn’t Kafka write in German? It was this transaction that was blocked by Israel, in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, and from which the State of Israel emerged victorious.

A man without a flag

The affair plunges to the very heart of Kafka’s identity dilemma, which he also seems to have given up on resolving. In a letter addressed to Max Brod, where he addressed his condition as a Jewish and German-speaking writer, Kafka wrote: “Am I a circus rider mounted on two horses? Unfortunately, I don’t look like a squire, and I’m lying on the ground. »

“I have the impression that he had given up on taking a clear side,” continues Léa Veinstein. It’s true that he’s always in a sort of toss and turn. He is always in contradictions, and moreover the characters in these novels are often in contradictory situations. »

In his time, Kafka had plans to go to Palestine, but never carried it out. At that time, “when we talk about Zionism, we are talking about a political idea which was moreover rather shared by left-wing, even far-left, circles,” explains Léa Veinstein. It is the imagination of the kibbutz, of the community. […] It is a political ideology to which he was close through his associations, through the circles of left-wing Jewish intellectuals in Prague, which he frequented when he was a student.”

Kafka, however, admitted to being both “fascinated and disgusted by Zionism.” What would he have thought today of being officially part of the “heritage” of the State of Israel, where he has obviously never set foot?

Citing the American philosopher Judith Butler, who wrote on the subject, Léa Veinstein notes that Kafka’s work is entirely marked by “non-belonging”. “Her texts are places where no one can ever arrive anywhere, much less establish themselves,” she writes. Kafka writes in an undermined style, but also carried by incompleteness, and we would read it as a serious misinterpretation by wanting to plant a flag there, or anchor it in any territory whatsoever. »

A childhood nightmare

It was at the age of nine that Léa Veinstein met Kafka for the first time. His photo adorned a postcard, balanced unsteadily among the books in his father’s office. After being haunted by this black and white character in her nightmares, she ends up turning the postcard over to realize that there is nothing written behind it. It was the beginning of a long relationship between her and the writer.

In her book, she continues to weigh and weigh the paradoxes that underlie Kafka, to ask whether, yes or not, the place of his manuscripts is in Israel, whether, yes or not, he would have felt there in his ease. She arrives successively at one conclusion, then at another. “I am my own tombstone,” wrote Kafka. One hundred years after his death on June 3, 1924, he alone seems to be able to write his own epitaph.

I’ll go get Kafka. A literary investigation

Léa Veinstein, Flammarion, Paris, 2024, 320 pages

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