Column: Kafka and Unprinted Works

July 22, 2010

I think that one of the things I like most about the world of literature is that it seems that there is always some new discovery to be had. On one hand, there are the everyday discoveries that come from those who frequent the book fairs and thrift stores, perusing the shelves and trying to find a rarity that has gone unnoticed. For me, it’s the art of shifting through used books at Powell’s to find the best condition for lowest price, but for others it’s an art form and an obsession (not necessarily in that order).

And then on the other we have the discoveries of the lost works, some manuscript or archive that the publisher forgot about or the writer just misplaced. These works are the stuff of legends – the suitcase of notebooks Ernest Hemingway’s wife lost on a train to Geneva, or the safe deposit box where Truman Capote reportedly stashed the completed “Answered Prayers” to “be found when it wants to be found.” These don’t turn up nearly as often, but when they do it’s an event for celebration, one that gets literary scholars and masochistic English teachers equally excited.

This week saw one of these epic finds, with the announcement that safe deposit boxes in a Zurich bank have opened containing thousands of manuscripts by the legendary German author Franz Kafka. The boxes apparently contain letters, journals, sketches and drawings, many of which were never published either during Kafka’s life or after. With a group of German literary experts on hand to verify the work’s authenticity, it seems more than likely we are to be smote with many new metaphor fists in the near future.

Or are we? This is Franz Kafka after all, who when dying of tuberculosis in 1924 had only one request for his friend Max Brod: “Everything I leave behind me [is] to be burned unread.” This request included his novels “The Castle,” “The Trial” and “Amerika,” as well as multiple short stories and countless letters and diary entries. As should be entirely obvious, Brod ignored his friend’s request, arguing that that Kafka never would have made the request if he thought Brod would follow through with it. However, in not doing so, he touched off one of the most ironically Kafkaesque legal battles in recent literary history, with Brod’s daughters and the Israeli government locked in ownership debate. Even now, Eve Brod has petitioned the Israeli court to keep the contents of the box secret, while Israeli newspaper Haaretz has asked the court to allow publication based on literary value.

That debate will have to play out in days and weeks to come, but the discovery of these works does beg the question, brought to my attention by the Facebook feed of Powell’s Books. If we’re confronted with a find like this, something the author may have never meant the world to see, do we honor their wishes and toss it into a bonfire?

Being a rather liberal sort when it comes to the distribution of thoughts and words, I always err on the side of the latter. When a find like this is announced, the mere fact of discovering it changes the game immediately, removing it from the realm of Schrodinger’s manuscript and into the world of “coming attractions.” Interested parties, from critics to fans to booksellers, want to expand their world with the new discoveries, and those worlds are ones that are never satisfied with their additions. One need look only as far as bastions of literacy like The New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker, regularly commissioning very long, articulate pieces on authors’ collected letters and new editions that are as much review as authorial study, works that keep critics employed and are a joy to read. When measuring this against what an author wanted to do, the author loses.

But the fact that it was Kafka’s dying wish? Well, you can debate the merits of how much Brod really thought he was doing the right thing by his friend when he chose to publish the works against his wishes, but there’s an even bigger fact contradicting those wishes in the here and now: Kafka is dead. When alive, he certainly had every right to burn work he felt he was unsatisfied with (I could fill six notebooks with the ideas and articles I’ve cast into the abyss) but there’s a term limit on that right, expiring when the author does. You can’t take it with you, as the saying goes, so any conscientious author looking to keep their work out of the public eye needs to take that into their own hands.

And this isn’t on behalf of profit on the part of the finder/executor, or some obsessive-compulsive need to get the full picture on an author’s life, but on the grounds of aesthetic interest. If you discover the work of an author, and that work is something truly well-crafted, distinctive or even genius, that work deserves to be brought to light. A writer who enjoys even a sliver of recognition in their lifetime is one who belongs to the ages after they die, and that means whatever they left behind is there for us to interpret and shape.

So I can only hope that the judge sides with Haaretz and other petitioners and allows these volumes to spill into the public sphere – as Victor Hugo put it, “One withstands the invasion of armies; one does not withstand the invasion of ideas.” And if the judge doesn’t, well, that will just add to the mystique surrounding the contents until the next challenge comes up, and further complicate a situation that is both ironically, and appropriately, Kafkaesque.

Les Chappell is a warrior of words taking a stand. Those who wish to stand with him or oppose his free spirit may contact him at