Open-ended drama: The search into the Kafka legacy

Book review: Benjamin Balint does a fine job of bringing a fascinating story to light.

Tags: kafka
Dr. Inna Rogatchi

OpEds Balint

Kafka’s Last Trial is a rare book. Benjamin Balint has proved himself a fine observer of multi-dimensional dramas, shrewd thinker, and very able writer. There is much more in this not so long book of 275 pages: many fundamental questions raised there; several remarkable characters brought to public life from oblivion; painful dilemmas examined. The narrative sustains a high rhythm which, in accord with unfolding dramatic events, keeps your eyes gleaned to the volume. Balint’s book is the kind of book that makes you feel tangibly sorry that it has to end.

The events described there could be characterized as dramatic, painful, some of them outrageous and some others even as nasty. But the author, an American from Seattle who lives and works in Israel as a library fellow at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, never loses his temper. He shows an admirable constraint, his stand is mild and respectful towards all the partiesm although his own positionm despite being expressed subtly, is quite clear to an attentive reader.

This alone is a substantial achievement - especially, as this book has brought out and discussed quite complicated matters of a world-class importance. This book is a serious contribution into matters of the literary world's  - and therefore, the cultural world's - legacy.

The book is about the destiny of Franz Kafka’s archive. The battle over it at its last stage took over 10 years and was resolved, finally, in the autumn of 2016. The chronicle of that very case alone would make an attractive report. It is not every day when the destiny of a cultural treasure of a highest importance is resolved in court-rooms, and  when it takes so many years and such efforts.

But Balint decided not to walk an easy but all too predictable path. He saw into the process deeply and brought out a conglomerate of issues which are not discussed publicly on a daily basis, but which are quite essential.

In this book, on which Balint worked for four years, he examines the characters of the people involved, including Kafka and Marc Brod themselves, and those who were related to the drama, such as Esther Hoffee, the keeper of the Kafka archive since 1968, after the death of Brod, and both her daughters, the late Ruth and Eve, who believed that the archive belonged to them after the death of their mother in 2007. All the other people appearing in the book - German archivists and Israeli lawyers, professors and critics, each and everyone, are also presented masterfully.

Both seeing deep into people and portraying them tangibly is a measure of a writer's craft. Benjamin Balint assures his place in the top echelon of the present day literary critics and writers through his second book which combines elements of professional historical and literary research, glimpses of philosophical analysis, and vivid psychological portraits. The first and the last components are presented in Balint's work almost perfectly.

The element of a philosophical quest could be done in a more articulated way, theoretically speaking, but then it would change the character of Kafka's Last Trial from a current read for everyone into specialist literature, and this is not the purpose that Benjamin had in mind working on this complex project. Given the importance of having top-class research and the original psychological story of the unique cultural and literary phenomenon unfolded before as wide a public as possible, doubly so in our largely abbreviated Instragram world, I fully understand the choice made by the author and his editors.   

To me, the strength of this book is the array of questions it originates: what one does with the legacy of such a giant of literature like Kafka? How is it possible that his archive had been effectively sealed for 95 years, almost a century, after his death? Why was he punished with this imposed silence for so long? What about the legacy and archive of Max Brode, so special a figure in the cultural and literary history of the XX century? Why he was punished with his archive being effectively sealed for 50 years, a half of century after his death?

What were the details of life of the people like Brod, German-speaking intelligenzia - and mighty intelligenzia - who had to run for their lives from Germany and Europe, and were living in so drastically limited capacities after it? How are we to preserve and to nourish - and be nourished by -  the knowledge and talent of the kind of people like Brod and his contemporaries and friends who were under circumstances which are far from Europe?

But why allow geography to decide on such essential matters as culture and civilisation? Would we learn from that devastating drama of Max Brod, the guardian of the Franz Kafka archive, and the archive’s drama - or Kafka’s spirit in it, actually? Would be learn to be attentive, understanding, interested, appreciative - and thus become mightier and richer culture-wise? With books like Balint’s study on the people and circumstances around Kafka’s archive, I dare to hope that we will.  

The book is elegant its structure and style. Balint shows writing maturity, high level thinking, observation and vision, and craft in expressing it all.  As soon, as I started to read Kafka's Last Trial, I was wondering if the rights for the film had been bought already: The book’s composition is a very good film’s outline, indeed.

We are traveling in time from one chapter to other,  from Vienna and Berlin in early 1920s to Israel today, as well as back to the 1940s, 1950s and 1970s; from London in 2009 to Prague in early 1900s, from Zurich in 2016 to Germany just after the end of the WWII . This change of scenery throughout the book not only helps to keep its pace and grabs the reader’s interest, it is also fully cinematographic, in the style of the top of  the French classic film noir.

Benjamin Balint had told me that indeed, he did visualize a lot of the narrative of his book. Is it his way of working? Is it the result of many years of hard work concentrated on the project? Could be both, I guess.  But the result is the top professional level in both literature and cinematography reading of it, and it breathes master-craft.

In his studies of  Kafka and importantly post-Kafka multi-dimensional phenomena, the author is clearly fascinated with the meaning of ‘last’ - and applying the term to almost every chapter in his book, emphasising his focus: Last Son of Diaspora, The Last Train,  The Last Appeal. Among fifteen chapters of the book, nine have ‘last’ as the accent of their titles. It sets the disposition of the author - and his readers, and it also brings more focused interest and human warmth into the scientific process. People always are more keen to look into the ultimate things; and we are more compassionate when we know that we are reading, thinking and discussing something that had ended.

Admirably, the author does not force his reader to accept the writer's own view and answer. He definitely knows the measure in balancing the way for his reader to form his own opinion, his own conclusion. The distance between an author and his reader is a classic, but not an easily achievable, quality of books. I do think that the Benjamin Balint's position towards both his subjects and his readers is essentially respectful and thus fully respectable, too. It provides you with a possibility to breath in your own travelling through the maze of facts, circumstances, suppositions, interpretations, and feelings. It entitles you to your own conclusions. And it can be done by a person who is quite confident in his own knowledge and who is not interested in imposing his opinion onto others.

The amount of work invested by Balint in this project,  and the knowledge he possesses about it are the result of his 4-year old efforts, that have been amalgamated into the confident, thrilling, but not imposing narrative. In the end of the Kafka's Last trial reading, we would like to know more, to understand some aspects better, to think about the topics which have been not elaborated in full detail in the book, but which were mentioned by it  and have started to loom now, after the utterly sad, and fully dramatic story of the written heritage of Franz Kafka ended 72 years after his death. What can be better than such an outcome - a book on history of culture?

It is no surprise to me that the book causes significant international interest: and that after the American edition, there are British, German, Dutch, Hungarian, Russian and possibly more editions on the way in many countries where people would certainly appreciate the book’s quality and be gripped by its narrative and its drama.

I personally am awaiting the film based on the Benjamin Balint’s book - I am positive that it could be the same gripping, as the book. And so many people world-wide would be taken by the story of the legacy of the man who unnerved the tragedy of the XXth century in words - before it all had happened.

Inna Rogatchi © October 2018

Editor's note:The book was launched on November 6th in Jerusalem. The Russian translation of the book has just been launched at the Non-Fiction Moscow Book Fair, the largest such fair in the world. Author Benjamin Balint is in Moscow now presenting his book as an official guest of the Israel Embassy in Russia and Ambassador Gary Koren Russian interest in the book in Russia is very high.