Manuscript extractions

We share Robert Bork’s view of the Israeli Supreme Court — that it is the most liberal, activist, interventionist thing in the Orion-Cygnus Arm of the Milky Way — & stood ready to condemn it with a jerk of our knee, until we realized that the offending Judgment came from the Tel Aviv district family court. This was to take Kafka materials left by Max Brod to his secretary, & by her to her two daughters, & put them instead into the Israeli National Library. They must now emerge from flat & bank vault into the light of academic day.

Franz Kafka died of tuberculosis in 1924. He told Brod to destroy all his manuscripts, unread. Brod not only published The Trial, The Castle, Amerika, &c, but made a good living from them until his own death in 1968. The bulk of Kafka’s manuscripts, including diaries & correspondence, has long since been published; what remains to transfer is mostly Brod’s own scholarly & personal scribbling. The international media characteristically omit that little fact, acknowledged by the court in the assignment of future royalties to the sisters. They will need this income to pay the huge legal fees of the people who took their property, while demonizing them, in a case smeared over five years.

Let us admit to being a voyeur, for we have copies of all three novels mentioned above on our shelves up here in the High Doganate; therefore we needn’t mount too high a horse in protesting that Kafka told Brod to burn them. Each is a strange masterpiece (Amerika the strangest), & each conducts us towards real insight into the nature of our modern age (including, in the case of Amerika, its optimism). One might say: Kafka did not foresee Hitler, Stalin, or Obamacare, but did see through them. He gives memorable form & tactility, even humour, to nightmares.

Kafka’s stories anchor below politics, & below the malignant bureaucracies he depicts, in nature herself; & deeper into a kind of theology. His inspiration is essentially Hasidic, but it is a Hasidism twisted. Tales that he loved have been metamorphosed, through a personality that is fundamentally neurotic, sometimes on the verge of schizoid. From this dark he is presenting, in the final twist, man’s relationship with an inscrutable God. Now that we have them, these books are worth keeping, though we should read them in light of Kafka’s own self-doubt. At bottom he did not trust himself; & these are not books for children, or for the spiritually immature.

Has the author of unpublished manuscripts the right to burn them; or direct them to be burned, as an extension of that right? We think, yes. We think, to deny this right, when the author is not demonstrably insane, is to make him a ward of the Castle.

In this case, owing perhaps to Kafka’s own genius for confusion, paradox reigns. He used Brod sometimes as if he were one of the mysterious Officials, to whom he only surrenders ambiguously. None of these novels were ever completed, & in his editing, Brod, with a genius of his own, shaped them to his own conception of what a novel should be. It is unlikely that the ambitious scholarly effort to disentangle Kafka’s work from Brod’s, will get us to a better place. (It anyway requires work on manuscripts which Brod deposited in places like Oxford University; he wasn’t so irresponsible as the media accounts imply.)

Kafka’s peculiar voice & vision are captured in Brod’s structures, but when they are let out, as for instance in Kafka’s Letters to Milena (the most married & intelligent of the many women with whom he toyed) we glimpse a side of him we don’t need to know. For here is a man addicted to brothels & pornography, now posing as a puritan ascetic — performing vain & deceitful acrobatics to impress a sophisticated woman who pretends to understand him. Another mistress will be an illiterate chambermaid, another an earnest village schoolteacher; he seems attracted to a physical type. His relations with his father are similarly unedifying. He is extremely articulate, but he is often articulating nonsense, even in diaries to himself. His avoidance of war service through a job in the government insurance agency turns the bureaucracy schtick at a revealing angle; & his remarks on contemporary politics are consistently fatuous. Charming, when he wants, but unbearably self-serving: we didn’t need to know more, & shouldn’t have sought it.

We made the same mistake the other day by obtaining a copy of the latest & grandest edition of Philip Larkin’s Collected Poems. The editor has diligently aggegated all the Larkin sources, especially Andrew Motion’s biography, & reprints juvenilia & scraps from notebooks together with his exhaustive commentary to make a very thick book from what was previously a slim one. The net effect is to diminish Larkin, to encumber him with things not so good. True, in the odd quoted remark or passage from his correspondence, he is large, but his own carefully edited opus made him larger. And the more our attention is directed to the circumstances of his life & compositions, the more it is sidetracked from poems that resonate beyond those circumstances.

The modern mind, buzzing with & bleating for distraction, cannot leave well enough alone. The courts now assist in this process. From more & more we extract less & less.