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Franz Kafka: Should we have never known him?

Franz Kafka told his friend to burn his work. His friend did not follow Kafka's instructions, but should he have?

By Contributor / July 3, 2013

A tourist focuses his smartphone on a statue of famous German-language writer Franz Kafka in central Prague July 3, 2013, on the day marking the 130th anniversary of his birth in the Czech Republic's capital.

Petr Josek/REUTERS

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Franz Kafka had been diagnosed with tuberculosis. He had only a slim file of work (throughout his life he burned most of what he had written) and now that he was dying, he wanted what remained of his work to be burned as well. So he gave it to his friend.

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“Dearest Max, My last request: Everything I leave behind me … to be burned unread,” he wrote to his friend Max Brod, in 1924.

But Brod did not burn anything. Instead, he published “The Trial” and “The Castle,” and in 1939 he packed up the rest of the now precious writing in suitcases to take to Palestine, after the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia.

The contents of those suitcases, which passed next to Brod’s secretary and then to her daughters, would become the subject of a legal battle fraught with ideological overtones: The Israeli National Library sued for the rights to all the writing; the daughters say they legally inherited them; and the German Literature Archive, which bought some of the letters from the daughters in auction, said they owned what they paid for. In 2012, a Tel Aviv court ruled in favor of the Israeli library, and the decision is under appeal.

So now many people believe they own Kafka. But before all that – before Kafka belonged to anyone but himself; before Germany reminded us that Kafka wrote in German; before Israel noted that Kafka was Jewish; before “Kafkaesque” was levied as a critique as against various institutions and governments and ideas – should Brod have burned his friend’s writings?

Should we have never known Kafka at all? 

“My decision . . . rest[s] . . . solely on the fact that Kafka’s unpublished work contains the most wonderful treasures…I must confess that this one fact of the literary and ethical value of what I am publishing would have been enough to decide me to do so, definitely, finally, and irresistibly, even if I had had no single objection to raise against the validity of Kafka’s last wishes,” wrote Brod.

That has been the usual argument for posthumously publishing an author’s left-behind writing: it would be a public disservice not to.

Vladimir Nabokov had said he wanted his last novel destroyed if he died while writing it – which he did. But in 2009, his son, Dmitri, published 138 notecards from his father’s unfinished novel as "The Original of Laura," ceding to public interest in the author’s last words.

Ernest Hemingway also stipulated that he did not want his letters published; in 1981, two decades after he committed suicide, his wife published some 600 of them.

In both cases, and in many others, the authors’ wishes were clear: Burn. Do not read.

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