When Franz Kafka was dying, he left very specific instructions: “Everything I leave behind me in the way of notebooks, manuscripts, letters, my own and other people’s, sketches and so on, is to be burned unread and to the last page.” Kafka was 40 at the time of his death from tuberculosis in 1924 and not yet a famous writer. He had published only two collections of short stories, one novella, and a few scattered texts in obscure Czech literary magazines, all of it to scant notice. Most of what we now know as the Kafka oeuvre—including all three of his novels and the majority of his short fiction—was marked for obliteration.
The person charged with executing this merciless sentence was Max Brod, Kafka’s closest literary friend. Both men had been denizens of a small but lively community of largely Jewish, German-speaking Czech writers known as the Prague Circle. The pair had met as students at Charles University in Prague in 1902 and bonded immediately; they traveled together, collaborated on an unfinished novel, and influenced each other’s writing in myriad ways. “We completed each other,” Brod later remembered, “and had so much to give one another.”
Brod, in particular, felt a “fanatical veneration” for his friend’s talent and took it as his mission to combat the depressive Kafka’s extreme reluctance to publish his work. “I wrested from Kafka nearly everything he published [during his lifetime] either by persuasion or guile,” Brod recalled. “At times I stood over him like a rod, drove him and forced him…again and again by new means and new tricks…. What mattered to me was the thing itself, the helping of a friend even against the wish of the friend.” When Kafka finally did publish a book—the 1912 short-story collection Meditation—Brod was there to give it one of its few reviews, which included the following statement: “I could easily imagine someone getting hold of this book and finding his whole life altered from that moment on, and realizing he would become a new person.”
This was the dynamic, then, between Kafka and Brod: the reluctant genius and the relentless promoter. Knowing this, Kafka’s infamous instructions look a little different—not proof of a perverse drive toward self-destruction so much as a final hedge. As Benjamin Balint notes in Kafka’s Last Trial, his new history of the writer’s legacy and the endless complications it has entailed:
It was as though even in self-renunciation Kafka was beset by indecision. He left the execution to Brod, the very man who since the beginnings of their friendship felt that Kafka’s self-condemnation was several shades too harsh.
Perhaps Kafka didn’t really want his work destroyed, but wasn’t sure that he wanted it published, either. Or perhaps he wasn’t sure what he wanted; or what he wanted was not to decide.
Such half-decisions and ambivalence are a recurring motif in the story Balint tells in Kafka’s Last Trial. The actors include not only individuals like Kafka and Brod and their heirs, but nation-states and scholarly institutions, each one jockeying for position and the moral high ground, denouncing the others’ intentions and telling different stories about what is really at stake. In this saga, moments of resolution and fidelity are rare. The norm is hesitation, equivocation, and ambiguity.