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the Complete Review
the complete review - legal / literary history


Kafka's Last Trial

Benjamin Balint

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To purchase Kafka's Last Trial

Title: Kafka's Last Trial
Author: Benjamin Balint
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2018
Length: 227 pages
Availability: Kafka's Last Trial - US
Kafka's Last Trial - UK
Kafka's Last Trial - Canada
  • The Case of a Literary Legacy

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Our Assessment:

B : solid overview of a fascinating case

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic . 9/2018 Adam Kirsch
The Economist . 12/1/2019 .
Financial Times . 15/3/2019 Guy Chazan
The Guardian . 5/1/2019 John Banville
Haaretz . 9/9/2018 George Prochnik
Literary Review . 12/2018 Kevin Jackson
The Nation . 29/10/2018 Evan Kindley
The NY Times Book Rev. . 28/10/2018 Lev Mendes
The Spectator . 5/1/2019 James Hawes
Sunday Times . 6/1/2019 John Walsh
Sydney Morning Herald . 4/1/2019 Marija Pericic
TLS . 1/3/2019 Gabriel Josipovici
Wall St. Journal . 27/9/2018 Ruth Franklin

  From the Reviews:
  • "In Balint’s account, however, the case involves much more than the minutiae of wills and laws. It raises momentous questions about nationality, religion, literature, and even the Holocaust" - Adam Kirsch, The Atlantic

  • "Mr Balint elegantly intercuts courtroom scenes with episodes from Kafka’s biography and cultural afterlife. He brings out every paradox of a judicial process that tried to tie down this most ambivalent of authors, the ultimate “disaffiliated pariah”, to a fixed identity." - The Economist

  • "Balint does a good job of weighing up the competing claims, and is careful not to get bogged down in legal details. What we get is an exquisitely human drama peopled with an eccentric cast of characters that beautifully evokes the early days of Israel, the sadness of the exiles, and the long shadow cast by the Holocaust " - Guy Chazan, Financial Times

  • "Benjamin Balint’s eloquent, insightful account of the long court battle over Franz Kafka’s literary remains, woven through with the story of that legacy’s formation, explores some of most challenging ethical problems of our time, while also sustaining the intrigue of a rich courtroom drama. (...) The most provocative questions posed by Balint’s book concern not just the ownership of truth, but truth’s transmission through time." - George Prochnik, Haaretz

  • "Of all the knotty literary, political, historical, and legal issues involved in the Hoffe case, Balint, who is an Israeli citizen, is clearly most compelled by the question of Kafka’s Jewishness, and what bearing it may have on Israel’s attempt to claim his work as a cultural asset.(...) Kafka’s Last Trial tells a sprawling, unwieldy story, and Balint is not to be blamed for all the confusions it presents, many of which are inherent to the material. But some of his structural decisions do make the story harder to follow. Chronologically, the book jumps around constantly, to disorienting effect. (...) Balint is also a far better literary critic than he is a legal historian: While he acquits himself well enough in sketching the general juridical context of Israeli law, he doesn’t seem nearly as interested in the finer points of legal argument as he is in overarching literary and theoretical questions, and his discussions of the lawyers’ statements and judges’ decisions are mostly perfunctory." - Evan Kindley, The Nation

  • "It is an unusual hybrid: part courtroom procedural, part double portrait of Kafka and Brod, part account of the postwar construction of Israeli and German national identity. (...) A gifted cultural historian with a scholarly sensibility, he is perhaps less suited to the role of investigative reporter. (...) Balint is more sure-footed when mining the legal drama for what he calls its "symbolic" resonances." - Lev Mendes, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Benjamin Balint’s Kafka’s Last Trial is a legal and philosophical black comedy of the first water, complete, like all the best adventure stories, with a physical treasure to be won or lost. (...) Balint’s book isn’t for the tiny world of Kafka scholars. It’s really a deep yet entertaining look at something we should all care very much about: the absurdity of our modern obsession with ‘authenticity’ and ‘ownership’." - James Hawes, The Spectator

  • "The focus of Kafka's Last Trial is on the court case itself, but the book is also a double-biography of Kafka and Brod. Balint uses letters and diaries to give a fascinating account of their friendship, careers, and relationships with women. (...) This lends the book a broad scope, but the constant jumping back and forth between cities and centuries can feel jarring, and the chapters that explore the trial weigh heavily on the narrative; partly because of Balint's meticulous attention to detail." - Marija Pericic, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "Unfortunately, where what was needed was a simple and clear exposition, Balint chooses to adopt a journalistic tone he imagines will make his book more exciting (...), and he makes a confused story more confusing by cutting between the past (...) and the present (...), so as to ramp up the tension. His text, moreover, is replete with sentences of dreadful banality (...), and strewn with minor errors which suggest a rather thin grasp of the twentieth-century cultural background" - Gabriel Josipovici, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Mr. Balint takes an evenhanded approach, offering so many caveats to the claims made by both Marbach and Israel that it’s impossible to tell which side he favors, if either." - Ruth Franklin, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Franz Kafka's close friend Max Brod (in)famously did not follow Kafka's explicit written instructions to burn "unread and to the last page" all his unpublished work (i.e. practically everything) after his death. Instead, Brod became a very pro-active literary executor, seeing to it that Kafka's work was published and playing a pivotal role in shaping the author's legacy. As Benjamin Balint notes in Kafka's Last Trial:

     To the degree that Kafka's reputation rests on texts he neither completed not approved, the Kafka we know is a creation of Brod -- in fact his highest and most enduring creation. [...] (W)ithout Brod, there would be no Kafka. We cannot help but hear Kafka's voice through Brod; whether knowingly or not, we read Kafka Brodly.
       When Brod finally left Prague, in 1939 -- apparently literally on the last train -- he carried with him a whole load of Kafka-papers, including manuscripts. A great deal of this important Kafka-material wound up in the possession of Esther Hoffe, who was also Brod's heir and the person he appointed as his literary executor. Upon Esther's death -- at age 101, in 2007 -- the state of Israel contested her will, specifically regarding the material she had gotten from Brod (some of which, complicating matters, he had gifted her long before his death, while the rest was willed to her); this included Brod's manuscripts and letters, but of course what they were really after was the invaluable Kafka-material. The position of the state was that the literary Brod-estate was not hers to dispose of as she wanted; Brod's two wills (dated 1948 and 1961) both expressed the wish that his literary estate be placed in a suitable library (suggesting some in Israel/Palestine ("or abroad"), but leaving it fairly open) -- but neither of them explicitly mentioned the Kafka-material. (Brod was a prolific and popular writer and his literary estate was significant even without the Kafka-material -- but it's pretty clear all anyone cared about was Kafka's papers.)
       This issue had been adjudicated previously, after Brod's death in 1968, the state of Israel petitioning in 1973 for possession of the Kafka manuscripts; those proceedings ended with a ruling against the state, and allowing: "Mrs. Hoffe to do with [Brod's] estate as she pleases during her lifetime". With Esther's death, the state believed they had a second shot at getting their hands on the prized papers -- and, indeed, they were ultimately successful, as their case made its way through the courts before the Supreme Court finally upheld [English translation apparently not yet available] the judgments in their favor, in 2016. Not only was it determined that Esther was only the caretaker, as it were, of the Brod estate, during her lifetime -- and hence her heirs were not entitled to it (though they were the beneficiaries of any income resulting from it, royalties and the like) -- but that the National Library of Israel was the appropriate repository for the papers. (Brod's 'gift' of the Kafka-papers to Hoffe was determined not to be properly completed, i.e. that material was never truly transferred to her possession.)
       Balint makes the case that what was at issue here wasn't merely the legal issue of who the property belonged to, but rather a much larger one of: "Who owns Kafka ?" (As far as the property and the court cases went, a lot of this was, of course, about who owns Brod -- the bulk of the material at issue, after all -- but no one really cared about that stuff.) Esther Hoffe had sold some of her holdings -- notably the manuscript of The Trial, which wound up at the German Literature Archive Marbach -- and both Marbach and the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford already had large holdings of Kafka material, and it was suggested that Marbach would be a suitable repository; Marbach was represented in some of the proceedings but did not actively seek possession (and some argue they were used as a pawn -- the argument being that if the estate didn't go to the Israeli National Library it would be sold off to foreign (and likely this foreign, i.e. German, i.e. the former Nazi place) interests).
       The ownership question, both broadly and narrowly, has been a complicated one from the beginning, beginning with Brod not following Kafka's explicit instructions and actually simply getting rid of the papers. Brod had received some material from Kakfa as personal gifts over the years -- material that was clearly his -- but the bulk of the interesting material was that which he collected -- acting as literary executor at the behest of Kafka's parents -- after Kafka's death. (Balint notes that Kafka's sister, Ottla, apparently deeply disapproved of Brod not following her brother's wishes and publishing his work.) The gift-that-wasn't-a-gift (in the eyes of Israeli law) to Esther Hoffe complicated the legal-possession question, but beyond that there are more questions of who Kafka belongs to -- the Jewish author who didn't explicitly deal with Judaism in any of his writing; the German-writing author; the Czech author .....
       In presenting this story, and discussing the issues it raises, Balint moves back and forth in time, from the decade-long recent legal fight, featuring Eva Hoffe (one of Esther's heirs, and the more active one in this affair), to Kafka and Brod and their relationship, and then Brod's time in Israel. Balint provides a good deal of information -- especially about Brod, the far more successful author in the Germany of their time (even as he was quickly eclipsed and his own work is largely forgotten and out of print) who also recognized Kafka's talent and was a tireless supporter and promoter of Kafka, during Kafka's lifetime and then especially afterwards.
       Balint also points to the complexity of the identity-issues raised by the circumstances and case -- notably that for all their embrace of Kafka as Jewish personality and figure, interest in Kafka's writing -- much less scholarly engagement with it -- has always been fairly limited in Israel:
Kafka never became part of the Israeli canon, or of the project of national revival. There has never been a Kafka cult in Israel, as there was in Germany, France, the United States, and elsewhere.
       From a scholarly perspective, Marbach is clearly much better-equipped to deal with Kafka's (and Brod's) papers, but as Balint notes, that was barely a consideration. (As to accessibility and the greater good, Esther Hoffe had also been a terrible guardian of the papers, making them more or less inaccessible to scholars for decades.) Nationalism -- and especially the fraught German-Jewish question -- of course also hung over and influenced the case, with Kafka sort of the ultimate symbolic trophy -- as Balint explores well.
       While Kafka's Last Trial covers almost every angle and perspective on the larger questions and the essential events well, the presentation is less straightforward than one might wish. Balint begins with what has become all too standard in this kind of story, a chapter dealing with the near-conclusion, Eva Hoffe in court in 2016 -- 'The Last Appeal'. The next chapter jumps back to 1902, and Brod and Kafka's relationship, before leaping in the next chapter to the beginnings of the court case, in 2007. And so on, back and forth in time, constantly shifting focus.
       Given the complexity of the legal case, it would have been helpful to set out the facts at issue from the outset; as is, a lot of details are only introduced very late on. Balint clearly doesn't want this to be *simply* a legal story, and presumably that is why he takes this approach, but the result is a bit of a muddle -- it can be hard to piece together exactly what the points of (legal) contention are. (An English translation of the Supreme Court's final judgment as an appendix -- rather than just Balint's selective summary -- would also have been welcome .....) Balint does present much of the relevant information, but the book is pulled in a variety of directions, and both with regards to the legal issues and many of the personal details it feels like there are gaps. So also his focus is much more on defendant Eva Hoffe, rather than Esther -- presumably also for those bits of living color that are meant to add a journalistic human touch to the narrative ("The next time we met, her hair had grown out somewhat, but a thin film of melancholy seemed to coat her blue eyes").
       Ranging widely, and having spoken to and getting quotes from many of those involved in the many different aspects of the case, Balint does present a great deal here, and much of it is of considerable interest. The question of 'who owns Kafka', in its different senses, and also how literary legacies in general are handled, are treated well here. The presentation can be a bit frustrating -- and some of the preparation of the book seems to have been a bit hasty, such as in deciding whether to go with end- or foot-notes (and then more or less splitting the difference -- not always neatly: an endnote on page 78 is then largely repeated as a footnote on page 80) -- but then it is a lot of material, and difficult to arrange as a coherent whole.
       Balint mines this fascinating case for all it's worth, and that's more than enough to make for an interesting book. He recognizes the far-reaching implications of the unusual case -- beyond the strictly legal aspects --, and discusses most of these very well. There's certainly a lot more to be said and argued about, but Kafka's Last Trial is an engaging starting-point and certainly well worth reading.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 September 2018

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Kafka's Last Trial: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Author Benjamin Balint was born in 1976.

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© 2018-2019 the complete review

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