Elif Batuman writes in the New York Times Magazine today (“Kafka’s Last Trial”) about the legal tussles over the one-third of Kafka manuscripts that didn’t end up in Oxford, but rather in the hands of Brod’s former secretary, Esther Hoffe, in Tel Aviv. You’ve probably seen a couple of articles on the same subject recently, but this one features an appearance by one of the original Microscript decipherers, Bernhard Echte, as well as a cameo by our man RW, or rather by one of his books:
The incompleteness of the inventory [of Brod's secretary's archive] leaves many questions about the contents of the estate. The answers may well be in a more thorough catalog compiled in the ’80s by a philologist named Bernhard Echte, now the publisher of Nimbus Books in Switzerland. Copies of Echte’s inventory, which lists some 20,000 pages of material, are closely guarded. Heller has been trying vainly to get one for years.
Echte, the rare scholar whose brush with the Kafka papers doesn’t seem to have injured his sense for the magic of literary discovery, is also the only interviewee in this story who described Esther Hoffe with genuine warmth. Echte told me in an e-mail interview that Hoffe “really tried to fulfill Max Brod’s will because she admired and loved Max Brod like a young girl (and I liked her very much for it).” Although her preference for “books with a good and interesting story” led her to find Kafka “strange,” Echte said, she nonetheless recognized Kafka’s importance to world literature and was prevented only by old age from placing the papers at Marbach. Echte fondly recalled “all the discoveries we made — Mrs. Hoffe and me.” Inside “quite a normal folder” for example, they found “two or three sheets of paper with Kafka’s last notes from Kierling,” the sanitarium where Kafka died. In Zurich, they unearthed a letter that Kafka sent to Brod in 1910, enclosing two birthday gifts: “a small stone,” still in the envelope, and “a damaged book” — which turned up two years later at Spinoza Street and proved to be a novel by Robert Walser. Other treasures that Echte described to me included a copy of “Tristan Tzara’s ‘Première Aventure Céleste de M. Antipyrine,’ the first Dada publication, with a personal dedication of the author to Kafka. Imagine that!”
It was nice to see Echte, recognizably the same good-natured fellow who observed that he enjoyed meeting Walser fans because they are “kind people inclined to self-irony.”
But what book was it, do you suppose, that Kafka gave to Brod? In 1910, I could have been any of the volumes published before that date, including:
Fritz Kochers Aufsätze (1904)
Geschwister Tanner (1907)
Der Gehülfe (1908)
Jakob von Gunten (1909)
Perhaps we’ll know someday, when the letters are published.