The Safe and the Suitcase: Salinger, Kafka and the Search for Lost Literary Treasures

on Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Call me morbid but I've rather enjoyed the saliva storm that has been whipped up in the wake of JD Salinger's death. The much-loved local grandpa, church bingo fanatic and incessant scribbler might have walked away from the limelight following the phenomenal success of Catcher in The Rye, but now that he's carked it the literary vultures seem intent on giving him a sky burial, with various chunks of his carrion being lifted up on high for all to see. I particularly had to smirk at the photos that have recently emerged in which the startled old codger (if it was really him and not, say, Thomas Pynchon) looked like a cross between Jed Clampett and the serial killer Ed Gein. Supposing for a moment it was Salinger, the guy in those pictures exuded an air of sensibility, clearly unwilling to buy into any cult of personality even if by doing so he might well have been be feeding it. The reclusive lifestyle, it seems, was nothing if not a further investment in literary immortality. Salinger surely knew the legacy he was leaving. Chances are he was at pains to control its construction, even from beyond the grave. Now, as I suspect he might have hoped, many have gone positively giddy at the prospect of an entire body of unpublished work, wondering what he left behind in his safe. The guy supposedly never gave up writing so one can only ponder the vast expanses of forest that have been felled over 60 years to service his typewriter. Add to that the fact that his later published works were infinitely better than Catcher (even if some pre-dated it), and there might well be something about which to get excited. The next few months will no doubt prove interesting as publishers descend on Salinger's kids with, I would wager, blank chequebooks, especially if dear old dad left instructions to destroy any manuscripts. Can they possibly resist the temptation that claimed the souls of Dmitri Nabokov and Max Brod?

When it comes to lost literary treasures, or at least the hope of finding some, Salinger's safe pales next to the contents of a humble, tattered suitcase recently the subject of a bitter legal dispute in Tel Aviv. For quite a while now, many have wondered what Franz Kafka's literary executor stuffed inside the case before gifting it to his secretary Esther Hoffe. When Max Brod died, Hoffe essentially became de facto executor. According to Brod's will she was supposed to make the necessary arrangements to have the contents catalogued and properly stored. Instead, she let them languish in her humid, cat-infested apartment (except the bits she tried to sell, of course) pretty much until her death in 2008. As if to slap old Max in the face one last time, she left it to her daughters who immediately saw fit to stuff whatever they could in various bank vaults around the world. Now, following a case that had almost nothing to do with Kafka but a lot to do with the Israeli laws of inheritance (think of it as an old fashioned custody battle perhaps), Hoffe's daughters have been ordered by the court to reach some deal with the National Library of Israel or have the suitcase (metaphorically speaking - I'm not sure the actual suitcase still exists) opened and catalogued without their consent. The Library successfully argued that Hoffe Snr had no right to gift the case to her daughters and it seems that whatever was inside will, one way or another, finally be set free. I'm not sure whether to be excited or mortified.

It is a sad fact that today's publishers are not averse to printing any piece of crap that Kafka committed to paper. He is an industry, a Che Guevara for the literary minded. Just spend a day in Prague and you'll see what I mean. Not that I can talk. On my Czech Literature shelf I have any number of volumes of pointless apocrypha, including a rather gorgeous edition of Kafka's professional legal writings. More the fool am I for treasuring it. See, even we cynics can't get enough, which means whoever gets ultimate possession of the suitcase (and we should probably be thankful that none of the players ever just threw out the papers and used it for travel or as a kitty litter tray) will have a pack of salivating hordes ready to lap up the remaining morsels. Speculation as to the contents has ranged anywhere from diaries, to correspondence to as-yet unpublished stories and novels. Personally, I'm rooting for shopping lists. Naturally, for the most part, all this imaginative sleuthwork is nonsense. Brod had those papers during his lifetime and, I am sure, went through them with a fine-toothed comb hoping to find anything he could salvage. Nothing escaped him. He even went so far as to finish works himself (Amerika being a prime example) if it meant he could squeeze one last drop of blood from the writer's gravestone. That said, and here comes my nugget of inside information, there were at least three short stories rejected by publisher Kurt Wolff before he accepted A Country Doctor which have still yet to surface. Wolff says so in his unpublished diaries. Even Saint Franz, it would seem, was fallible. Please don't stone me.

I dread to think then what is in the suitcase if it was rejected by both Wolff and Brod. I know there certainly once were items of importance. Hoffe was arrested numerous times for trying to smuggle or sell the odd bit. She even offloaded the original manuscript for The Trial to the German government for a measly 1.1 million pounds. Which means we can add Hoffe to the list of people who rejected the remainder. If that is the case, let's just hope that in some sort of homage to Gregor Samsa, nature saw fit to allow the silverfish to get to whatever is left before any Koruna-eyed publisher can. Either way, any treasure hunters will have to wait a little longer. The daughters intend on appealing the decision. Take that, literary futures market!


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