In an unstable world, anticipating a war that would leave its mark on a whole century and in the dusk of an intellectual class struggling to express itself, Franz Kafka seems the most prominent writer to convey the zeitgeist. This uneasy feeling is probably best described as “kafka-esque”. It is therefore astonishing to read his private conversation with his favourite sister Ottilie, where he pens trivial lines about luncheons and price of hotel rooms, sends his love to mother and father, and encourages them in their business ventures. These pieces stand in distinct contrast to his literary works including “The Metamorphosis”, “The Trial” and “The Castle”.
For the first time, two international institutions have joined forces to beat the open market and secure literary heritage for the general public. The joint acquisition of Kafka’s letters to his sister by the Bodleian library in Oxford and the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach earlier this year is a dream realised for literary scholars.
As the Golem is to old Jewish mythology, private investors are the demonic forces in an open market that weigh down national institutions when it comes to the auctioning of documents and subsequent deprivation of society’s communal heritage. In 1987 this was the case with Kafka’s letters to Felice Bauer, which were lost to the public as they disappeared into the hands of a private buyer.
It is due to careful negotiations between two national institutions, financially supported by both public and governmental funding, that the letters to Ottilie were saved from the same fate and remain accessible for a wide readership. The purchase is duly celebrated by an exhibition both in Germany and in England, as well as in the launch of related literary projects which will further investigate Kafka’s writing and his personal background.
However, international scholarship should not rest on its laurels. Capitalism is a system that shows no mercy to human heritage unless it can turn it to profit. We have to acknowledge that in our globalised age, national cultural institutions have lost their power to private, multi-national investors. Their only chance of survival is to become global players themselves – hence, the cooperation between Oxford and Marbach could be taking a step in the right direction.
There is an increasing need to establish international networks to protect and share common literary legacies; however, this incorporates a wider problem of modern historiography. In our Postmodern world, we decipher the past from a multitude of angles using a wide range of sources, whose character has greatly changed over the past two centuries. Whilst 19th-century scholarship heavily relied on official documents and statistics, historians in our age have begun to explore private life more closely. Letters are one of the main resources which give us an insight into everyday life in the past. They are one of the multiple gateways into the hearts and minds of other generations because they present the most private thoughts and secrets of these people.
Great knowledge can be extracted from this study but at the same time it presents one of the most problematic aspects of modern scholarship. Today, our generation tear down the boundaries of privacy by making our lives public on television or the internet, whilst past generations considered their intimate communications, such as letters or diaries, as untouchable. This is especially the case with an author like Kafka. His literary works only survived because his friend Max Brod disregarded his wish to destroy all of his writing.
By studying Kafka’s letters, we penetrate even further into a strange and private world which some people might consider a “forbidden fruit”. We might be tempted to eat from the tree of knowledge but we have to be aware of the consequences: The way we read people from the past, future generations will read us.
“Liebe Ottla” is at the Bodleian Library until 30 October 2011