The long road to Franz Kafka's vault

After a court ruling, our image of the man behind the iconic literature may soon have to change.

The literary archive of Franz Kafka has been locked away for the best part of a century. This week, in an attempt to resolve an acrimonious dispute between his heirs and the Israel National Library, the Israeli Supreme Court has forced it into the light.

Manuscript experts acting on court instructions have been examining the contents of 10 boxes of papers and drawings stored in Israel and Switzerland. As they were opening the first container in Tel Aviv, Eva Hoffe, one of the elderly sisters who claim ownership of the archive, is said to have burst into the bank where the box was stored shouting: "It's mine, it's mine", and trying to prevent those assembled from looking at the documents.

The fact that this grimly comic scene followed years of legal wrangling and perhaps the overweening exercise of court authority has inspired some observers to pronounce the entire situation Kafkaesque. Is it really, though? The idea of Kafka as the prophet of bureaucratic menace, of the bumbler caught between the gears of fate, is more deeply entrenched than the popular stereotype of any other writer. Kafka the concept stands alone, as underspecified and suggestive as one of his own characters. "He is more than a man of mystery - he's metaphysical," Zadie Smith wrote in a recent essay in the New York Review of Books. One might even suggest that there's something vaguely Kafkaesque about the way in which his human complexity has been stripped away.

Certainly the attributes of the historical man, recited by Smith in the same essay, are jarring to contemplate: "Over six feet tall, handsome, elegantly dressed; an unexceptional student, a strong swimmer, an aerobics enthusiast, a vegetarian; a frequent visitor to movie houses, cabarets, all-night cafés, literary soirées and brothels; the published author of seven books during his brief lifetime; engaged three times (twice to the same woman); valued by his employers, promoted at work."

In the presence of his writing, these humdrum biographical details fall away. Yet the collection of papers that the Israeli Supreme Court has claimed as part of Jewish heritage could create even greater cognitive dissonance when they collide with the author's established image. Who knows what kind of writer he might turn out to be when we can examine the great unseen bulk of his work? His nachlass could be full of bawdy limericks and imitations of John Buchan. By the time the investigators have finished, the notion to which Prague's most famous son lends his name might, like Gregor Samsa waking after uneasy dreams, have acquired a strange new shape.

On the other hand, there is at least something recognisably Kafkaean about the cycle of frustrations through which the case has advanced. It is one of the great near-misses of literary history that Kafka wanted to destroy the trio of novels on which his reputation now rests. The Castle, Amerika and especially The Trial are among the foundational works of Modernist high culture, anticipating in their elusive way the sinister and bureaucratic absurdities of the 20th century. Yet their author was convinced that they were failures.

He published only a handful of stories before his death in 1924, at the age of 40. When he left his literary archive - "everything that can be found in my posthumous papers" - to his friend Max Brod, he gave the explicit instruction that the whole collection should be "burned unread". To the mingled gratitude and censure of posterity, Brod ignored this request. He prepared texts for the three novels ("prepared" here indicating an active process of revision and interpolation), and issued them on consecutive years following Kafka's death. The Trial came in 1925, followed by The Castle and then Amerika. A few collections of intensely personal letters emerged later. The rest of the archive Brod kept among his own secret papers.

In 1939, the Nazis were closing in on Czechoslovakia. Brod, himself a prominent Jewish author, fled for Tel Aviv in what was then the British protectorate of Palestine. He carried Kafka's documents with him in his briefcase, mixed up with his own. In the 1950s, as the Suez crisis loomed, Brod sent part of the collection to Switzerland for safekeeping. A little later he donated the manuscripts for The Castle and Amerika to Oxford University. And then, in 1968, he died.

Brod was survived by his partner of 30 years, Ether Hoffe, who had also once been his secretary. Among Brod's bequests to her was his remaining share of the Kafka archive, now distributed between Israel and Switzerland. If the academic world was expecting more access under Ms Hoffe's stewardship than it got during Brod's, it was disappointed. Hoffe sat on the collection for nearly two decades, declining, apparently without excessive politeness, the requests of scholars who hoped to inspect it. It was 1988 before anything significant emerged, and then only when she put the manuscript copy of The Trial up for auction. Here the Israel National Library enters the story, though hardly triumphantly. It lost out, ironically enough, to the German government, which paid nearly Dh7.3million for the text.

Little else escaped Ms Hoffe's transnational network of safety deposit boxes and bank vaults. She died in 2007 at the age of 102 and the legacy passed to her daughters, Eva and Ruth. And so the Israel National Library (INL) decided on a different approach for the remainder of the archive. It launched a lawsuit to contest the execution of Esther Hoffe's will, claiming that Brod had always intended for the papers to land in its possession. This line of argument appears to contradict a 1974 Tel Aviv District Court interpretation of his will that found that Brod had left the collection to Hoffe as a gift. If correct, that would suggest she could do with it as she chose, including leave it to her daughters. They in turn could negotiate to sell it, for instance to the library's old nemesis, the German government, as Eva Hoffe was apparently trying to do before the court weighed in. But, as the INL's chairman David Bloomberg reportedly said this week: "The library does not intend to give up on cultural assets belonging to the Jewish people." And it didn't give up.

A lawyer representing the INL argued that Brod's will was superseded by a later instruction, now lost. The Tel Aviv Family Court insisted that the entire collection should be examined before any decision could be reached about who owns it. The wheels of justice grinding slow, a year passed before the ignominious scenes at that Tel Aviv bank, where an overwrought Eva Hoffe reportedly tried to block the court officials as they opened the first box.

Their examination continues. In a last-ditch attempt to maintain control over the archive, Hoffe requested a gag order on the documents so that word of their contents should travel no further than the investigators. The court rejected her application and ordered her to pay the INL's costs. And so here we are, on the threshold of revelation. During the coming weeks, we can expect the first detailed inventory of Kafka's oeuvre. Reports from Israel already suggest that the collection includes at least one handwritten short story by Kafka that has never been seen before. One can't help wondering how closely it echoes, in mood if not content, the preceding narrative.

Yet surely the more thrilling possibility is that it shows us an entirely new dimension to Kafka. We already know that Brod exercised considerable editorial control over the texts of the three novels that we have. In The Trial, for instance, he created much of the atmosphere of mounting dread by virtue of the sequence into which he put Kafka's disordered material. Zadie Smith wrote: "If it feels like a journey towards an absent God - so the argument goes - that's because Brod placed the God-shaped hole at the end."

Brod also wrote Kafka's first biography, establishing the mythic frame through which Kafka's work has been read throughout the last 60 years. Kafka the shy mystic, the perfectionist, the metaphysical ironist, smiling "a smile close to the ultimate things" as he put it. It will be fascinating to see how this enigmatically smiling author looks when his middleman is finally out of the way. Who knows, perhaps recent events won't seem so Kafkaesque after all.