Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Literary Archives

People who control information wield a great deal of power, whether to manage the historical "truth," legal rights, or literary legacies—as Elif Batuman’s piece in the Sunday Magazine of the New York Times on Franz Kafka’s papers and the international disputes over who owns them attests.

Batuman, a Russian literary and language scholar (as well as a damn good writer), points out that those
in possession of the Kafka papers are “doorkeepers” who provide (or chose not to provide) access to Kafka—whose story isn’t “owned” by any one person, but owned collectively (well, maybe). In this case, two elderly sisters inherited the papers from their mother, who in turn had inherited them from Kafka's friend and sometimes editor, Max Brod. They have the papers, and the sisters have over the years allowed a very few scholars and institutions glimpses of these very sought-after documents.

Her piece is like a modern day Bohemian/Czech/Israeli/German remake of Henry James’s short story "The Aspern Papers." Here an unscrupulous literary biographer gains access to the household where the last manuscript papers of “the poet” reside.* (It's a convoluted story--like any Henry James story, and it's complicated to briefly summarize--so bear with me
, or read the "cliff notes" version on wikipedia). The ruthless biographer lies his way into the confidence of an old woman and her ward and then rifles through her ancient love letters in the night to gain access to the last biographical papers that he hasn't readabout the “the poet.”

The biographer might have justified his actions in the same way the National Library of Israel claims Kafka’s papers: the papers didn’t really belong to the woman (who, like
the elderly women in possession of Kafka’s papers, lives in squalor), they belong to the world. The fact that these women (fictional and real) couldn’t care "properly" for these valuable literary documents—in houses full of cats or moldy Venice apartments, or whatever kind of domestic disarray is necessary to justify archival intervention—is only part of the story of how literary legacies are shaped by individuals and collecting institutions.