Friday July 31, 2015
The False Equivalence of Max Brod in the 'Go Set a Watchman' Debate
Last Friday I posted on Facebook what I thought was a rather straightforward Joe Nocera column on the publication of Harper Lee's long-held manuscript, “Go Set a Watchman,” the forerunner to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Nocera goes over the agreed-upon facts, connects the various Murdoch-Empire dots (the book is published by Murdoch's HarperCollins and was defended in Murdoch's Wall Street Journal), and reaches his conclusion (it's all a rather shoddy business).
Turns out, to some, the issue isn't that straightfoward.
I'm actually shocked by the number of people—writers even—who are pro-“Watchman” publication. One posted the same column and then wrote that what he finds offensive about columns like Nocera's is the notion that we should never make available unfinished or previously unpublished works of an artist. Which isn't Nocera's argument at all. His argument is specific to Lee's case.
But the main point pro-publication folks make is this:
What about Kafka?
Here's the short version of that story.
Franz Kakfa died in 1924 at the age of 40. On his deathbed he told his friend, contemporary and literary executor Max Brod to burn all of his previously unpublished works, which included the novels “The Trial,” “The Castle” and “Amerika,” as well as numerous short stories, letters, and diaries, but which did not include “Metamorphisis,” which was published in 1915. Brod didn't do as Kafka wished. For the next decade, Brod published most of Kafka's oeuvre and made him famous; in essence, he made him one of the great writers of the 20th century.
So if Brod hadn't ignored Kafka, no Kafka.
And if Tonja Carter, Lee's current literary executor and guardian, hadn't ignored Lee's lifelong wish to not publish anything after “Mockingbird,” then no ... Well, no “Go Set a Watchman.” A book that is getting mixed reviews and ringing up record sales.
Here's the difference. Brod preserved Kafka's work because he considered him an artist of the first rank. Carter, et al. are publishing “Watchman” because there's money to be made.
To put it in modern terms: Kakfa wasn't a brand before Brod; but Lee has been a brand since 1962. And now that Lee is incapacitated, the Powers that Be are monetizing her. That's why it's a shoddy business. There are ethical gray areas for Brod but none for Carter. There, it's all green.
Franz Kafka in 1905. We'll always have “Metamorphisis.”