2024/03/04 - 04:57

Marianne Steiner dead

Niece of Franz Kafka who helped to preserve his papers and advised many biographers and scholars

Marianne Steiner, who was a niece of Franz Kafka, played an unassuming but ultimately decisive part in securing Kafka’s reputation as one of the great writers of the 20th century. Being one of the few survivors of the family, numbers of whom had been annihilated in the Nazi death camps, she provided a vital link between Kafka’s own roots, the community of Prague German Jews, and modern scholars.
In the Cold War, when Kafka’s books were banned in Prague, and Prague was almost wholly inaccessible to Western academics, it was Marianne Steiner, as the only member of her family living in the West, who assumed responsibility for her uncle’s literary heritage. By her personal intervention in preserving Kafka’s papers for the public in the form most suitable for study, she enabled the editing of his work to be placed on a secure footing. Through her memories of her uncle and his family, she provided an inspiration to many biographers and scholars. And in her own remarkable person, she was irreplaceable as a witness of Kafka’s vanished world.
Marianne Steiner’s life was intertwined with that of her famous uncle. Kafka’s doomed courtship of Felice Bauer, which inaugurated his major phase as a writer, may in part have been prompted by the engagement of Marianne’s mother, Kafka’s second sister Valerie (Valli), to Josef Pollak. The night after the couple’s first visit to the family, on September 22, 1912, Kafka wrote his uncanny story The Judgment, in which the hero’s engagement provides the motor for the plot. When Marianne’s parents married, as his diary records, it was Franz Kafka who made the wedding speech, and later it was in their apartment that he began work on The Trial.
Marianne Pollak was born in Prague. When she was seven, as his diary records, Kafka saw her take part in a Purim celebration — a Jewish feast day particularly associated with children. He noted “her upright walk, short black hair”, and a newspaper reported on the “crisp and clear account of the Purim story by the clever Marianne Pollak”.
In 1923, when Kafka was already suffering from advanced tuberculosis but was attempting to set up a new life in Berlin with his young lover, Dora Diamant, he wrote a long letter to Valli, in which he thanked Marianne and her younger sister for their letters to him: “It’s strange how their writing, placed side by side, represents perhaps not the difference in their character but the difference between their bodies”. As to Marianne, he asks “What is she reading?”, “Is she still dancing?”, “Does she still wear glasses?” In her mid-eighties, Steiner treasured a newly discovered Kafka reference to the “little Marianne”. She herself recalled such details as how “pointed” her uncle’s knees had seemed to her as they walked across Prague’s Old Town Square. More significantly, she disputed Kafka’s view of his father as an “ogre”, and her recollection has been widely accepted by scholars, who claim that “Kafka’s father was really quite ordinary”.
The Kafka scholars who made the transition from the first phase of his reception, based on the views of Kafka’s friend and first editor, Max Brod, to a more objective approach, all owe a large debt to Marianne Steiner. Klaus Wagenbach, Kafka’s first scholarly biographer, Hartmut Binder, the indefatigable commentator of all aspects of Kafka’s life and work, and Sir Malcolm Pasley, doyen of Kafka editors, all acknowledge her assistance. Similarly, American Kafka studies, via Walter Sokel, and the French reception of Kafka, through Marthe Robert, were enriched by her. Even the latest generation of Kafka scholars continued this tradition, notably Hans-Gerd Koch, the new lead editor of the critical edition.
Marianne Steiner’s most important contribution lies in her rescue of Kafka’s manuscripts. Max Brod had taken most of them with him when he emigrated to Palestine. Alongside those which he regarded as his property were the great majority which properly belonged to the family. At one time there was a danger that they might be dispersed at auction. At another, it seemed that Kafka’s publisher, Salman Schocken, wished to retain them for his own collection.
But thanks to Marianne Steiner’s perseverance — and through the mediation of Malcolm Pasley — an appropriate home for them was found in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, where they form the basis for the great critical edition of Kafka’s work. They will shortly be reproduced in a new facsimile edition. Not wishing to profit from them, Steiner bequeathed her own third of Kafka’s papers to the Bodleian.
Her life was a succession of unusual stories. She was a noted Prague beauty. When she was about 16, a young man boasted that he was taking her out. “We’ll see about that,” another youngster replied. George Steiner, as he was called, wooed her and won her, and their teenage love became a lifelong partnership.
They married in 1935, their son Michael was born in 1938, but in 1939 the family fled to England from the Nazis. George Steiner lost his security as the junior director of an elegant Prague clothiers for the uncertainties of exile, working at the BBC World Service.
After the war, during which Marianne’s parents and Kafka’s other sisters had died in the camps, the Steiners returned to Prague to set up a new life. However, with the advent of Communism in 1948 they escaped to England again, living in strait-ened circumstances until George found success as an executive at Marks & Spencer. Later, he devoted himself to Amnesty International.
One of the more curious episodes in Marianne Steiner’s life involved a meeting in London with Kafka’s last mistress, Dora Diamant. She often wondered whether a child had resulted from this liaison. Had Dora concealed a pregnancy? If there was a secret, Dora took it with her to the grave.
Marianne Steiner’s features recalled her uncle’s, and she shared his honesty, his clarity, his passion for truth. She was noted for her wit, her courage and her tolerance. And her personal warmth was tinged with the wry sobriety, so common among the Prague Jews, that enabled her to thrive even in exile.
Yet although she became to some degree anglicised, her circle of friends had a Central European bias. It included the emigré publisher Pavel Tigrid, who became Czech Minister of Culture after 1989; H.G. Adler, the noted Prague-born Holocaust scholar; and the Czech documentary film-maker, Mirek Lang. Claudio Magris, the chronicler of The Habsburg Myth and The Danube, also beat a path to her door.
Though an intensely private person, she grew into her public role, taking part in an Austrian television programme after The Trial manuscript was sold at auction for £1 million in London, and attending as a guest of honour the opening of an exhibition devoted to it at the German Literary Archive in Marbach. On November 7, the day before she died, a long television interview with her was screened in Prague.
Throughout the Cold War the Steiners maintained contact with other Kafka scions, especially Ottla’s daughter, the editor and translator Vera Saudkova, and in her later years, after her husband’s untimely death, Marianne’s family, including grandchildren and great-grandchildren, were her greatest joy.
Marianne Steiner is survived by her son, who recently assumed responsibility for Kafka’s estate.


Marianne Steiner, niece of Franz Kafka who helped to preserve his literary legacy, was born in Prague on December 19, 1913. She died in London on November 8 aged 86.

(From: The Times, Copyright 2000 Times Newspapers Ltd.)

Revision: 2021/01/09 - 23:40 - © Mauro Nervi

Top Back Print Search Sitemap Tip Login