I am not at all sure when I first met Siegfried Unseld, whether at my first Frankfurt Book Fair, in 1964, or only later. However, since I, by 1966, was Suhrkamp scout, chiefly of course for books published in the United States, the meeting must have occurred during those two years. However, I visited Germany, if only for a month or so, nearly every year from 1964 until 1980. If I do not recall the exact year or day, I do very much recall that, typically, the first meeting was also a meeting of enthusiasms, in this instance for the work of Hans Erich Nossack. – It might of course also have been over Hesse, since by the end of 1964 I had translated three Hesse titles – but the only time the name or the title of a Hesse book came up between us was in regard to contractual matters, as editor at Farrar, Straus & then as the Suhrkamp agent, as of 1969 -- Hesse, who made everything else possible, or at least easier. In that instance, however, my enthusiasms would have been selective and not necessarily included all the books that I translated, which did not convince me that, stylistically, Hesse was not without serious occasional weaknesses. Yet the first meeting probably did take place in 1964. I was working as a translator, of those three Hesse titles, for Roger Klein at Harper & Row, of a number of titles for Fred Praeger, and as free lance journalist, for Partisan Review, and, importantly and interestingly, as scout for Seymour Lawrence, first for him at Atlantic Monthly Press, and then for Knopf when Sam became editor in chief there, a transition that occurred while I was traveling, visiting German publishing houses. I was part of Sam’s baggage and was glad of it. I was living the first three months of this my second return to the country of my birth in a village in the vicinity of Bad Godesberg, at the edge of a forest, and therefore first explored the publishing houses in that vicinity, Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Dumont, Luchterhand, etc; and read and read, galleys and published books. Thence on to Hamburg, where an aunt – the kind of aunt who was famous for not taking any gaff from famous and powerful men, and so earned their appreciation - made for a fine introduction to Ledig Rowohlt, through whom I then met Fritz Raddatz and Inge Schoenthal who later married G. Feltrinelli, and who seems to have been something of a publishing groupie for a time. Through Raddatz I met Juergen Becker and Hubert Fichte, and I recall an unusually decadent evening in St. Pauli. So all that wasn’t just a rumor! Juergen became a friend, and Fichte might have become an FSG author had it not been for one particular sharpshooter there.
Rowohlt, for lack of a German literature program, had an Austrian literature program, and so I became acquainted with the Wiener Gruppe who seemed to be working in a vein that, best as I could tell, linked up both with Russian formalist and French pre-war experiments. I recall that somewhere down the line I signed a contract for Ossie Wiener’s Die Verbesserung Mittel-Europas on a napkin with Ledig Rowohlt at Harry’s Bar in Frankfurt – Ledig was my kind of publisher, he turned that aspect of publishing into my kind of fun. Becoming a Suhrkamp Agent in NY, and successor to Joan Daves, and dealing with Helen Ritzerfeld and Siegfried Unseld, unfortunately was nothing like that, although in some respects their contracts were of lesser value than anything that might have been scribbled on a napkin that dissolved in water. The first publisher of Heine, there were a number of other interesting houses in Hamburg. Besides, the aunt was married to the chief bureaucrat of the Senator of Culture; the Senator might change every couple of years, the bureaucrat didn’t. In Berlin, the city of my birth, I had another relative, Ursula von Krosick, who owned a bookshop, of the kind where you could also sit in a corner and read, which proved extremely useful in my familiarization process. Also, I knew Uwe Johnson, having interviewed him in New York back in 1961, and Uwe proved very informative for my scouting trip to the Aufbau Verlag on the Franzoesische Strasse – I have made an account of that, to the Johnson estate, the first visit to a DDR publisher by any kind of American literary scout. Aufbau sent all the East German books we had discussed to my pied de terre near Godesberg; and so I became acquainted with the permitted literature. A close reading, via a revision of the translation of The Third Book About Achim, had prepared me well, had sensitized me to that political dimensions of the everyday, and my eye for East Berlin. - Actually, Uwe Johnson was not the first Suhrkamp author with whom I became personally acquainted. That was Hans Magnus Enzensberger whom I also met in 1961, at Ruth Landhoff-Yorck’s on Cornelia Street, in The Village. Ruth was a friend of my mother’s, who must have met her through Graf Yorck, the man who had married Ruth so that she could leave Germany and enter the United States, safely; though for all I know she and my mother knew each other from pre-1933 Berlin days. And Graf Yorck was a relative, and a member of the circle that had been involved in conspiring against Hitler, as had my mother Alexandra [Lexi] von Alvensleben. Ruth, a relative of Bermann-Fischer, of course had the most impressive lineage of all: spending your childhood on the laps of authors such as Thomas Mann, beautifully drawn by Kokoshka as an exquisitely featured 16 year old, the lines holding firm well into old age, with Kenward Elmsly, a Pulitzer heir, as her Maezaen she made believe that the young people she surrounded herself with were the successors to the famous circle she had lived amongst in Europe – Lanford Wilson, Paul Foster, Ellen Stewart/La Mama, in whose presence she died of a heart attack, fittingly at a performance of Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade. Enzensberger was most approachable, a good listener, unoffputting, unGerman, if I hadn’t by then I would shortly after read, and with pleasure, his early poems. Later, I took a couple of books of his essays along on a six months trip on a freighter and translated and then published them, they proved very useful in my haphazard political education. He was an enviably brilliant essayist in those days, a bit too parti pris perhaps, but if not wouldn’t you become mealy-mouthed? However, I do not recall special mention being made of Suhrkamp, or of any publishing house at those gatherings at Ruth’s, except possibly of the pre-war ones. Yet I was making my own acquaintance with them as a reader for a variety of NY publishing houses, for Tom Wallace [nee Wallach in Vienna] who was then at Putnam’s, for Fred Jordan at Grove Press, it was Fred [another Viennese, whom I might have met as a British soldier near Bremen in Spring 1945 had fate so willed it] who introduced me to Uwe Johnson; for Fred Praeger, where my uncle George Aldor was the chief financial officer, [Viennese & Budapesters respectively and ex-OSS officers both] and for George Braziller, my friend Robert Phelps introduced me, and so I became aware of a literature of which I might have been a part had I not, nearly 13 years old, emigrated in 1950, a literature of which, however, no mention was made, or scarcely any, at graduate school, which for me had been Stanford University. So, with a decent working knowledge of pre-1933 20th century German literature, I was beginning to have some feel for what was contemporary by the time of my second lengthy return to Germany, in 1964; during my first return, to the Universities of Munich and the Free University in Berlin in 1956-57, with stays in Paris, Venice and Dubrovnik, I had become familiar, chiefly, with the German theater and with Brecht and Lukacs’ work. My never completed doctoral thesis had been on the work of Robert Musil. If I hadn’t found life in a German department to be so quickly asphyxiating I might have become a teacher, something I enjoyed. However, I had an altogether second side to me, I had been a double major, in English and contemporary American literature – my freshman year might have been called Faulkner, my sophomore year Kafka - and if I’d gotten a scholarship to the writing department at Stanford I would have chosen that over being a Germanic taxidermist. After exploring Berlin, the clockwise route of my first scouting expedition took me to Munich where I made the particularly pleasant acquaintance of Klaus Piper; probably I also met Schlotterer of Hanser; I forgot who else, but Munich is rich in publishing houses, or at least it was then. As mentioned previously, at Frankfurt I suddenly found myself to be working for Alfred Knopf, Inc, which, to use a very current word, I found awesome. And no doubt I stopped by Suhrkamp Verlag - where at the very least I must have met Helen Ritzerfeld - the United States Suhrkamp agent, Joan Daves, I of course already knew, as I did the few other agents who handled German publishing houses, Sanford Greenberger, Max Becker [who for a while became my agent and affiliated me with that great code cracker Ladislas Farago], all of them Jewish emigrants in New York, and Kurt Bernheim, who became my favorite among these fine, patient professionals. Only with this backward glance do I become aware of the dimensions of these various inter-relations in which I was feeling my way. It might be noted that the interest in German language postwar literature still suffered severely from the aftermath of World War II. The politics of the Third Reich, memoirs, and books for warriors were another matter. Another way of trying to pin down that first meeting with Dr. Unseld is to mention that I, in my capacity as Suhrkamp scout, in mid-1966 approached Farrar, Straus, who after that first meeting offered me a job as editor for German books [far too impressive a firm for me ever to have applied directly now that I, freshly married, seemed to require something other than the haphazard income of a variety of freelance assignments - I was also editing a magazine, Metamorphosis, at the time – and during certain, now invaluable-seeming stretches, was also a first reader for the Book Find Club and for Columbia Pictures [through my Trotskyite friend, the novelist Danny Gordon, who ran that shop that, in recompense for galleys, supplied Publishers Weekly with its initial short blurb announcements of forthcoming titles!]; and for a time the Suhrkamp engendered affiliation with F.S.& G. was no doubt the most fortunate result of all this scouting activity. I had been to the Gruppe 47 meeting in Princeton, I had done a long interview with Peter Weiss that was published in Partisan Review, my friend Fred Seidel and I had given a big party for Peter Weiss…. Pannah Grady, Jakov Lind & I had given a party for the Gruppe & American writers whom we knew at Pannah’s splendid place in The Dakota. So there was a social dimension to all that as well. At Princeton, sitting next to a famous Spiegel reporter, I heard Peter Handke’s critique, and it subsequently surprised me that something that would have been considered pretty normal in an American creative writing class became a cause celebre. My hunch is that that first real encounter with Siegfried Unseld, over Nossack, happened at Princeton. I suppose it can be dated if there is a record somewhere of my scouting agreement with Suhrkamp. It was a rather simple scouting agreement, it paid me $ 100 a month, and for that I made suggestions in three categories: A – you must publish or I quit; B=serious consideration; C=interesting, have a look. Robert Lowell was an A, who scarcely required it; so was Donald Barthelme; Susan Sontag, the one book author Leonard Gardner’s Fat City which John Huston filmed, xxx, and Joan Didion were Bs and, and except for xxx, a mistake on my part, they were all turned down, due to Uwe Johnson best or worst as I then found out. On reflection, it certainly can be to the advantage of a publishing house to listen to its authors, especially when they are positively inclined, but if their taste is too limited, too uncatholic, in the embracing sense, giving them veto power can prove deleterious, as using Johnson in that fashion, certainly proved to be; as especially Juergen Habermas’, perhaps because it did not involve matters literary; or Handke’s or Martin Walser’s influence, best as I could judge, had positive effects. Publishers need to have a bit of a promiscuous streak. However, in listening so closely to his most important authors, in making them into an editorial board so to speak, Siegfried Unseld obviously took greater advantage of talents that are frequently superior to those of those small publishers who are called editors than those American publishers whom I knew did only incidentally. A good deal of the interesting action in the U.S. at that time was at Farrar, Straus, the publisher of a lot of books I recommended for optioning; however a lot of German publishers had scouts in New York, or their agents were their scouts; and those German publishers depended on translations from the American for their programs. Rowohlt and Kiepenheuer in particular were strong as I recall. Klaus Piper would bring out a really good bottle of wine and, touchingly, ask if I could not find him one of those great American best sellers! Fritz Molden, someone who had returned to Vienna, lived off his U.S. contacts; George Weidenfels, the Sidney Greenstreet of publishers I may be calling him unfairly. Far racier action was of course to be had at Grove Press. As scout I also made the acquaintance of American agents, Candida Donadio, with whom and Robert Lantz, I would never have guessed at the time, I would represent Suhrkamp at some point; and of Lynn Nesbitt, who represented some of the more interesting younger American writers of those days. The work at F.S.G., except for publishing Hesse during the American Hesse wave, and Nelly Sachs proved difficult; had it not been for Robert Giroux, FSG’s Michael DiCapua would also have shot down my Handke project there. The Adorno reader that was planned in the late 60s did not survive my departure to become Suhrkamp agent; nor would FSG accommodate my wider and widening interests, which included non-fiction, and were quite political at that time. I was the only person who knew foreign languages in the entire house, perhaps Robert Giroux knew some French; Susan Sontag might have far-ranging interests and enthusiasms and though she was helpful in backing me on Handke and Adorno, had little impact on the publishing program there. Henry Robbins, Bartheleme’s and Tom Wolfe’s editor, with whom I had some real rapport, left for Simon and Schuster, I was definitely at the wrong firm, the right firm would have been Grove Press, but Barney Rosset already had the far more experienced Fred Jordan and Tom Seaver; and Barney’s madhouse might have been just a touch too wild and wooly for me. Although I had a pittance of a contract with Viking to write the biography of Kurt Grosskurt, one of the most nobly motivated 20th of July conspirators, and put in considerable research time at the Institut fuer Zeitgeschichte & at the Nazi archives that the Americans had dragged to Washington, Viking would not give me a job; and so when Joan Daves decided to step back from what must have been the difficult representation of Suhrkamp, and Siegfried Unseld approached me, I was subjected very much to the kind of courting as you can find described in Handke’s x-ray portrait of the publisher in his Left-Handed Woman; not quite with a bouquet but nearly. With bouquet was towards my wife after I decided that we separated. – That is where Handke’s little x-ray negative comes in; and, as a matter of fact, when I asked him what Unseld thought of the portrait, he first didn’t want to; on being asked a second time he mentioned that Unseld was proud of it, which elicited a bit of a groan from me. I was undecided for the longest time, my wife’s prevailing made the difference, and - I felt I knew nothing about being an agent - I made my acceptance dependent on Suhrkamp finding an agency out of whose offices I might work and learn the ropes. That firm turned out to be Lantz-Donadio, located just two blocks from where I lived at the intersection of 55th and Sixth Avenue. I was to be pad $ 125.00 per week, by L & D against future 5% of royalties, the other 5% of this then 10% business were kept by the house to defray secretarial, telephone, zerox, postage and other overhead. It was meant as a part time afternoon job: 20 hours at $ 6.00 an hour! It turned into a 40-hour or more job, which, with little other income, I financed with my royalties from Farrar, Straus, for bringing them the first 10 Hesse titles! Another round trip through Germany, now as Suhrkamp’s American agent. Like many others I was given the full treatment & became Siegfried Unseld’s House Guest, Enzensberger was around, too, and the two of them were fighting over a forthcoming issue of Kursbuch which was devoted to Kommune I or II, which I believe Enzensberger, in his multifarious explorations, joined for a while. The upshot was that E. took Kursbuch away with him to a new house in Berlin, and I got a feel for a conservative side of Siegfried Unseld. I would discover him to be a hypocrite of the old school, whereas I might be described as such a one of the new school; that is, less tolerant than I would like to be. - I had a delicious many-lobstered lunch with Adorno at the Frankfurter Hof. Finally I was inside the Frankfurter Hof itself, in 1950, just before emigrating, I had once been at its then still half-bombed out beer garden and had witnessed Orson Welles turn on his heel as the noonday band struck up the Third Man theme as he appeared under the broken arch. Adorno struck me as a shaken man, and later I found out why, we discovered all kinds of acquaintances in a past during which I had not been a gleam in anyone’s eye. In Berlin I received a telegram from him asking me not to mention one of those names to a friend of his, whose heart had just been broken by someone with the same nickname – which delicacy struck me as extraordinary, but perhaps it also indicated that Adorno had noticed that I was not the world’s most discreet person at all times. Certainly now I am not being so. In retrospect, I ought to have asked to meet the Suhrkamp editors. I made acquaintance with a group of rebels around Karl-Heinz Braun, Klaus Reichert, but that was all. I was very impressed with Unseld’s offering the rebels I think it was 100,00 DM to launch their breakaway enterprise! Very smart! There was a nearly overwhelming number of books with which I had to acquaint myself if I was going to do anything of an activist job of trying to represent them, and such acquaintance during this two year stint proved to be the most valuable part of that experience, a Ph. D. in Suhrkamp Kultur, but I had no feel for the editors who produced them, or what they themselves might be looking for. My scouting activities continued to weigh on my overwhelmed eyes, not to mention a brain that was meant to digest, evaluate and sort all this out. Siegfried Unseld’s wife was bedridden and I wondered, as did others, the commiserating Johnson, whether this might have to do with that overabundance of energy on his part. At that time we did not go swimming together, that happened later and only because I, too, had taken up swimming so as to replenish myself and, when in Frankfurt, stayed at my friend and author Olaf Hansen’s whose place happened to be not that far from the Schwimmbad. It was always good to see Unseld there, especially since by that time I was no longer in his employ and a tiny publisher in my own right. - Publishing can be a hard life, and when I traveled during those years I tried to arrange to stay near a swimming facility or in a Hotel that had one, expensive as that might be.
Berlin. Uwe Johnson seemed to have turned alcoholic, so severely so that though he might look like a drunken Rhino at the end of an evening’s bout, the mind was as sharp as sober. He was unhappy that Adorno did not seem to appreciate that his early books were meant also as a kind of homage to Negative Dialectics, as well as Adorno’s so very different life style. Rethinking Johnson’s first three novels I could sort of see what he meant, but not necessarily why this should have been understood as homage, perhaps Johnson was looking for fatherly appreciation from someone whose work he of course admired. Instead, I recall Adorno admiring the early work of Handke, who himself only pitied Adorno, for whatever reason – he too was in Berlin at the time & we discussed my translation of Kaspar and I was glad that I was someone who likes to have babies presented to him and so was not lumped with the revolutionaries who didn’t, and there is no reason not to believe Kindergeschichte if only because I can corroborate its Berlin part, perhaps also a bit of Paris; but ultimately regretted not pursuing, a bit further the daunting task of the possibility of translating Der Hausierer, where news of its many quotes from American detective novels, that Handke had read in German, then seemed like a bit more of a trekking expedition than I was willing to undertake at that time. It might of course have occurred to me to ask his help. - I did not find time, or whatever, to look up Adorno’s friend, which averted all possibility of further injuring his heart. The Kurfuerstendamm seemed to have turned into a malecon and I encountered quite a few faces that were familiar from Princeton. There were also demonstrations and those tough Berlin cops. Was that the last time I saw Peter Weiss? I don’t recall. In many ways I had greater affinity for him than any other Suhrkamp author.
In Munich, as my cousin Nite von Schulenburg took me to the airport to pick up the rental car that would take me to Martin Walser’s place on the Bodensee, and an unexpected Max Frisch, there was Siegfried Unseld and Peter Handke just arriving, for whatever. Handke later mentioned - another of his near instant and, it turned out, invariably trustworthy observations - that he thought Nite had some kind of crack, as which of the children of the 20th of July, or perhaps of that entire generation hadn’t. The visit with Walser and Frisch, who happened to be at the Bodensee, is most memorable, perhaps, for my falling asleep on his sailboat – Munich always wiped me out. He and Frisch were interested in Phillip Roth, whose Portnoy I did not care for as much, linguistically, as what he had written before or would write afterwards. Walser also explained, memorably to me who was a bit shaken by the Autobahn speeds, why it was that the cars with American license plates drove so much more slowly than all those German speedsters. Since I did not feel that I had lost any World Wars I coasted with the American slowpokes. My encounter with a real German speedster lay some years ahead of me. - I also revisited, memorably, Juergen Becker outside Cologne. These were the highpoints, best as I recall now.
As an agent representing a foreign publisher you have a choice in how activist you want to be in your representation, since a lot of the requests for options are generated through intra-publishing tips or at one or the other book fair. My temperament at that time, as well as immediate need, certainly, made me extremely activist: I was ringing up a heavy toll on the postage meter. For, it turned out, there was somewhat less to Suhrkamp than had been anticipated by Lantz, Donadio & myself. For one, there was no representation of Brecht plays – this was the son Stefan Brecht’s bailiwick; most important authors were under contract, the only important contract that would be run over Lantz, Donadio during these two years was the second 10 book Hesse contract that had actually been in the works when Joan Daves withdrew. To generate $ 250.00 worth in agency income per week you needed to sell something, or a combination of things, at ten times that amount. Most German books fetched little more than a $ 1,000 advance at the time. There were the plays, I became as activist as I could trying to persuade theaters of their worth. Even translated four Kroetz plays, for Karl Weber, for nothing. When Karl managed to finagle $ 10,000 for a production, Kroetz wanted all of it for himself. He, too, seemed to think the American theater was not just the great white but also the golden way. Kroetz, an alleged socialist, would remain true to that line of interest, at least as far as my experience of him went. The important postwar German plays, save for Handke’s, had all been done. Have there been many others that have made an impact in the United States? Quite a few have been translated, some get done off-off Broadway, or at the Universities. Brecht used to be the one great exception. Handke got done a lot at the schools up until the 80s, rarely now. Kroetz had a brief wave, which, despite my efforts, washed by me.
You handle a lot of rights and permissions, which bring in very little, and were arduous to handle since everything had to be approved in Frankfurt anyhow. Nonetheless, all that activism produced surprises, of the most surprising kind sometimes. And though Unseld badmouthed me behind my back, a characteristic since he also badmouthed my successor Kurt Bernheim behind his back to me, he nonetheless expressed surprise at how much I was managing to sell: a lot more than he was used to it appears, far too little for me. After years of trekking around all over Greater New York with a weird little troupe that did Handke’s Sprechstuecke, a German director talked the Brooklyn Academy into doing two of them. Frankfurt made unacceptable conditions; I altered the contract to make it acceptable, cutting out my own translator’s interest, which produced a huge hullabaloo.
One fine afternoon I received an outraged call from my former boss, Roger Straus who stated that Siegfried Unseld had threatened to withdraw permission to any further Hesse mass paperback sales [which ran as high as $ 500,000 for Narziss & Goldmund] unless the then standard and contractually agreed upon 50/50 split from the spoils of these sales were changed to two thirds to one third in Suhrkamp’s favor; allegedly the Hesse estate had insisted on the revision of a standing contract. I was taken aback. All that was news to me and I did not much like having to tell Roger as much. I realized a number of matters within a comparatively short time: that I and also my far more experienced colleagues Candida Donadio and Robert Lantz were being ignored, just as well I am sure, at what seemed like an outright act of blackmail, for sums that might involve hundreds of thousands of dollars; that the delicately arranged marriage? Involvement? Rapprochement? of these two fine firms was being wrecked by someone whom Cornelia Schaeffer-Bessie was the first, to my knowledge, to apply the sobriquet “bull in the china shop,” and that a contract drawn with Suhrkamp, when real money came into play, was worth far less than an agreement scribbled on a paper napkin at Harry’s Bar. And also, that I had been made irrelevant. Roger grumbled that there was no way that he could justify this to his board, which I knew to be chiefly a board of one, but he had little choice I suppose unless he decided to confine further Hesse paperback editions to the neglected Noonday paperback series. Also, this act of Unseld’s threw into doubt the agreed-upon terms for the second Hesse contract, where I had found the acceptable compromise modus vivendi of an advance of $ 5,000 per title, whereas, at that time, it might have been possible to get an advance of ten times that amount from one of the deeper-pocketed publishers, or perhaps with the mass paperback houses, where the financing originated at any event. To Roger Straus, in exchange for this finely thought out compromise, for which the not overly cash rich firm thanked me, nothing better occurred some months later but to insist that I forego my editor’s percentage on this second contract, conceived while I was still in his employ, since now I would be materially benefiting from it as an agent. - Unseld got what he wanted but he lost me, and whether there was any truth to his claim that he was acting in behalf of the Hesse estate may of course be recorded somewhere. And if I had not been around, L & D were ready to toss Suhrkamp right there and then; also for reasons to which I come now. For pretty much the same thing happened to a contract agreed upon with a producer for the film rights for Frisch’s Stiller. Unseld and Ritzerfeld arrived and redid it. It proved difficult, or rather: it proved impossible to educate them how these matters were handled in the United States, even to find compromise solutions. Also, from my, and especially from my colleague Robert Lantz’s point of view [that of an agent who knew where you went to in Hollywood to make a class picture], Unseld was some kind of amateur: two Hesse titles for which fine directors and producers could be found – Steppenwolf & Sidhartha - were given to the rankest of amateurs, with one of whom, the florid Mel Fishman, I had the kind of amusing time in Paris that ought to have forewarned me – already sufficiently forewarned - against any further involvement with a certain kind of wooly-headed American hippie, but they keep coming out of the woodworks, even now. By deciding to let the Hesse heirs determine the film-makers of these titles, Suhrkamp and these heirs, allegedly so interested in monies, forewent not only far greater income, but a deeper and wider rooting of Hesse’s book in American popular culture. It was amateur-time, provincialism, and not of the good kind. With actions such as these, Suhrkamp/Unseld made themselves both unrepresentable and of no financial interest, or rather: the representation proved to be a drain, not only on my finances, but on those of L & D, and though the losses probably would be recouped once the books from the second Hesse contract started to produce income, this would only occur if the loss leader, the producer of deficits, the representation of Suhrkamp, was eliminated.
Nonetheless, Siegfried and Roger whenever I saw them meet in one of those grand embraces:”Ah… Roger” "Ah, Siegfried..."
Not many German authors, since the end of World War II, or playwrights have made much of a lasting impact in the United States, which says much about the insularity of the United States, but it is the case; and many American houses proved to be insecure if not faithless to these foreign authors during the bouts of near endless turmoil of American trade publishing. What would the country be like without the University Presses? I had already taken on several other German houses on my own after about a year, once I noticed that there simply was too little to sell: Wagenbach, Hanser, Rotbuch, Verlag der Autoren, all of whom it was a much greater pleasure to deal with than the notoriously [world-wide] difficult Helen Ritzerfeld. But that would not do the trick either. Around the time I was discussing with my colleagues whether I should maybe become a full-fledged agent and also start to represent English language authors through them I was once again being courted, by Werner Linz, who was now running Herder & Herder that, according to him, had been sold by the nice Frank Schworer, to McGraw-Hill, while Frank himself returned to Frankfurt to start Campus Verlag. I wrote to Frankfurt, saying that I could not continue the representation unless they themselves started to support it. I suppose we could have also said: the agent’s percentage has to be increased in this instance. Not hearing back for three months I then reached the decision to follow the next bouquet, which ultimately also had quite a stink to it. Of course there was an outraged letter from Frankfurt, to which Robert Lantz then decided it was time to reply. Aside the Doctorate or at least Masters in Suhrkamp Kultur that I took away with me after these two years, one of the great surprises of the affiliation was to sit in Robert Lantz’s office, to discuss something with him, and watch and hear this most patient and coolest of small Berlin/Vienna/Hollywood elephants hear out a great variety of egomaniacal grandees on the other end, never to emit more but the slightest of sighs when one of them had finished unloosing their steam at him.
Aside the work “at the office,” all that wonderful reading, authors would show up in town. The most memorable visit was Handke’s, which happened to coincide with the first official premiere of a number of his plays, My Foot My Tutor & Self-Accusation, at BAM. I myself had trekked with a small troupe around Greater New York, doing Public Insult & Self-Accusation, and had worked with Herbert Berghof and E.G. Marshall on these texts and on Kaspar at the HB Studio, two week runs for the studio’s private audience, lovely for someone like Herbert who had foresworn other venues. Handke’s own reaction to the performance was that it was just as well that it had been done in Brooklyn, which was both arrogant and proved his ignorance about BAM, and probably about Brooklyn in general. The American reviewers were quite happy, and the early major Handke plays were done in fairly rapid succession, also because I had linked up with Carl Weber. At a little gathering to which I had invited two well-disposed critics, Richard Gilman and Stanley Kaufmann, who had done the rare thing of reviewing a published volume of plays [the yet unperformed Kaspar & Other Plays], I noticed several matters that did not become comprehensible and then forgivable until I came across Handke’s confession to Herbert Genscher, in Aber Ich Lebe doch nur von den Zwischenrauemen, that he suffered from occasional bouts of autism. What he seemed not to know by the time of the wonderful Genscher conversation was that the obverse of this kind of speechlessness, one of the sequelae of his kind of autism, is what is known as Tourette’s Syndrome. That Austrian cultural adventure – 21 cities in 28 days, something like that – speckled Monsieur Tourette generously throughout the country, well-recalled some 20 years later when I found myself on the West Coast again.
Max Frisch’s pretense at not being vain proved enervating while he campaigned for the Nobel Prize in New York for quite a number of years. Other visitors were a greater pleasure. Say, Christian Enzensberger.
I joined Herder & Herder under the condition that I could start a paperback line – after all, it had not gone unobserved, the establishment of all these Suhrkamp lines while books arrived in New York in one edition after the other: one of Siegfried Unseld’s great feats, it can be a cultural achievement to learn to sell books to the sodden monkeys and keeping your authors funded without having to reach too often into your own pocket. As a matter of fact, the bug of a fairly mass market trade paperback line had bitten me back in the early 60s, my earliest days in New York, when McMillan’s was venturing into a project that planned to put, say most of Freud, into the paperback racks of American drug stores! that at one time carried for more interesting fare than they do now; and enlisted a veritable rabble of intellectuals as advisors. What great reading! McGraw Hill, so I was told, was interested in something like an American edition suhrkamp. However, within a half a year those plans were aborted. For Harold McGraw, the publisher of the trade book division, and his subsidiary rights person, one Beverly Loo, fell victim to the stupidity of their own greed in believing in the authenticity of a fraudulent co-authored autobiography of Howard Hughes; not with the consequence that they resigned but that they took the loss out on the trade division, aborting its plans and finances. It turned out to be the best paid but least effective year of my life. And McGraw-Hill - once you explored the many floors of the huge shoebox into which we moved from the art deco ocean liner near 42nd and 8th to Avenue of the Americas - turned out to have oodles of talent in its numerous technical and scholarly divisions, all you really needed was to take the elevator, which no one but me did, and explore the many-splendored departments: scouting is in my blood, vertically, horizontally, a born spelunker it appears. The savings from that one year sufficed not quite to stay unemployed in New York but for a half year freighter trip halfway around the world and back, when there would be a job waiting for me at the new affiliation that Werner Linz was in the process of finding for the now abandoned Herder & Herder, ultimately renamed Continuum Books. Aside the insight that the year at McGraw-Hill provided into the kind of corporate shenanigans that proved fairly typical of quite a few American firms, I made friends with a number of fine editors - no end of fine editors spent a year or so at the McGraw-Hill trade division – who, I realized, lived the life of a certain kind of promiscuous bird that would lay a few eggs in a hospitable-seeming nest before being forced to move on, either with or out their authors and projects in tow; the intent was to slip a few interesting eggs into the brood mechanism while the going was good. Nonetheless, then as senior editor at Continuum Books I acquired and published and translated a number of Suhrkamp titles as I did as co-publisher of the ill-fated Urizen Books, and neither my agent’s past nor Siegfried Unseld’s past as my once boss proved problematic in any way that I recall in publishing these fine books. It was always good to see him, he used to call me as soon as he arrived in New York and mention that there seemed not to be much going on among the major houses, an assessment with which I could certainly not disagree. “Man muss sich dranhalten,” I remember him saying and it became something of a refrain. One time he stated, with great conviction, that “Thomas Bernhardt, der macht das richtig,” a line of thought I did not pursue since a little Bernhardt went a long way with me, even at the beginning. Toward the end of Urizen, just before the other active partner sold the heart of the company for $ 25,000 to the sort of fellow who will buy the Eiffel tower on the cheap [Werner Linz, the same delightful fellow who sold Herder & Herder out from under Frank Schworer], I once called him to check whether he wanted to buy the company – after all, it had assets of one million dollars & only 250 k of debt, and shared a lot of Suhrkamp titles and authors - but he declined. “Schade,” I said. The Schwimmbad I have mentioned. Regrettably, however, there is yet one other unhappy note. The dissolution of the agenting arrangement with Lantz-Donadio had called for the fees to be paid to L & D, and once they had earned out the accumulated losses, I was to receive my 5 %. That never happened, I called Dr. Unseld’s attention to that & he made no attempt that I know to rectify that situation, which meant that I worked for two years as their agent for approximately $ 12,000 & also forewent my FSG royalties. Talk about working at a loss! At one point, after Kurt Bernheim’s death, my royalties from play translations were arbitrarily cut to 20%. That was Suhrkamp all right. But then they were reinstated to the contractually agreed on terms. Rumors reached me, now so far away, of editors leaving; of all kinds of succession problems. So it goes in any kind of autocracy I suppose. However, I would be the last person not to admire what Siegfried Unseld accomplished, despite and because of some of the vagaries I observed and experienced. I had heard that he was ill & was about to invite him to go for a ride on an Orca on Puget Sound. I had imagined that all that swimming would keep him in shape until well into his 90s.