Sunday, March 08, 2009

A Comment on the Hesse phenomenon in the US and my involvement in it


Michael Roloff


I believe I had read only Steppenwolf and Demian when Roger Klein, an editor at Harper + Row as it was then called, asked me to translate the latter of the two as well as Unterm Rad and Peter Camenzind, Hesse’s first two novels, in 1964: A three book translation contract off the bat! At $ 15.00 per thousand words and you were so grateful you didn't even ask for participation. I had not really translated all that much -  a Brecht Lehrst├╝ck - I've forgotten which one since I knew all of them so well as a college senior, Musil's Novella Die Portugiesin, for Metamorphosis, a magazine of which I was one of the editors, some things for Tom Wallace at Putnams, [Plevier??? I think, and one book which it turned out had actually been published in the 40s already], and with the American poet Louise Bogan I had worked on an Ernst J
├╝nger text since she was smitten with his style, as were other American writers of a conservative literary bent. I had also done a thorough vetting job of Ursule Molinaro's over-all fine translation of Uwe Johnson's also textually extraordinarily demanding The Third Book About Achim for Fred Jordan at Grove Press. I was doing a lot of outside reading for many N.Y. publishers.

I recall that I completed the translation of
Demian at my sister's in Pinner, outside London, in the fall of 1964, the end of a year in Europe, most of it spent in Germany, and I think I must have done the other two in Villiprot a village outside of Bad Godesberg, because once I got back to New York in December 1964 I was both broke and not translating, lived in a shoe box in the Chelsea Hotel and for about a year worked as an outside reader for my Trotskyite novelist friend Danny Gordon's Columbia Pictures reading office in New York that in exchange for these early looks turned over a page of evaluation to Publisher's Weekly! The kind of job to become really well read, three books a week! And story outlines and reports.

I sent
Demian from London to my friend, the publisher of Metamorphosis, Michael Lebeck, who made a few changes and turned it in to Roger Klein who took out most of the changes so he said, but I kept Michael Lebeck's name on the translation, and Harpers I think published it in 1965. At that time, the following Hesse titles had been done by U.S. publishers: Siddhartha was in print with New Directions; Holt Rinehart had Steppenwolf and Glass Bead Game/ Magister Ludi; and Noonday Books, recently acquired by Farrar, Straus, had Journey to the East. Roger Klein committed suicide sometime late in 1965. I have no idea why, I certainly hadn't an inkling, nor where we really that close or saw that much of each other. I have had a tough time with funerals all my life, especially so with suicides of friends, and so I did not attend a function where I might have found out why someone bright and with a good job had reached the point of such despair or self-hatred. In 1966, I myself got my first steady job [but chiefly working as I preferred from home] with Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It turned out that Roger Klein's successor editor at Harper & Row, Robert [?] McCullough, who published William Gass's Omensetter's Luck, did not want to do any of the things that Roger had signed up. I have no idea why, bad vibes, or not liking any of them; and so Farrar, Straus, with the record of increasing sales of Journey to the East as guide, bought my two as yet unpublished translations, of Beneath the Wheel and Peter Camenzind, and of Ursule Molinaro's [a friend and fellow translator from the German and French] of Narciss and Goldmund,  and drew a contract with Suhrkamp Verlag for a total of ten Hesse titles I think it was, and published first N+G and my two translations in quick order, and N+G was the only best seller that appeared on the NY Times hard cover best seller list that I ever had anything to do with - one week at # 10 as I recall. There was no best seller list of trade paperbacks at the time, I don't think, because if there had been many of the various Hesse titles as they were published in that form would have appeared on it. Perhaps there was such a list and they did appear there. At an event, at some point N+G was sold for half a million dollars, to Bantam Books I think. The rage was on and anything with the name Hesse on it sold like hot cakes whenever it was that hot cakes sold like that to become a proverbial. There followed Rosshalde and Getrude, Hesse's s third and fourth novels, whose translation FS+G bought I think from Peter Owen in London and which I then edited and which cannot be said to be more than professionally turned out minor work. FS+G will have a record of the other books on the first ten book contract and the order of their publication.
There followed a second ten book contract that I initiated and whose content I established at FSG but which was finalized through me once I represented Suhrkamp through the Lantz-Donadio Literary Agency from 1969 to l971 at which point I re-entered book publishing as senior editor with Herder and Herder at McGraw-Hill with the promise that I could initiate something along the lines of an American edition suhrkamp paperback line. The second ten book contract called for a total advance of $ 50,000 [Five K per book, a compromise figure I picked out that I figure was one that Roger Straus could live with as well as Suhrkamp, whereas in fact one could have got ten times as much of an advance from any number of mass paperback publishers.] Roger Straus and I had a pleasant lunch with Suhrkamp agent Joan Daves at the Four Seasons, subsequent to which Roger seemed a tad worried, but I reassured him: "You'll make at least three million." [Where in retrospect I wonder out of what hat I had pulled that # out of, which however was far below what Hesse earned FS+G over the years, not that that kept Roger Straus from deeking me out of my minute share of those royalties [Robert Giroux’s comment that he never could write a history of the firm because it was too distasteful to think of Roger Straus – see Giroux’s NY Times obit by Christopher Lehmann Haupt - is a feeling I thoroughly share, although I lack any of Giroux’s inhibitions at this point]. Many of these titles are still in print most if not all translated by Ralph Mannheim who I think gave the Hesse prose that extra charge that the Hesse style had not brought out in me: at any event I like Mannheim's work there far more than I do mine, and I am not an admirer of his work on Handke or Brecht.

The translation work, the textual exertions required of doing Hesse, I do not recall as being especially pleasurable,
or lifting me by the elbow as a good text will; not compared to what I had done up to then, or some of the toughies I would tackle later. Hesse, I realized quickly, had turned into a rather formulaic stylist, a pro, after
Peter Camenzind, who availed himself of a simplified down prose of German romanticism, at least until he wrote Demian. Camenzind strikes me even now as authentically felt as it is awkward, and so does Beneath the Wheel. Demian which Hesse wrote while doing a Jungian analysis or shortly afterwards certainly shows that influence, but parts of it also resort to the stylistically formulaic; though Hesse, who published the book under a pseudonym during WW I, had indeed come alive again in his imagery and the notions of projection, though the looming "mother” figure is nearly an abstract, though all powerful; very Jungian there, but a direction that Socialist Realism would take too!
As to the Hesse phenomenon itself, or its surfacing on such a large scale in the United States I would say that Hesse was first of all or started as a college phenomenon, and as such indicates [1] an abandonment of repression [
Steppenwolf] that started to set in gradually once the financial easements had become general after WW II, puritanical restrictions were being lifted, or it was possible to oppose them during the interim between the Korean and the Vietnam wars, [2] there was time, there was wondering. - Siddhartha, Journey to the East -  . and wandering... beyond Kahlil Gibran and the like and for both wondering and wandering on the inside and the outside Hesse is not a bad initial guide; and after all, he writes projection screens, and he knows it. My favorite actually was a selection of his letters
to various beseechers who had written him for assistance, guidance in their lives and I made a selection of them for Farrar, Straus who published them last I think: the care he took with those letters indicates not only how touched he was by the so many who approached him but by his reluctance to offer direct spiritual counseling. Hesse derived from a family of Pietist Protestant pastors and missionaries I think. Nor had this been the first Hesse wave, his
Demian, an antiwar novel published pseudonymously during WW I, had started the first wave, Camenzind had been a best seller when it was first published; the fortunes of Suhrkamp Verlag were founded on Hesse who left S. Fischer for Suhrkamp after WW II; he had been a cult author for the moderately lost for a long time. I myself was out for tougher game, much as I also like some of the later books, especially Narciss and Pictor and Klingsohr. I even gave a talk one time at Deutsches Haus at Columbia, and was supposed to talk about the Hesse phenomenon and the whys of it, but since I wasn't all that sanguine about Hesse, I was sort of  Marxist with a bit of a Frankfurt school  bite, I then confined myself to reading other people's take on it. I also happened to take a "Journey to the East" but on a tramp steamer, and in India made it a point to dress well and not be found in the company of American hippies, a resolve which, however, did not prevent a class of Indian grade school children to start piping "hippie ... hippie... hippie" at the  St. Albert Museum in Bombay in back of the Searsucker suit which finally turned around to find out that they meant him whose hair was just long enough to have grown a tad over the collar of his suit jacket. Ah, but all those lovelies in the American Express offices on their way to Katmandu.

[3] The collection of anti-war pieces collected under “Must the War Go On?” and Demian of course articulated that note very well during the Vietnam War era. A most honorable writer, with a troubled youth in his past: is there an author about who hasn’t? Maybe John Updike.
It was cultist film-makers who then latched on to Siddhartha and Steppenwolf to the point where an honest to goodness professional studio might have easily done a better job. And I dealt with a number of the wooly headed at Lantz, Donadio, always needing to point out that the Hesse heirs have the last word. Even now I am approached when Suhrkamp fails to have the courtesy to respond to inquiries! A very florid Mel Fishman, one of the producers of Steppenwolf I got to know a pretty well in New York and in Paris.

Search This Blog

About Me

My photo
seattle, Washington, United States
MICHAEL ROLOFF Member Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute and Society this LYNX will LEAP you to all my HANDKE project sites and BLOGS: "MAY THE FOGGY DEW BEDIAMONDIZE YOUR HOOSPRINGS!" {J. Joyce} "Sryde Lyde Myde Vorworde Vorhorde Vorborde" [von Alvensleben] contact via my website