In the process of completing my psycho-analytically-oriented novel BREAKUP UNDER ANALYSIS, a stand-alone part of DARLINGS & MONSTERS tryptic not the once planned quartet, I thought it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to re-view the novels I have been intimate with during my editing, translating, and publishing days or as instrument in that endeavor; a couple dozen some truly noteworthy works it turns out, each of them with a story of some kind, major minor, attached to its whelping, which is the case with every book in which you have invested yourself, a novel’s worth of experience in some instances: how you came to translate the book, whether you were happy with the result; how I came to publish or edit it and what was involved, in at least one case leading to one of the aorta’s of the Big Bright City’s HEART OF DARKNESS. And what lasting effect these books have? On my or reader’s or literature being – books do have effects and not only in childhood and youth. The most unusual being the effect on downtown Manhattan Chinese laundries of one of the two dozen!
Already at Oakwood School I wrote a story that indicated that I chiefly wanted to be a servant to literature -
Anton Bruckner so grateful that anyone would play his music that he paid the conductor - that is, an editor – as I was then at Haverford Bryn Mawr with the Review and then with Metamorphosis while free-lancing before getting my first job along that line at Farrar, Straus - the occasional good story or fairy tale, that once a year rarity, did not suffice for Hans Christian to put bread on the table.
HERE THE LIST, IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER
THE PORTUGUESE WIFE by Robert Musil. I cut my translator’s teeth here and had the time to do the half a dozen drafts of this part of a never completed Master’s thesis, and published the novella in the third and final issue of Metamorphosis in 1964.
I don’t recall when it occurred to me that maybe one ought not to write about a writer’s work unless one had translated it. But I still think it is something devoutly to be wished for in the improvement of literary journalism.
DEMIAN by Hermann Hesse
I translated in the early 6os for Roger Klein at Harper & Row together with CAMENZIND and BENEATH THE WHEEL, with friend Michael Lebeck, although Roger then wrote – I was in London with my sister - that he’d taken out most of the 2nd Michael’s changes. Much as a I care for DEMIAN (and quite a few other Hesse works) – DEMIAN’s projections providing the first inkling of psychoanalysis -(Hesse wrote DEMIAN while doing the Jungian species of that astounding procedure) and though I seem to be regarded as responsible for the 60s through 70 Hesse wave because I brought all these many Hesse titles to Farrar, Straus, I really was much more of a Musil fellow, and still am, I have that ineradicable bloody scientific side and life would at the very least have been differently adventurous if I had followed my inclination to spend it in the company of animals in the wild instead of, a good part at least, in the publishing jungles. In Alaska I met an Austrian wildlife scientist who each summer went out find the “Urbeaver” – the original ten foot beasts who maybe had survived the arctic cold in one of the many hot springs in that also volcanic region, and who therefore spent a lot of time in the wild with animals for company it was an inclination that hooked up to the way I had lived to some extent as a child and also to my then reading.
I came to Musil not via a literary route but by way of my interest in physic, A. Mach! about whom Musil had written a dissertation. Poetry needed to have that kind of precision! Later my editing of a translation of a book on Quarks for Basic Books brought me back up to snuff on sub-atomic particles and their quantum lives! Handke became so interesting to me lifelong because he has that kind of precision, also in vague matters – to be precisely vague! His knowledge of the German classics also helped him on that score.
CAMENZIND & BENEATH THE WHEEL had such an antiquated German style it created real problems for me in translation, with DEMIAN Hesse became far more elastic.
LEAVEAKING by Peter Weiss
was one of the two books, the other was Peter Bichsel’s And Really Frau Blum Would Very Much Like to Meet the Milkman
that my scouting Germany in 1964 for Sam Lawrence got for him, during which time Uwe Johnson was helpful in advising me on matters East German lit.
Peter Weiss became a friend. LEAVEKING in particular as well as its successor FLUCHTPUNKT is hugely important to me, for its theme of the difficulty of disattaching while achieving individuation. Peter survived in exile in Sweden, as did Nelly Sachs.
But to tell you a bit about me & Peter: in 1966 I was well advanced with a Vietnam War play entitled THE COMMITTEE HEARING – some SDS types capture the war criminals Dean Rusk, McNamara, etc. & conduct a televised trial on the basis of what a historically trained scholar knows that criminals of that kind always create, a huge paper trail of legal justifications for war, it had to exist and of course it then turned out to exist, the Pentagon Papers, the sort of thing that will convict under the glare of the T.V. klieg lights, the T.V. lens as super-ego you might say. But when the great - at the time Peter - MARAT/SADE & THE INVESTIGATION - told me he was working on a Vietnam War play of his own, I dropped my piece at once, but to be disappointed by Peter’s black and white piece that contained none of the contentiousness of the way the Vietnam War played out in the United States as it was reflected in my THE COMMITTEE HEARING.
Analytically speaking, I did not want to be in competition with the “good father,” the position Peter occupied in the firmament of my sentiments.
It was surprising that Peter’s prose work was available to Sam at Atlantic Monthly Press, since Cornelia Schaefer had acquired Marat/Sade for Atheneum.
THE THIRD BOOK ABOUT ACHIM by Uwe Johnson
I had already interviewed Johnson, when Fred Jordan asked me to revise Ursule Molinaro’s translation. The interview is with Suhrkamp now, but the translation seems to have required further editing and was eventually published by Helen Wolf at Harcourt Brace. Johnson’s first three novels SPECULATION ABOUT JAKOB, ACHIM & TWO VIEWS are all hugely important for me, for their concreteness, their economy but also because the way political contradictions, politics infuses the language, I can’t think of a single American writer in whose language anything of the kind has transpired, and now I am half as well badly read as I used to be.
LEBENSLAEUFE/ CASE HISTORIES by Alexander Kluge
What a way to do portraits! I can’t think of anyone who has done anything similarly devastating of Americans, though I think Norman Mailer certainly had the right instincts, the nose, to do so; there is of course Mary McCarthy’s The Company she Keeps. Nothing like Frankfurt School critical thinking training, is there?
I edited a fine Leila Vennewitz translation for McGraw-Hill for a beautiful editor who it turned out had the hots for me who, however, was all business, I was entirely obtuse until she caressed my genitals at an American Book Awards ceremony cocktail party! What a shame that I just didn’t ask her over to my apartment, for all these superfluous lunches that she scheduled! I think she later went on to work for Lord Weidenfeld’s firm.
The subject of editing, that polishing , that conscientious last comparative look-through which is often all that is needed of translations makes me reflect that Krishna Winston’s of Handke MORAVIAN NIGHT would have much benefited from that effort.
NIGHT by Edgar Hilsenrath
is a Romanian concentration camp novel,
that I did for Doubleday in one month -100,000 words for about $ 2500 - on which I got married; the prose is simplicity itself as is the dialogue. Didn’t have time to do Edgar’s NAZI & THE BARBER, the more famous of his books. Grim stuff.
THE IMPOSSIBLE PROOF by Hans Erich Nossack
was the first title I acquired while at Farrar, Straus, and Straus did not like it, it didn’t ring his cash register, but then went into at least one second printing. It’s an existential favorite of mine, and became so also for a future friend, that great surprise, the author Dick Kalich.
Nossack’s The D’Arthez Case
Farrar Straus did not ctd. with Nossack after I left, but Joel Agee took up the slack with THE END
the kind of fire I myself once observed from a distance when Bremerhaven went up in flames in 1944.
THE QUEST FOR CHRISTA T. by Christa Wolf
Uwe Johnson alerted me to Christa Wolf and her The Divided Sky which did not do the trick for me – Johnson’s Two Views does on the subject of divided East West Germany - whereas I fell in love with Quest and Michael Hamburger alerted me to that wonderful translator Christopher Middleton who was teaching in Texas at the time.
Again F.S.G. did not keep up after I left, Siegfried Unseld having succeeded in persuading me to become Suhrkamp rep in the US for two unhappy years.
THE GOALIE’S ANXIETY AT THE PENALTY KICK by Peter Handke
I did not get to publish Handke’s DER HAUSIERER (of which GOALIE is a direct and artistically logical outgrowth and which I had signed up first for FSG) at Urizen Books. Partner Schulz felt unappreciated by Handke who had seen through his dark side on first acquaintance of Schulz directing some Handke plays at Chelsea Theater at B.A.M. in 1971.
I should not that I then sought to duplicate Handke’s ability to transpose the reader’s consciousness via the linguistic sleight of hand of its initial paragraphs into the disassociated state of mind of a paranoid schizophrenic – a linguistic matter Handke had studied for this purpose, a state of mind that is refreshing for the reader! As opposed to poor Bloch, and is the kind of thing that Wenders in his film failed to achieve, if film is capable to have that kind of grammatical ability. I thought of moments in my life where I had been seriously disassociated and it took me a week to find the grammatical solution, and then none of my readers got it until I pointed it out to them. Duh! Upon request, it’s the opening of a still uncompleted novella, Death Watch.
BEAUTFUL DAYS by Franz Innerhofer
Innerhofer is one of two authors who committed suicide, which will not come as that much of a surprise if you read this beautiful book of yet another horrendous rural Austrian childhood. He came to New York and visited Urizen Books and I took him to Barnabus Rex, our shoebox of a bar, and it took some weeks for me to get out from under the depression that I absorbed just by spending an hour or so in his presence. Handke refused to give me a blurb because Innerhofer had remained the same writer with his second book! Judging other writers by your own pride in not repeating yourself is not the way to go, I don’t think, a tad too harsh!
LIFE OF THE AUTOMOBILE by Ilja Ehrenburg is a hell of a lot of fun, that dreadful person but pretty good translator whom I employed far too often Joachim Neugroeschel claimed to have translated it from the Russian!
DETOUR by Michael Brodksy
Wedding Feast & Two Novellas by Michael Brodksy
Patricia Highsmith alerted Peter Handke to Michael Brodsky and Handke sent him to me where he arrived with a maroon satchel, and after he left I took a look at the first page of each of the five manuscripts and knew that I had an author on the order of a Beckett. And so I took extra care with the production, design and printing of the book and did something I had never done before nor since. Michael and I went over his manuscript page by page at my office, I think we did this on uninterrupted Saturdays, and occasionally I suggested a metaphor for a lengthy passage. But it proved difficult to buy Michael a cup of coffee! This was the kind of work which justified the existence of Urizen Books.
Schulz was not keen on Brodsky so I agreed to his tit for tat suggestion to do a book of Marvin Cohen’s
The Inconvenience of Living
who proved easier company than the so very intense Michael, as do journalists.
STORY OF THE EYE by George Bataille came to me via a most intense love affair with a dashing redhead; after the end of the affair, my heart was broken once again, I had to find out what she meant when she said “Let’s play Bataille!” and she did not mean fight!
This was a book with immediate consequences in our downtown precinct, and is the one that benefited the Chinese Laundries. I have a chapter in Darlings & Monster of some extraordinary filming of Bataille being played
BLUE OF NOON translated by Harry Mathews
I brought along my friend Hannah, a statuesque, extraordinarily beautiful sculptor of cunt art, to please translator Harry Mathews who I happened to know had had a redheaded girlfriend of the same type and there was that amazing moment as we we were eating at the sidewalk café on Central Park South that Hannah spotted a friend and ran and leapt up at him, clasping him around the waist with her beautiful thighs! Harry was nicely non-plussed!
People do not believe me when I tell them that I never made a pass at Hannah, but I didn’t, for the simple reason that she would not stop talking about the painter who had broken her heart and which is the sort of thing that will stanch my libidinous inclinations. Hannah died young of breast cancer, most painful when the beautiful are so consumed. A friend brought her to the publication party of Bataille’s THE STORY OF THE EYE, at Mickey;s Lower Manhattan Ocean Club, that is how we met and so her meeting the translator of BLUE OF NOON I guess has something right about that.
The extraordinary Story that goes with its editing is so long you will have to follow below link:
THE PLAGUE IN SIENNA by Erich Wolfgang Skwara is beautiful work by an Austrian writer who has had the great misfortune to be published in translation by Ariadne Press, cheapskate idiots who don’t even send galleys to Publisher’s Weekly or Library Journal, do not promote, do not render royalty statements. One of these days when back in Riverside country I will sue the shit out of those professors!
Skwara’s ICE ON THE BRIDGE is not up to his first novel but still interesting
but is the one instance where I seriously came to dislike the book’s protagonist and then the author for being a misogynist who seemed to go out of his way to hurt women emotionally.
WHEREBORN by Robert Schindel
is formally the weakest of the lot but would have had a major reception if it had not been buried with Ariadne Press. It is fascinating on the subject of Austro-German Jewish relations during the postwar period.
Josef Winkler’s book FLOWERS FOR JEAN GENET made for a wonderful translation experience because the book make me love Genet & his work
It reads like a novel and is a fitting title for the transition to the dozen or so non-fiction titles that I edited and published and feel proudest of. I love Winkler’s work & translated his long BUTTERCUP story that has become a test for me for provinciality.
I can’t think of any novel that was offered to me where I misjudged and turned down. Urizen had signed up Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in Highschool, in part because she was a truly local author of the downtown scene, but she pulled out and I had no regrets on the score, it was amazing that partner Schulz actually agreed to publish a book he hated, and we hated each other at that point, and she then failed to pay back her advance, and repeated the routine with friend Jeffrey Steinberg of Stonehill, until she found the right editor in friend Fred Jordan for whom I had done a lot of work and who was the kind of Austrian who loved perversity the way I think only the Austrians can.
I signed up Hubert Fichte’s DIE PALLETTE at FSG but my colleagues did not care for the book once the translation arrived. And I myself no longer much cared for it but one chapter by the time we started Urizen Books.
HERE ARE TWO LINKS THAT PROVIDE FURTHER BACK-GROUND
Michael Roloff September 2017