On the Death of Siegfried Lenz ? ?You have to justify your life?

Siegfried Lenz, one of the great writers of German post-war literature is dead. He died on 7 October 2014, surrounded by his family. He was 88 years old.... more more

GoetheInstitute

07/05/2007

Steppenwolf's archivist

Roman Bucheli visits Volker Michels at his Hermann Hesse archive, the "most functional" documentation centre on one of Germany's best selling authors.



Author Hermann Hesse in 1927 (© Gret Widmann), and Hesse archivist Volker Michels. Courtesy Suhrkamp Verlag

The sight is so overwhelming you'd think you were entering another world. For from the outside nothing indicates the concealed universe within. The house facade is nondescript, and the way through to the inner courtyard has a downright gloomy appearance on this winter's day when it never really seems to get light in Offenbach. You enter the house, so to speak, from the back, where there was once a bakery. But there is nothing there any more to remind you of its working past, except, perhaps, for the plain architecture of this square building, which just manages to squeeze into the inner courtyard and which you can tell was not designed for living in.

Although the Michels family lives in the house, you notice as soon as you open the front door that living is only a peripheral activity here, one that has to be put up with, as closer examination reveals. But the main thing here is the mass of books, or rather the papers – copied documents, stacks and piles of them, some on tables, some underneath; sometimes ordered, but in many cases apparently tossed together in complete chaos, as if there had been just enough time to drop them before another bundle arrived. You can practically smell the paper and the dried ink, even if you know the sensation is really imaginary. As you gaze around in stunned amazement you see among all the books and papers the owner of the house, Volker Michels, editor of Hermann Hesse's works for more than thirty years. He points to his life's work with a slight air of embarrassment, unable to decide whether he should justify himself, apologise or explain, for he too has noticed that the visitor is overwhelmed, if not indeed rather dazed, struggling to regain his composure.

It's difficult to say where and when the seed for what was later to become a passion was sown. Perhaps back at the boarding school in Salem, where Michels read Hesse's "Unterm Rad" (The Prodigy) in the late 1950s and felt that the writer had discovered his most intimate feelings. So strong was Michels' sense that Hesse had looked directly into his soul and thus spoken to him that he was unable to contain himself. He wrote a letter to the master in Montagnola – and received a reply by return of post.

Or perhaps it began later – still in the late 1950s, when the world was lingering between the hardship of the post-war years and the beginning of the modern era – when Volker Michels spent the summer holidays with his parents in Ascona and had asked the writer in advance for permission to visit him. He could come if he liked, Hesse had replied, only, the author would, as always, be spending the summer months in the Engadin. The housekeeper would be there and would be happy to show him around the house if he wished. That's how the 15-year-old boy came to ride his bicycle down over Monte Ceneri in the direction of Lugano and up the other side to the Collina d'Oro, to Montagnola and through the village up to the Casa Rossa (where there was a notice on the garden gate saying "no visitors please" to frighten off unwelcome guests). In other words, to the house that Hesse's Zurich friend and patron Hans C. Bodmer had built in 1931 according to plans drawn up by the writer and where Hesse and his wife Ninon had right of residence until they died.

The way Volker Michels tells the story today, he heard the music already from far away, even before he could see the house, resounding through the silent landscape far across the valley. It was the housekeeper taking advantage of the writer's absence to make her musical favourites – Elvis Presley and Bill Haley – known to the villagers. Rather embarrassed, as one can imagine, he had a look around Hesse's atelier and library and the garden too; he says he didn't stay long, though, but rode his bicycle back through countryside that is only familiar to us now from old, faded photographs.

Or did it actually all start much later? When the twenty-five-year-old medical student arrived in Frankfurt in 1969 to do an internship at Suhrkamp publishers and a year later abandoned his studies to grab the opportunity to start work there. At the time publisher Siegfried Unseld, who wrote his doctorate on Hesse, was having a tough time keeping the publishing house together, for it was in danger of being shaken up by the student revolts just like other bastions of the bourgeoisie. At that point Volker Michels may have impressed him, for when asked what he read and which writers he treasured, he did not name just the usual culprits, but also mentioned Martin and Robert Walser, and above all Hermann Hesse.

Since 1969, at any rate, Volker Michels has been working for Suhrkamp. After starting as a reader for modern literature, he later became editor of the series Bibliothek Suhrkamp, where he was initially still very much in Unseld's shadow, publishing one new edition after another of Hermann Hesse's books under Unseld's name, before finally assuming responsibility for the editorial work on his own. That was how three people came together who complemented one another in an ideal manner: Hesse's legacy provided the raw material; Unseld revealed his talent for packaging; and Volker Michels displayed that mixture of painstakingness and passion that is required to reinvent the writer for each new generation of readers.

The figures alone provide a measure of how successful this trio became. While four million copies of his works were sold during Hesse's lifetime, since 1970, twenty-two million copies have been sold in the German-speaking countries alone. During the celebrations in 2002 to mark the 125th anniversary of the writer's birth, more than a million of his books were bought, and since then sales of the German-language edition have levelled out at around 400,000 copies a year. That means that each day, including Sundays and Christmas, more than a thousand of Hesse's books are sold in an area stretching from Hamburg to Innsbruck and from Basle to Görlitz. And that's not counting the translation rights, which now extend to sixty languages. If it was once the Americans who ushered in a Hesse renaissance, nowadays his works are sold in the Arab world, in Japan and in Korea. Indeed, according to Volker Michels, the Asians could not believe that Hesse was actually a European author.

Just as Hesse's work has circulated all over the world and made its mark on the lives of his readers, it has also, in a different manner altogether, you might almost say cast a spell on the life of the Michels family in Offenbach. Hesse is her everyday life, says Ursula Michels, Michels' wife: "I live in a menage a trois." She laughs as she says it, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Volker Michels has supervised the publication of more than 120 books, most of them containing Hesse's writings. Currently an illustrated volume entitled "Vom Wert des Alters" (on the value of old age) is in preparation. Books of this kind devoted to particular themes are in great demand, says Michels, adding that Hesse is very rewarding for someone putting together this kind of anthology. For there is scarcely a topic you can think of on which you would not find some sort of reflection in Hesse's works, although, as Michels says, he does not lend himself well to every subject. At the same time, however, he concedes: "The worm must taste good to the fish, not to the fisherman." In other words, books cannot just be a publisher's whim: they need to sell and be economically viable.

Which isn't to say that in the almost four decades he has been working on Hesse, Volker Michels has not indulged one or two extravagant wishes, even if the businessman in him might have advised him to do otherwise. Between 2001 and 2005, for instance, the first complete Hesse edition was published in 20 volumes, with an index volume to follow. But the project Volker Michels' has put all his heart into is one he has been working on quietly for years, well actually for decades, and which he would like to realise next. It should really be the culmination of his life's work: an edition of Hermann Hesse's letters published in ten volumes to follow publication of Hesse's correspondence with specific people like Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig (already published) or Alfred Kubin, Conrad Haussmann and Peter Weiss (in preparation).

For years Michels has been searching all over the world for the writer's letters, an endeavour pursued together with Hesse's son Heiner until the latter's death. The writer's estate contains around 35,000 letters written to Hesse, and Michels has so far managed to collect around 17,000 of Hesse's replies. He has put multiple copies of these (most of the originals have remained in archives or with the heirs of their previous owners) in his Hesse edition archive in an endless series of brightly coloured files. They are ordered first chronologically, then alphabetically according to the names of the recipients, and finally, according to keywords – in copies of copies and as excerpts.

To show how efficient his archive is, he asks visitors to give him a keyword. After hesitating a bit, you pick a word at random, choosing one you know you can't go wrong with: psychoanalysis. No, too easy, says Michels, and doesn't even bother looking it up in his treasure trove. So then you say Proust instead, because you want to sound particularly clever and think that Hesse did not have anything to do with Proust. But Michels proves just how wrong you are: triumphantly he pulls the corresponding file off the shelf, places it on the desk already strewn with papers, books and folders, leaves his way through... et voilà: Proust. And as if conjuring out of a top hat, he magically pulls out a number of excerpts from letters and reviews, above all, however, the following: an urgent recommendation addressed to Peter Suhrkamp to have Proust's "A la recherche du temps perdu" translated.

His is not the largest Hesse archive, Michels says; the literary archives in Bern and Marbach are more extensive. But he does believe his archive is the most functional, and by way of demonstration he takes out some card indexes in which Hesse's life is minutely documented from different points of view. A chronological index traces Hesse's biography day by day, recording when he visited someone or someone visited him, when and where he gave readings from his works, went to a spa or travelled on business. Another index, also ordered chronologically according to months, documents the writing of his works, while a third card index contains an alphabetical "Who's Who" of Hesse's life and work.

Of course, sometimes it takes even Michels a bit longer than he would like to locate certain documents. But usually, after a bit of rummaging, he finds what he wants, suddenly handing you a so-called "Notturni" manuscript. These were the earliest manuscripts of poems that Hesse sold to readers and friends in order to finance his first journey to Italy in 1901. Or he gets out of a box the manuscript of Hesse's study on Francis of Assisi, written on the back pages of a shredded illustrated Bible from the missionary publishing house run by Hesse's forefathers. But what he fishes out next from the files crammed full of copies, as if by magic, from a treasure chest stored high up under the ceiling is enough to make the heart of any archivist beat faster or even miss more than a few beats out of sheer fright. For not only is there no way any index would allow the uninitiated to find treasures like this, you also realise that there is nothing protecting the papers from the ills of time or from corrosion. Indeed, it would take only a fire or a flood for much to be irretrievably lost.

But Michels is not a curator, so his papers are not stored in safes or behind glass. Instead, he actually works with the materials that he has collected in decades of painstaking labour, and his archive resembles a workshop more than a treasury of belle lettres. In any case it is not the worries of a curator about preserving the materials so much as grievances and setbacks of other kinds that trouble Volker Michels. His greatest disappointment, he says, was in 1992 when Heiner Hesse tried, unsuccessfully, with the support of patrons to buy the Casa Camuzzi in Montagnola. Contrary to Siegfried Unseld's directive that he should be making books rather than trading in real estate – so the publisher decreed – he tried in vain to collect money in Germany to make the house in which Hesse lived from 1919 to 1931 accessible to the public.

Another thing that upset him of course was that in 2005, when the twenty-volume edition was completed, hardly a national newspaper reported on it. Instead, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published a spiteful article talking about how "nonsensical" this enterprise was. But in fact it is only through the publication in five volumes of Hesse's collected reviews of more than three thousand books – the project for which Michels was criticised – that another important aspect of Hesse's life's work has become visible: namely his immense service to literature as a mediator, patron and gentle critic, unmatched by any of his contemporaries or successors.

Michels believes the full extent of this aspect of Hesse has yet to be revealed, and only once the edition of Hesse's correspondence has been published will the truly Herculean proportions of Hesse's life achievement be appreciated. With the help of patrons Hesse was able to make life easier for himself in many respects, but what one forgets is how much he did for others – services that over the decades ranged from the financial to the intellectual; for so many he was a mentor and friend, confessor or adviser. There must be few people who have known such generosity personally and also spent their lives dispensing it.

Perhaps if Volker Michels manages to achieve this goal, the sting will lose its power that sometimes makes the work a bitter experience for him: the arrogance, or what Michels calls the "snobbishness" of scholars of German literature when it comes to Hesse. Although he knows what this is based on, it nonetheless worries him that there is hardly a scholar of German literature or a doctoral student writing about Hesse. Authors like Hesse or Stefan Zweig and Antoine de Saint-Exupery are simply not suited, Michels says, for "multiple interpretations and need to be taken heed of rather than flogged to death." Hesse may, Michels adds, "be easy to read," but he is "difficult to live." The uncompromising nature of Hesse's views on people and politics deeply impressed him, and they are what has kept him going for so long. He still enjoys reading Hesse's texts, particularly "Kurgast" (Spa Guest) or excerpts from "Betrachtungen" (Reflections); but for him the most important things are the letters.

*

The article was originally published in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on March 19, 2007.

Roman Bucheli, born in 1960, studied German, philosophy and business history in Fribourg and Zurich. Since 1999 he has worked as literary editor at the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Translation: Melanie Newton

Get the signandsight newsletter for regular updates on feature articles.
signandsight.com - let's talk european.

 
More articles

No one is indestructible

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

TeaserPicA precision engineer of the emotions, Peter Nadas traces the European upheavals of the past century in his colossal and epic novel "Parallel Stories", which was published in English in December. The core and epicentre of the novel is the body, which bears the marks of history and trauma. In his seemingly chaotic intertwining of lives and stories, Nadas penetrates the depths of the human animal with unique insight. A review by Joachim Sartorius
read more

Road tripping across the ideological divide

Wednesday 1 February, 2012

TeaserPicThe USA and the USSR should not simply be thought of as arch enemies of the Cold War. Beyond ideology, the two nations were deeply interested in one another. Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov were thrilled by the American Way of Life in 1935/6, John Steinbeck and Robert Capa praised the sheer vitality of the Russian people in 1947. Historian Karl Schlögel reviews a perfect pair of travel journals. Photo by Ilf and Petrov.
read more

Language without a childhood

Monday 23 January 2012

TeaserPicTurkish-born author, actor and director Emine Sevgi Özdamar was recently awarded the Alice Salomon Prize for Poetics. Coming to West Berlin in 1965, Özdamar first learned German at the age of 19. After stage school she went on to become the directorial assistant to Benno Besson and Matthias Langhoff at the Volksbühne in East Berlin while still living in West Berlin. Harald Jähner warmly lauds the author's uniquely visual sense of her acquired language and her ability to overcome the seemingly insurmountable dividing line through the city.
read more

Friendship in the time of terror

Monday 9 January 2012

Nadezhda Mandelstam's personal memories of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, her intimate friend, offer a unique and moving testimony to friendship and resistance over decades of persecution. Published only after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the text is still unavailable in English but has recently been translated into German. A unique historical document, celebrating an intellectual icon in an age of horror. Portrait of Akhmatova by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin.
read more

Just one drop of forgetfulness

Thursday 8 December, 2011

TeaserPicThis year is the 200th anniversary of the death of German writer Heinrich von Kleist. The author Gertrud Leutenegger has a very Kleistian afternoon on Elba, when she encounters the Marquise von O in the waiting room of a very strange eye doctor.
read more

German Book Prize 2011 - the short list

Tuesday 4 October, 2011

TeaserPicEugen Ruge has won the German Book Prize with his novel "In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts" (In times of fading light), an autobiographical story of an East German family. The award is presented to the best German-language novel just before the start of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Here we present this year's six shortlisted authors and exclusive English translations of excerpts from their novels.

read more

Torment and blessing

Wednesday 28 September, 2011

Chinese dissident Liao Yiwu escaped into exile in Germany in July this year. His new book about his life in Chongqing prison has just been published in German as "Für Ein Lied und Hundert Lieder". Both book and author have a life-threatening odyssey behind them. I am overjoyed that Liao Yiwu is here with us and not at home in prison. By Herta Müller
read more

In the vortex of congealed time

Monday 12 September, 2011

No other European city suffered more in World War II than Leningrad under siege, when over a million people lost their lives. Russian literature delivers a rich testimony of the events which have been all but forgotten by the West. Only a few works, though, also do the disaster aesthetic justice. By Oleg Yuriev
read more

My unrelenting vice

Tuesday 6 September 2011

In this apology for the vice of reading, Bora Cosic describes the magnificent and fantastic discoveries of one of its practitioners – revealing how texts contain what we bring to them, how we sometimes read without reading and how books are not only found in books but many other places. 
read more

Potential market, no buyers

Monday 4 July, 2011

The most successful Croatian book of 2008 sold exactly 1,904 copies. Not what one could really call a market, although together the successor republics represent a single language community. A look at the situation of publishers and authors in the former Yugoslavia. By Norbert Mappes-Niediek.
read more

Head versus hand

Monday 27 June, 2011

TeaserPicThis year's German International Literature Award goes to "Venushaar", a Russian novel that starts out as a dialogue between an asylum seeker and an immigration officer, and opens into a vast choir of voices. A conversation with its author Mikhail Shishkin, a literary giant in his own country, and his German translator Andreas Tretner. By Ekkehard Knörer. (Image: Mikhail Shishkin © Yvonne Böhler)
read more

Cry for life

Monday 20 May, 2011

Algeria's youth: Frustrated, isolated and in the stranglehold of clandestine political structures. Young Algerians are rebelling against being locked in traditional political and social structures, but have no chance of a national uprising like that in Tunisia, says Algerian author Boualem Sansal. An interview with Reiner Wandler.
read more

Witness to intellectual suicide

Tuesday 3 May, 2011

TeaserPicOn what would have been Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran's 100th birthday, Suhrkamp has published a volume of his essays from the 1930s, "Über Deutschland". Effervescing with enthusiasm for Hitler and fascist ideas, they cast a dark shadow over his later writing. Fritz Raddatz wishes he'd never had to read such abominations and bids a former companion a bitter farewell. Photo: E.M. Cioran © Surhrkamp Verlag
read more

RIP Andre Müller

Wednesday 13 April, 2011

TeaserPicAndre Müller Germany's most insightful and most feared interviewer is dead. Elfriede Jelinek said of him in her obituary: "Andre Müller goes all the way into people and then he makes them into language, and only then do they become themselves." Read his interviews with Ingmar Bergman and Hitler's sculptor Arno Breker in English. Photo courtesy Bibliothek der Provinz
read more

A country on the edge of time

Monday 4 April, 2011

TeaserPicSerbia was the country in focus at this year's Leipzig Book Fair – its extensive literature seems to be bound up in the straitjacket of politics. Serbia is having a hard time with Europe, and Europe is having a hard time with Serbia. Although there are signs of a softening stance, the country is still locked up in the self-imposed nationalist isolation into which it manoeuvred itself as the aggressor in the Yugoslavian war of secession. A visit there inspires mixed feelings. By Jörg Plath
Photo: Sreten Ugricic
read more