‘… words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.’ – Byron
Libris registered its name in September 1986 and published its first titles in 1988, and is therefore celebrating its 21st birthday in 2009.
Libris started out with a general list, including Victorian religious doubters (Froude and ‘Mark Rutherford’, its slowest selling titles), Neruda poems (now out of print), biographies of Italo Svevo and Wordsworth (the latter a reprint with embellishments), and the late Brigid Brophy’s Mozart book (also a reprint, but with additions and emendations, almost the author’s last work), which has been reprinted and still flourishes. However, from 1990 Libris has concentrated almost excusively on books of and about German literature from Goethe to Brecht (with gaps).
Small publishers are often called ‘independents’. This means they are ‘independent’ of big publishers, but they are as dependent as anyone else, if not more so. In Libris’s case on the following, to name but a few:
The late Joseph Suschitsky, who gave us (with permission) our name, once that of his German secondhand bookshop in Swiss Cottage; Susan Shaw, printer and print historian, with whom Libris was conceived one afternoon in Russell Square; John Willett, encourager and literary godfather; Tony Kitzinger, design and production manager (with Jerry Cinamon in the early days), fellow director, counsellor and endlessly patient computer coach; Norman Drake of Drake Marketing Services, who gave Libris the kiss of commercial life; Kate Pocock and the long-suffering two Andrews at Yale University Press, and all Yale reps; Bill Norris and the consistently helpful staff of Central Books; Gardis Cramer von Laue, erstwhile assistant and grid-form master; James King, webmaster; Christine Shuttleworth, exemplary indexer/proofreader and, latterly, translator; literary editors who occasionally chat (a rarer and rarer phenomenon); and not least the authors, translators and editors featured here.
Libris announces the publication of Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht by Erdmut Wizisla
‘Ex Occidente Luxus, ex Oriente Lux’
Apart from a few scattered mentions – a reference by André Malraux in the original Left Review of July 1936 which is almost certainly the first, a dedication by Arthur Koestler and references by the Marxist art historian Arnold Hauser, the first article in Britain on Walter Benjamin was George Steiner’s in Encounter in 1958, referring to him rather cryptically as ‘the R.P. Blackmur of Marxism’. British intellectual silence ensued until the first appearance of an actual work by Benjamin himself was published in New Left Review in Spring 1968 – ‘Paris – Capital of the Nineteenth Century’, translated by Quintin Hoare. Nor did that quintessential, nodal text have a tangible impact here. Such an impact followed only after the publication in the collection Illuminations of Benjamin’s essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (sic.), later more accurately translated as ‘in the age of its Mechanical Reproduceability’. Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn, was first published in the USA by Harcourt. Brace, and contained as an introduction the fine article on Benjamin by his friend Hannah Arendt. The book was issued here by Jonathan Cape in 1970.
Discussion of the ‘Work of Art’ essay was further stimulated, and took Benjamin beyond the literary sphere, by Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s trailblazing article ‘The Consciousness Industry’, again in New Left Review in 1970, quickly followed by the even more influential John Berger in his television series ‘Ways of Seeing’ in 1972, followed by the Penguin paperback of the same title later the same year. A further iconic Benjamin essay – ‘The Author as Producer’ – had been published, once more in New Left Review in 1970, translated by John Heckman. This first flurry of Walter Benjamin translations was completed by his ‘Short History of Photography’, translated by Stanley Mitchell in Screen, in Spring 1972.
All of this had emanated from the two-volume German edition of Benjamin’s ‘Collected’ works, edited by Theodor W. Adorno and his wife Gretel (Suhrkamp,1955), followed in 1961 by the volumes Illuminationen and Angelus Novus. Adorno had been a friend of Benjamin’s, but also an opponent of his Marxist and politically left-wing radical tendencies. When the literary activists of the German student movement of the late sixties and early seventies began, with characteristic German scholarship, to scrutinize Adorno’s editing, they were able to show a consistent political bias in his choice and interpretation of Benjamin’s texts, and virtually to discredit his editing. The ultimate outcome of all this was the fourteen volumes of Benjamin’s Gesammelte Schriften (Suhrkamp, 1974–89), edited by the Adorno pupil Rolf Tiedemann, Hermann Schweppenhäuser and others , an edition which is now being replaced by a completely new critical collected edition which will be quite free of Adorno’s powerful influence.
From 1966, when it is known that another close friend of Benjamin (and enemy of his politics), the Jewish theologian Gershom Scholem, visited the Potsdam Archives in East Berlin to look at the Benjamin holdings there, and particularly since 1970 with the publication of the substantial volume of Benjamin’s essays on German-language literature entitled Lesezeichen (literally ‘Bookmarks’) (Reclam, Leipzig), edited by Gerhard Seidel and including works not published in the two 1955 volumes, or in the subsequent collections, it was known that there was an East German Benjamin story to tell. Lesezeichen, for instance, included a radio broadcast by Benjamin on Bertolt Brecht which had never been published before. In its introduction Seidel had implicitly criticized Adorno’s editing and presentation of Benjamin. Adorno responded by asserting his rights to the Benjamin Literary Estate, or to its control, with the result that Suhrkamp demanded the pulping of Seidel’s chunky Reclam volume, a large number of which had already been sold.
That, however, was not quite the end of Benjamin’s publishing history in East Germany. In 1971 the independent scholar Rosemarie Heise, wife of the philosopher Wolfgang, edited Benjamin’s Das Paris des Second Empire bei Baudelaire, illustrated with prints and photographs (Aufbau). This volume also contained an albeit short but essential piece found by Heise in the Potsdam Archive, the incomplete methodological introduction to the work, including a section called ‘Taste’, all of which only existed in a shorter version in the much larger Frankfurt Archive, and which was in fact published in English, in Benjamin’s Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, translated by Harry Zohn (New Left Books, 1973), before it was published in West Germany.
The subtext of the bitter, but for all sorts of reasons of literary and diplomatic politics, undeclared war between the Adorno camp in Frankfurt in the West and Seidel and the Potsdam Archive in the East, was the influence on Walter Benjamin of Bertolt Brecht. It is therefore not without a certain justification that the first, and till now only, study devoted to this subject should be the work of Gerhard Seidel’s pupil and successor as Director of the Bertolt Brecht Archive, Erdmut Wizisla, who is now also one of the contributing editors to the forthcoming new Benjamin edition and Director of the new Walter Benjamin Archive which combines the Frankfurt, Potsdam and Paris archives in one. Only the recently-discovered holdings of Walter Benjamin manuscripts in Moscow need to be added for possible completion.
Wizisla’s work began in 1987 as a PhD in what was then East Germany and eventually saw the light of day, published by Surhkamp, the distinguished publishers of Brecht and Benjamin, in 2004. Libris considers it a great privilege to publish such a work whose subject comprises the lives, the opinions and the behaviour of some of the leading intellectuals of Weimar and exile Germany, including Adorno and his wife Gretel Karplus, Hannah Arendt, Ernst Bloch, Siegfried Kracauer, Asja Lacis, Gershom Scholem, not to mention, in first place, the inner and outer Brecht circles and Walter Benjamin’s multifarious friends.
Such is Libris’s lead title of 2009. It will be produced at the same time in the USA by Yale University Press, New Haven.
The Libris list is notable for its discoveries, revivals and translations, and distinguished for the fine production of its books. Thought, care and affection go into each one of them, and I am constantly grateful for being reminded that England has always been and is still culturally a part of Europe.
Libris is a glorious exception to the growing insularity of UK publishing. Its books are European in spirit. They are impeccably researched, edited and produced.
Libris has done a great service to lovers of literature by publishing first-rate translations and biographies which have enriched our image of German literature.
If the small publisher is an endangered species, how much more so is the small publisher of German literature in the English-speaking world. Libris is therefore a minor miracle on the literary scene.
Libris is to be commended for its innovative list and for keeping so many classic authors of European literature in print, many of whom like Hans Fallada have been unjustly neglected.