Publisher Be Damned

The feud at Germany’s most respected publishing house reads like a passage from Vanity Fair written by Thomas Mann

What’s in a book? Everything, it would seem in Germany. The “country of poets and thinkers”, as Madame de Staël called it in the early 1800s, is traditionally bibliophile; even today literary feuds can become front page news. The idea that Kultur is an asset deriving from written words still forms the national narrative. 

Imagine, then, the upheaval of sensitivities when Suhrkamp, the country’s most respected publishing house, filed for bankruptcy, torn apart by a row over money and management. 

“That’s just the working of the market,” an English friend of mine said and shrugged his shoulders when I anxiously told him that the publisher of Bertolt Brecht, Hermann Hesse and Jürgen Habermas might go bust. “I really don’t see what you’re on about. If a business is failing, it’s not worth getting worked up about.” 

What’s worrying the enlightened bourgeoisie in this case? It’s a story that reads like a passage from Vanity Fair written by Thomas Mann. Two rival shareholders who are trying to oust the other ask a court to dissolve their partnership; illustrious authors grapple for exotic metaphors to attack one of the shareholders; a respected critic accuses the other one of going mad — the abyss of evil on all sides, engulfing the German Geist!

The tale behind this peculiar row is straightforward enough: Hans Barlach, a wealthy investor who is a minority shareholder in the company, accuses Suhrkamp’s majority shareholder, Ulla Unseld-Berkéwicz, of mismanagement. She in turn claims that Barlach, who tried to buy her out, is only after a quick profit. The unlikely pair have been locked in a bitter power struggle for years, which has entailed numerous legal battles, drained the company of money and damaged its image. The particular process employed in this case (Schutzschirmverfahren — it had to be a long compound noun) is a new legal tool (similar to administration in the UK) which has never been applied to a similar situation in publishing. It is impossible to know what its effects will be.

It’s a no-win situation: on one side is a woman who takes poetry as seriously as a business plan; on the other, a perma-tanned parvenu in a pinstripe suit who doesn’t know his Habermas from his Horkheimer — two characters trapped in the turmoil of bringing down an institution which makes them both look like failures to most observers. 

The Suhrkamp era began with Siegfried Unseld, a now legendary figure who joined the firm in the early 1950s and led it until his death 11 years ago. During Unseld’s reign, the company, originally founded in the mid-1930s as a way of evading the censorship of the Nazi regime, became an institution. In every field — contemporary German literature, foreign language literature, the humanities — it flourished. The term “Suhrkamp-Kultur” meant innovative thinking with a stylistic panache to match.  An independent house, Suhrkamp is small — Barlach values Suhrkamp at €75 million, which is tiny compared with big American or English publishers — but revered for its integrity and literary programme.

 It is a home of the enlightened form of critical thinking that emerged after 1945 and which blossomed in the 1960s; theory had the appeal of a dashing art form. The backlist of authors reads like a who’s who of intellectuals and writers. And even today, a managing director of the company could say that Suhrkamp wasn’t about a quick turnover of bestsellers but “about people who are able to think unique thoughts and have the talent to write those thoughts down”. 

Today, with Unseld’s widow in charge, the company has lost some of its old-world charm (some leading authors, such as Martin Walser, left when she took over), but maintains a strong foothold both in contemporary culture and how Germany imagines itself to be.

Every book critic fears the day he or she opens the envelope with invitations for the Frankfurt book fair, only to find the one from Suhrkamp missing. The reception held in Unseld’s villa in a leafy, well-to-do part of the city may no longer be the place where glamour and intellect mix for one wild night, but if there’s a place to be seen, this is it.

When I was growing up in Germany, Suhrkamp built and upheld a spirit that I now see as a kind of continuation of enlightenment thought. Every household of the bohemian chattering classes had its books, with their flashy yet classic rainbow colours. When I was a child visiting friends’ houses, they were always a comforting signal. 

“There should be a bail-out,” I finally said to my English friend, hoping that my longing for this kind of measure wasn’t as old-fashioned as the battered edition of Albert Camus I hold dear ever since a boyfriend gave it to me. Then again, it is a classic.

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