Conrad First The Joseph Conrad Periodical Archive

Sailing Into Germany: Conrad, the S. Fischer Verlag, and Die Neue Rundschau

Anthony Fothergill, University of Exeter

© Anthony Fothergill. No part of this text may be reposted or republished without the permission of the author.


[This essay is a revised version of material in Anthony Fothergill, Secret Sharers: Joseph Conrad’s Cultural Reception in Germany (Peter Lang, 2006). Reproduced with permission.]


In his diary entry for Thursday, 12 November 1925, Oskar Loerke, the poet and publisher’s editor, writes: “A zone of loneliness. Frost outside.—Read for the publisher. Whole days long on Joseph Conrad: “The Duel”, novella. Under Western Eyes, novel. A cold spirit. A talent of a very high order. Reading the hottest stories leaves the reader hung with icicles” (Loerke 1955, 126).1 In a way which palpably projects onto what he is reading the local atmosphere of his own temperament and moment, Loerke sees in Conrad a writer both engaged and distant. In every aspect, Loerke’s own cool but deeply appreciative tone is apt. Conrad could hardly have had a more sensitive or, as it turned out, a more significant German reader at that moment in Weimar Republic literary culture. In retrospect, one might say that the diary entry was to prove a vital one for the afterlife of Joseph Conrad in Germany. For the person who was about to receive Loerke’s recommendation for publication was Samuel Fischer, whose famous publishing house, S. Fischer Verlag, was arguably the most important among serious literary publishers in Germany, both before the First World War, and during and after the period of the Weimar Republic.
How did Conrad “enter” Germany and how did the specific forms of his reception lead to his overwhelming acceptance among a large and influential German reading public after the First World War? The history of Conrad in Germany is inextricably linked to the publishing company, S. Fischer Verlag. But it was not just the “hard-copy” editions of his books which introduced Conrad to his German public in translation. The publisher’s journal “Die Neue Rundschau” played a crucial programmatic role in bringing “Fischer writers” to the public’s attention. Specifically, my use of Loerke and his fortuitous diary entry symbolically brings together two crucial dimensions of cultural reception with which this essay is concerned. First, we have the actual and individual reading and response to a writer with all its traces of occurring in a specific moment in history. Second, this particular reader, Loerke, an influential editor for a famous publisher, the S. Fischer Verlag, is literally and figuratively mediating between the privacy of the reading experience and those public forms which enable such reading in the first place: the publishing-house itself and the other cultural institutions whose policies largely determine the availability of, if not fully the response to, what is made culturally accessible. These institutional dimensions of reading provide a context for the public’s assimilation of culture. They are necessary but not sufficient conditions determining how we individually understand our personal cultural identities.
Founded in 1886 in Berlin by Samuel Fischer, it was S. Fischer Verlag who published the then most progressive literary writers, many under the banner of Naturalism. These included among others Gerhard Hauptmann, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannstahl and the early Thomas Mann; in translation, Ibsen, Zola, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Shaw. Indeed, S. Fischer had contracts with Shaw to bring out his collected dramatic works, which he did from 1904 onwards. Alongside the works of Shaw and Walt Whitman, Conrad was the last major foreign writer Samuel Fischer undertook to publish in his lifetime. But it was the collected fictional works of Conrad which was to prove the largest and most longstanding foreign language enterprise in the publishing history of S. Fischer Verlag, indeed in modern Germany, stretching into the present day with fresh translations and new editions.2 However his popularity was partly dependent on the kinds of publishing initiatives the Verlag undertook.
Oskar Loerke (1884–1941), Conrad’s initial champion so far as Fischer Verlag was concerned, was an established poet, essayist, critic and literary journalist, whose own lyric poetry had introduced him to the German reading public before the First World War. By the 1920s, the style of his own poetry fell between the classicism of the nineteenth century and its rejuvenated modern forms. While not embracing the literary avant-garde radicalism of German DADA or Expressionist poetry, Loerke was nevertheless neither ignorant nor dismissive of such artistic modern innovations. Indeed, one recent critic has described his lyrical works in a way very reminiscent of the kinds of ambiguities to the natural world, the cultural tradition and contemporary history which we find characteristic of qualities in the works of Joseph Conrad himself:

[Loerke] opened the subject-matter of his poems to the experiences of modern urban existence, but characteristically he related them to long-term historical developments and to the cultural heritage of antiquity. He maintained a sensitivity towards systems of belief that had held sway in the past, but he did so in the awareness that they had lost their ability to convince a sceptical and scientific consciousness. In both these senses Loerke’s poetry displays a curious bifocal quality. He himself speaks of a “dual consciousness of near and far”, and of the need to maintain a balance—beyond all utilitarian claims on poetic expression—between the realistic and the romantic dimensions of modern cultural awareness. (Midgley 2000, 78)

It is hardly surprising, when we place such a description of Loerke’s own poetic and intellectual sensibility in juxtaposition with Conrad’s, that we find this early German reader of the conservative sceptic, the innovatory traditionalist, impressed by the dualities ever present in Conrad.
Loerke’s later diary entries indicate the energy with which he engaged with the new Conrad project. He discussed it at length with Samuel Fischer, worked on the prospectus for the collected edition and, in 1927, completed corrections to the new translation of “a Conrad novella”, probably The Nigger of the “Narcissus”, the only novella to come out that year with Fischer Verlag alongside Lord Jim, Nostromo and Victory.
As a mediating presence between what I have called the private and the public world of literary culture, Loerke’s significance at this same time was growing. He rose into greater cultural and political prominence in a new capacity when, in 1926, he became a member of the most important German cultural institution, the Prussian Academy for the Arts. In 1928, at a crucial moment in Weimar cultural politics, he was appointed as Secretary to its newly-formed Literary Section. This was to become the focal point for the most heated political cultural debates in the late Weimar period under the increasing threat of a Nazi take-over, where cultural policy and members” writerly and political allegiances were being constantly argued and tested. His diaries record the growing difficulties of Loerke’s formal position, both a member of a publishing community represented by Fischer with the most prominent of liberal and leftist writers but also working in an increasingly hostile politicized cultural institution under the sway of the Right.
That was, at least, until 13 March 1933, when he was summarily dismissed from the post under new Nazi cultural directives issued by Goebbels. He had refused to formerly swear cultural allegiance to the new regime. Loerke’s diary for those crucial spring months detail the brutal, desperate rapidity with which the liberal cultural establishment represented in the Academy, was attacked, undermined, humiliated and forced into resignation or into effective dismissal. These included Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Käthe Kollwitz, Alfred Döblin, Hermann Hesse, Ricarda Huch and many others. In an entry for early April, 1933, talking of the period he had found it too emotionally hard to record on a daily basis, Loerke writes:

I was forced to request release from my position, in order not to be kicked and wounded any more, now, after my bones had been broken; no longer to have to lie on the street to be trampled over, but rather finally to be given permission to crawl into the corner. (Loerke 1955, 263)

But in the autumn of 1926 things had been looking incomparably brighter. With Loerke’s encouragement, Samuel Fischer started a complete German edition of Conrad’s works, only shortly after the Uniform Edition of Conrad was launched by J. M. Dent in England (1923–1928). Fischer’s Conrad publishing project put that writer seriously on the German cultural map for the first time and he is still being re-published today.
The Fischer Verlag based its Conrad Collected Edition on translation rights of his works which Fischer had started to acquire some years earlier on a book-by-book basis, which reflected the complex history of Conrad translations into German. There was already a cultural awareness of his works in Germany through infrequent translations before the First World War. Thanks partly to the publicity which Tales of Unrest (1898) had gained in winning an annual award from The Academy and partly to Arnold Bennett’s glowing review of it, some German journals had brought out translations of short stories from that collection as early as 1900, and these received a laudatory response. In 1908 the Stuttgart publishers Engelhorn Verlag brought out “Taifun” and “Amy Foster”. Some further translations of Conrad came in the following years (1912–1914) with Albert Langen Verlag of Munich. But with the outbreak of the First World War further publication of Conrad in Germany ceased.
As a result, with the exception of Under Western Eyes, literary awareness of Conrad for German-language readers remained limited to what were more minor works. There is a certain Conradian irony here. It was only in 1914 that Conrad had made his “break-through” into the popular consciousness in England and America with the commercial success of Chance, thanks largely to shrewd marketing and American newspaper serialization. Under more benign circumstances a German translation of Chance might have widened his appeal in Germany much sooner. But the war and its aftermath put paid to that. Further works by Conrad for which there were already granted rights remained untranslated into German, or if already translated, were not published. Any major and easy reception of Conrad in Germany thus faced a hiatus—that is until 1926, with Fischer’s launching of the Collected Works. 3
Immediately after the war, political and economic conditions in Germany rendered publishing, particularly the publishing of foreign writers, precarious. In an influential early critical essay on him, one of the first translators of Conrad, Ernst Wolfgang Freissler, explains that after 1918 the crisis of inflation, the cost of paper and the conditions of the Versailles Peace Treaty (1919) all conspired to make virtually impossible the publishing of foreign works (Freissler 1929, 125–30). One of the paragraphs of the treaty rendered null and void any German rights which had been established in pre-war contracts with writers from the victorious Allied countries. But these restrictions did not stop Samuel Fischer from seeking to acquire the rights to Conrad’s works, with the ultimate aim of publishing them, initially as single volumes but as part of the Collected Edition of the fictional works “in order to introduce to the public this so complicated a writer”, as the Fischer archivist called him (Mendelssohn 1970, 1056).
Even getting the translation rights was not straightforward, and where German rights had already been granted these were split between different English, German and Danish publishers. But Fischer slowly accumulated. After Conrad’s death in 1924, Fischer bought from his executors the German rights for eight titles for a one-off payment of forty pounds for each title. These included The Shadow-Line, Victory, The Rescue, Suspense and The Rover. Curiously, in 1919, the Danish publisher Gyldenal in Copenhagen had acquired the German rights to Almayer’s Folly and The Arrow of Gold, which were now sold on to Fischer. In London, T. Fisher Unwin, Conrad’s first English publisher, held the rights to An Outcast of the Islands, which he passed over to Samuel Fischer in 1927. Since 1912, the German publication rights for Lord Jim were owned by Rütten & Loening, of Frankfurt, who had commissioned a translation by Hedwig Lachmann. Samuel Fischer acquired her translation for a thousand Reichsmark, but he was not quite happy with its quality. In a letter to the Frankfurt firm, he writes:

The translation by Frau Lachmann is, on the whole, good. But there are a considerable number of technical descriptions that need correcting. Frau Lachmann’s literary style is faultless, and yet it is not characteristic of Conrad’s manly style” (Mendelssohn 1970, 1057–8).

This comment is unconsciously telling. One of the abiding critical attitudes shared by both English and German readers, certainly then, and even perhaps now, is the assumption which Fischer himself is making about a notion of “manliness”. Conrad, apparently, so exemplifies this “manliness” that he can hardly be read by a woman, let alone be translated by one. Now curiously enough Fischer was sharing a view Conrad himself seemed also to hold. Fischer might have sensed it, but it is most unlikely he could have known it at the time. In 1919 Conrad wrote on the matter of translation to his long-time friend André Gide, who had for years been championing him in France and was heavily involved in translating his works (West 1996). Gide had arranged for a team consisting mainly of women, to work on the French editions, specifically at this point The Arrow of Gold. Conrad wanted his friend G. Jean-Aubry (a man) to do the translation and a completely uncharacteristically vituperative exchange of letters ensued. After thanking Gide for his scrupulosity, Conrad writes:

But I think that when one is scrupulous, one should be entirely so. If my writings have a pronounced character, it is their virility—of spirit, inclination, style. No one has denied me that. And you throw me to the women! In your letter, you yourself say that in the final reckoning a translation is an interpretation. Very well, I want to be interpreted by masculine intelligences. It’s perfectly natural […]. But frankly, my dear fellow, when after much hesitation Joseph Conrad makes a reasonable request about something very close to his heart, one does not answer in this fashion: “A lady has got her hands on the book(!)” […]. (CL 6: 516)

There is something peculiar about the way Conrad sometimes refers to himself as if in the third person; as if his name does not belong to him. Here it is as though his idea of a certain translated self has been offended. The concept of perceived “virility”, “manliness”, has occasioned it, which surely has its historical as well as psychological grounding.
Certainly “manliness” became a central and recurring theme in German culture in the aftermath of the First World War, not least as an expression of, or a reaction to, defeat and the appalling losses the war visited on its participants (Kaes 1983; Theweleit 1985). It is thus not surprising that in Conrad’s early German reception a concern for the idea of a “manly” literature and set of values constituted a significant critical turn and argument. A number of critics seem obliged to refer to it as some kind of benchmark, perhaps overly-encouraged by Thomas Mann’s introduction to The Secret Agent, in which, trying to grasp the quality of the writer, Mann comes up with “his virile talent (männliches Talent), his Englishness, his free brow, his clear, steady and humorous eye” (Mann 1933, 234). Hermann Hesse’s review-article on Under Western Eyes takes up the baton, but in an almost humorously obtuse manner. Asking why Conrad has not been adopted so quickly in Germany—though by 1933 this is no longer quite so true—Hesse suggests that unfortunately “those who would unarguably be enthusiastic about him, namely seamen, are not passionate readers”. (Clearly, Hesse knows his sailors.) Nevertheless, this wonderful writer Conrad is slowly making inroads, for “besides his courageous manliness and knightly-English notion of honour, there is so much more secret, hidden complication and contradiction in his remarkable soul”. Hesse then develops a play around, on the one hand Conrad’s ‘simple, upright and clean moral sensibility, born of his English naval officer-class with its code of honour” and on the other “a delicate psychology which borders on an almost manic joy, taken in the hidden, in intrigue and the slow unraveling of secret relationships”. Like Dostoevsky, he raises qualities of detective fiction way above that genre, though the Russian, with his Christian-mythical belief remains so much more superior as writer to Conrad with his English concept of the Gentleman. In Under Western Eyes, Conrad the Pole as opposed to Conrad the Englishman comes most undisguisedly into focus, depicting as it does the clash of tsarist East and the West. Hesse concludes:

I can imagine that perhaps some of the light-blond haired, blue-eyed, northern readers, deep admirers of Conrad—and it is not just among the literati but also among English and Dutch naval officers that he has enthusiastic admirers—will be likely to find this book rather puzzling. But its depths and demons would be unthinkable without Conrad’s double nature.4 (Hesse 1970, vol.12, 374–6)

It was in fact Ernst W. Freissler who undertook a revision of Lord Jim, coming to work for S. Fischer as translator and commissioning editor of foreign language books by a curious route. Before the war (under the pseudonym of Ernst Wolfgang Günter) he had originally been commissioned to translate The Secret Agent for Albert Langen Verlag, who owned the German rights for that and five other Conrad novels, including Youth, Chance and Nostromo, which translations were in preparation. Fischer sought to negotiate with Albert Langen Verlag, which was willing to sell publication rights but advised that as it was Freissler who held the copyright of the actual translations, Fischer should talk to him. The result was more far-reaching than Albert Langen bargained for. Not only did Fischer take over Freissler’s Conrad translations. He virtually poached the man himself from Albert Langen, offering him a position in his, Fischer’s, publishing house, to oversee not only the Conrad Collected Edition but also all other foreign language publications. By 1927 Fischer Verlag was in possession of all the German publishing rights to Conrad’s works with just one exception. The only rights he failed to acquire in his lifetime were for Typhoon, Engelhorn proving unwilling to transfer their interest in the novel to Fischer. Only in 1978 did it appear in Fischer Verlag.
The first volumes to appear, in 1926, were The Secret Agent, Chance and Youth (consisting of Youth, Heart of Darkness and “The End of the Tether”), all in Freissler’s translations, and The Shadow-Line, done into German by a woman translator, Elsie McCalman. These were followed in 1927 by Lord Jim, translated by H. Lachmann and E.W. Freissler, and in Freissler’s translations The Nigger of the “Narcissus”, Nostromo, and Victory. By 1939 all his subsequent fictional works (with the exception of Typhoon) had appeared along with two sets of memoirs, A Personal Record and The Mirror of the Sea.
How was this order of publication decided? Some of the answers involve pragmatic publishing decisions. Freissler brought over with him to Fischer a completed translation of The Secret Agent and a number of draft-translations that could be published swiftly. Fortuitously—but it would not have escaped Fischer’s keen entrepreneurial eye—these included Chance (with a first edition print run of 5,000), Conrad’s first big English success. The Secret Agent and The Shadow-Line were given early and special promotional treatment by Fischer Verlag, with prominent introductory essays by two of his most established writers, Thomas Mann and Jakob Wassermann. But however telling these commercially pragmatic arguments were, the fact that these last two novels received such initial attention might also have to do with their subject-matter.
In the aftermath of the war and the feared breakdown of social community the first, The Secret Agent, offered an almost forensic account of political and personal subterfuge and betrayal. The novel, bringing together themes of domestic and political internal breakdown beneath an appearance of order and normality, of enemies within, could have carried a potent resonance in Germany. In contrast, the second, The Shadow-Line, the only substantial piece of writing Conrad produced during the First World War, can and has been read as his response to that war. As he put it in a letter to John Quinn on 6 May 1917: “We don't fight for democracy or any other 'cracy' or for humanitarian or pacifist ideals. We are fighting for life first, for freedom of thought and development in whatever form next.” (CL 6: 86) This primary struggle for a country’s survival is “translated” into the microcosmic order of a ship’s crew under dire threat of death and destruction. The natural ordeals which the captain and crew confront bring the awareness that only through the recognition of human interdependence and mutual responsibility can all survive.
So both novels, showing the Janus-like face of society under threat carried particularly powerful echoes for Fischer’s post-war readers. In other words, the publication order can be seen as much as a reading of Weimar Germany’s situation as it was of Conrad’s novels taken somehow in isolation. With these works Conrad stepped, as it were, into post-war Germany.
Conrad’s “afterlife” and reception in Germany benefited greatly from Fischer Verlag being one of the most liberal and forward-thinking publishing houses in Germany, not least in the way it created a notion of a cohesive publishing “identity”. Samuel Fischer built up close personal friendships with writers he published, as can be seen by his voluminous correspondence with them. Furthermore one of his great talents as a publisher was to identify innovatory possibilities in existing publishing practices, particularly as these bore upon the promotion of his writers. His entrepreneurial instincts married with his intellectual and cultural tastes to introduce new forms of publishing practice and thinking in the cultural sphere. Being a “Fischer author”—as Conrad became posthumously—was also a form of cultural label.
From very early on Fischer saw the advantages of linking different publishing interests and media into one coherent body, effectively allowing each to support the other and thus enhance all. Within the first months of its founding, S. Fischer was publishing translations of Ibsen, Tolstoy Zola and Dostoevsky, thus marking itself out as a publisher of serious contemporary literature and ideas. In 1890 Fischer established what soon became a highly influential cultural review; first entitled the Freie Bühne (Free Stage), in 1910 it was re-named the Neue Rundschau (New Revue). As the first title suggests, it took its initial lead from the controversial naturalistic drama dominating the last decade of the nineteenth century. But it soon extended its reach into broader literary and cultural areas. It combined a wide range of cultural critical articles, essay-length reviews and short stories, often in serialized form. Translations of foreign authors regularly appeared, as well as letters and memoirs, frequently by or related to Fischer authors. It was a monthly journal, collected in half-yearly volumes, running at its height in the early 1920s to some 12,000 copies each issue, a seriously significant circulation figure. Fischer’s promotion of the half-yearly volume also helped to create the sense of the Verlag’s intellectual unity and continuity. The cosmopolitan, culturally wide-ranging and contemporary ethos of the Verlag was there to be found within the Neue Rundschau’s bound volumes. Serialized excerpts from Conrad’s works, including selections from his letters, thus enjoyed a prominent stage from the start of his German “appearance”.
In the same half-year that Freissler’s essay on Conrad came out, we find short stories by Thomas Mann, Joseph Roth and a translation of Virginia Woolf’s “An Unwritten Story”, poetry by Gottfried Benn, a literary essay on the novel by Alfred Döblin and Oskar Loerke’s article on the problems of the lyric form. Further essays of a political cultural kind included one on the “Europeanizing of England”, on Pan-America, and, over four issues of the journal, Lytton Strachey’s “Elizabeth and Essex”, as well as review notes on contemporary European arts. This was quite typical of the Neue Rundschau’s range and orientation, and the journal came to play a central role in the cultural presentation of Fischer’s chief authors. No other publishing house in Germany ran such a prominent cultural journal in tandem with its main book-publishing concerns.
Particularly in the 1920s and 1930s the journal helped consolidate and represent the new republican, cosmopolitan and broadly-speaking liberal intellectual ethos which S. Fischer Verlag represented through the range of its other publications. From its start open to new artistic literary trends it nevertheless did not fully embrace—but nor did it ignore—the importance of Expressionist writers, who for a time had been a kind of touchstone for the cultural position by which serious literary journals identified themselves. Only Franz Werfel was fully represented as a would-be Expressionist. But it was with some of the most important writers of the period that the journal was closely associated. It published the cream of contemporary German and foreign writing. Gerhart Hauptmann and Thomas Mann, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Gottfried Benn, Robert Musil and Alfred Döblin all appeared in the Neue Rundschau as regular contributors. Indeed, for a period both Musil and Döblin acted as editors for the journal. Among other writers in the issues of the 1920s and 1930s Brecht, Conrad, Dos Passos, Gide, Kafka, Ortega y Gasset, Rilke, Shaw, Tolstoy, Valéry and Woolf frequently appear. Thus it was a publication catering to a broad intellectual and culturally-informed readership. With its relatively large circulation its appeal was not by any means to a solely academic public, but rather to what Virginia Woolf would have considered the “Common Reader”. Furthermore, most of its contributors were freelance writers. This lent a politically sophisticated but independent complexion to its articles. Clearly against right-wing radicalism, it characteristically supported broadly-speaking a social democratic political position in its general ambiance and was decisively for a broad European cosmopolitan understanding.
An indication of this kind of modernity comes in what might seem merely a literally superficial feature of the visual image of the type-face which the journal, indeed Fischer Verlag in general, adopted. For centuries two forms of print, Antiqua (Roman) and Fraktur (Gothic) existed in Germany. Whereas in Britain the roman type came to dominate from the 16th century on, in Germany, it tended to be reserved to works in Latin, and later, in the 1800s, to works of a scientific nature. The gothic type largely prevailed in general publishing until well into the 20th century, and gothic was the typeface typically adopted by newspapers and many publishers up to the 1930s. But by the start of the 20th century, and in some ways counter-intuitive to the words but not to the spirit of the terms, modern-leaning publications generally chose the Antiqua typeface as the favoured variant. They thus visually declared themselves as tending towards a cosmopolitan, ideologically “liberal” cultural stance. Those choosing to continue with the Fraktur form tended to be more conservative and traditional. So the type-face increasingly functioned as a statement of intellectual and political-cultural orientation. This became a thoroughly politicized choice when, with the rise of Nazism and the ideological stress on a return to “Teutonic” origins, the gothic appearance of Fraktur marked out through its adoption, or absence, the allegiance or otherwise to Nazi ideals (Schlawe 1962, 6). We can say that its very type-face projected Fischer Verlag’s cultural position. Not surprisingly, Fischer Verlag and the Neue Rundschau, modern and international in tendency, used Antiqua. It would not be long before they came into increasing conflict with the political Right.
During the Nazi Reich, the publication continued under the editorship of Peter Suhrkamp, who by 1936 was also directing S. Fischer’s main publishing concern. He managed to maintain a limited publication presence for the journal, offering under increasing threats from the Nazi censors and their masters, literary forms of passive resistance to the regime. This was until 1944 when it became clear to the authorities that he and the journal had to go. In April 1944 Suhrkamp was arrested on suspicion of high treason and imprisoned in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The journal was shut down in the autumn of 1944. Remarkably, Suhrkamp survived, and the journal and S. Fischer Verlag were resuscitated after the end of the war. Suhrkamp was the first German publisher to receive permission from the Allied authorities (in this case the British, in the person of Col. Hon. T. B. G. Henessey) to recommence publication in 1945. On the first list of ten authors which the Verlag intended to publish was Conrad (Unseld 1969, 409–11). So the Neue Rundschau and Fischer Verlag lived on, as both do to this day.5
Thus before and throughout the Weimar Republic, under radically changing conditions in the political sphere and the book-publishing world, Samuel Fischer had the foresight to consolidate the differing aspects of his publishing house by orchestrating its various interests. In addition to the journal, the entrepreneurial spirit in Fischer also recognized the innovatory potential of the Almanac, a traditional publishing form which, though as old as the history of German publishing itself, held fresh publicity opportunities which Fischer exploited. Almost by accident, recognizing the massively successful reception in 1911 of a Fischer Almanach which celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Verlag’s founding—40,000 copies were sold—Fischer saw the virtues of making this an annual publishing event (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

So-called Musen-Almanache, “Almanacs of the Muses”, calendar reminders of important events, celebrating particular publishing achievements or literary commemorations, had long existed in Germany. But they were, in both senses, occasional and autonomous publications. The anthology of authors included were not necessarily restricted to specific publishing houses and were not, in other words, seen as promoting the current works solely of a particular firm. What Samuel Fischer realized with the success of the 1911 Almanach was that this form of publication could advertise and enhance the profile of the publishing company itself, by including extracts from forthcoming books, essays by prominent “in-house” writers, alongside current catalogue lists and illustrations of book covers. Without the cruder aspects of advertizing press commentaries, book blurbs, prospectuses or blatant market-place selling, the annual almanac could inform discriminating readers, inviting them into the purchasing of new works. Evidently, it could play a role as a marketing tool to consolidate the names and the cultural ethos of the publisher and his authors—be they rising, established or, like Conrad, introduced to the German reading-public virtually for the first time.
The Almanac was frequently used in the early years of the Conrad edition to promote him:

The works of Joseph Conrad introduce to the German public a writer [Dichter] who over recent years has achieved worldwide fame. As a modern writer of the sea, following a long and adventurous life as a sailor, he is beyond rival. More than that, in all his art he teaches us how to see and to hear in a new and powerful way.(Almanach: Das vierzigste Jahr 1926, 177) (see also Figure 2)

Figure 2

The Almanach 1928 virtually asserts that for S. Fischer Verlag, and Germany, Conrad has truly landed:

We can safely say that since last year, during which we began publication of his works in German, Joseph Conrad has almost achieved the sort of recognition and admiration due to one of our own great German writers. Just how powerful is the range of his human and artistic personality will be clearly discovered in this year’s further publications. Four new novels by Conrad are now available—four major works by the great writer. (Almanach: Das vierzigste Jahr 1926, 58)

A further innovation which Fischer exploited lay in the nature of the house contracts he agreed with his authors. At the turn of the century it was quite common for writers to negotiate contracts for individual works with different publishers. There might be personal loyalties and commitments which meant an author might maintain continuity with one publisher over several works; but this did not tend to include prospective works or work-in-progress. Samuel Fischer’s interests lay precisely in building a reputation for his company (and the writers) by creating that continuity into an identity.
He sets out this “vision” in a seminal essay on “Der Verleger und der Büchermarkt” (The Publisher and the Book-market) in the 25th Jubilee Almanac of 1911 (Almanach. Das XXV. Jahr 1911, 24–33). To encourage a broader reading-public and market among those not necessarily used to purchasing books, he argues that it is the publisher’s task to help readers identify the kinds of books they choose to read from the vast range on offer by creating a cultural profile of the publisher. He stresses the commercial nature of book-publishing but also points out that unlike other “goods” on the market they have less a material than an abstract, intangible value. The rapid increase in the industrializing processes of printing have lead to a phenomenal increase in reading-matter, but this is largely at the level of mass-circulating newspapers and other reading material of the day, such as leaflets, and circulars at the popular end of the market.6 But, Fischer argues, the basic forms of book selling have hardly changed in response. There is a massive increase in book titles in German-speaking countries: 31,000 per year, compared to 13,000 in France and 11,000 in England. German book-selling is finely organized. But despite the increase in readers, “the masses” do not have the habit of buying books. Libraries, book-clubs (Buchgemeinschaften) flourish. But what do their members read? How are readers to be informed about and encouraged to buy books of greater literary value, particularly by young talented writers without an established name? Samuel Fischer argues further:

The reading public is very sensitive to the mediating role of some publishers who, through the selection of their range of works, show their own particular taste and character. It would be greatly advantageous for orientating the reader in the book market and prove an effective protection against the industrialization of literary publishing houses, if, besides their specializing [in particular areas, genres etc] they could develop a finer definition of their publishing profile. The writer’s choice of his publisher would be made easier, too, if he knew where he belonged, in which circle of writers he felt himself to be at home.
The publishers who distinguish themselves individually will, with time, positively attract a group of writers to their field of activity. Then, within the framework of a homogeneous publishing ethos, the writer can be made more clearly visible than if he were spread individually among different publishers of the most varied character. The coherence and unity of the company would make it easier to create a market for his products. An author who lets his works appear now with this publisher, and now with that one, makes it difficult for the public as well as for the bookseller to have an overview of all his works. Above all, he makes it hard for his publishers to confirm and maintain his works in the market. (Fischer 1926, 25–6)

The language of the essay is palpably that of a commercially-minded businessman; but an artistically enlightened one, too. He has several audiences simultaneously in mind: authors, other publishers and the reading public. Fischer sought to offer his authors long-term contracts which gave his company first refusal on a specified number of future works under specified terms. The contracts he established with Hermann Hesse, for example, the first of which was made in 1903 initially for five years, evolved over the following decades into a rolling contract involving complete mutual commitment. Such, too, was the case with Gerhart Hauptmann and Thomas Mann. Though individual authors, particularly successful ones, could still negotiate individual rights and terms, Fischer was keen to include clauses on Vorabdrucke (pre-prints) which were important for the pre-publication of material in the Neue Rundschau, the yearly Almanac, or other journals or newspapers. He also encouraged his authors to allow Fischer Verlag to negotiate other subsidiary rights, such as translation, and, of increasing importance from the 1920s onwards, radio broadcasting and film rights. Properly scrutinized and managed, these were seen as both providing fresh income for his writers, and of course the firm itself, and also as a way of off-setting costs of publishing important literary works which might otherwise not pay for themselves and be lost to the world or been a serious financial risk.
Fischer was very alert to the threat which the new technologies of radio and film represented to an already beleaguered literary market. But at the same time he quickly saw how they could also be harnessed to advantage, to promote the interests of his authors and their works. Even Joseph Conrad, no great lover of modern technologies, would benefit from this. In 1926, only three years after the founding of the first national radio station in Germany, royalties for broadcasts were to be paid to those whose work was read out on the radio. Dramatists were already remunerated for radio broadcasts of their plays. Now, novelists could catch up. Fischer was keen to exploit this potential, as he writes to Gerhart Hauptmann, suggesting he should do a radio talk:

The Berlin the broadcasting station has well over one million listeners and perhaps it would be quite good if you were to talk to such an audience. [...] If you are not willing to hold a lecture, you could read something from your unpublished works. (Mendelssohn 1979, 1047)

Thomas Mann certainly took up the challenge. As the Berlin newspapers put it on 20 October 1926, Mann “appeared for the first time in front of the Berlin radio microphones, reading an unpublished essay”. It was a medium which, during the Second World War, Mann was to use for numerous important broadcasts from America to Germany via the BBC. His broadcasts then almost came to be the voice of Germany in exile. Urged on by Fischer, he received his early training before the microphone in I926. His daughter Erika Mann accompanied him to the studio and read from the recently published Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain). Thomas Mann chose something more recent. His first-ever broadcast talk was in fact a shortened lecture version of the essay he had written in early September 1926 as an introduction to the forthcoming volume in Fischers’ Collected Edition of Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent. It was a lecture Mann was also to take around Germany with him that autumn, on a lecture tour to different German cities, “as promotion for Fischer’s German [Conrad] edition”, as Mann puts it. (Mendelssohn 1970, 1058). Fischer thus encouraged his authors to promote themselves and others as “Fischer authors”. Through the new technologies, and with its massive audiences the radio provided a particularly potent medium. Perhaps it was also a shrewd move on Mann’s part. While he could talk modestly about another writer—whom he was soon claiming to be the greatest novelist of the age—in the same broadcast Erika could promote her father’s latest great book.
Behind all these innovations—the house journal, the yearly almanac, new kinds of contract—lay Fischer’s desire to exploit to the mutual advantage of author, publisher, booksellers and readers the virtues of a strong publishing cultural identity. The running contract helped both writers, who were more consistently assured of future income, and the publishing house itself, because it enabled Fischer to devise a new commercially-productive format. He was able to designate particular volumes as Gesammelte Werke in Einzelbänden (Collected Works in Single Volumes), at the time a real innovation in Germany, and it could pertain not just to an existing body of works of older or dead writers but also to prospective works of younger authors. In other words, Fischer could create the sense of the “anticipated collected works” still to be collected. In the case of such writers as Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, both likely to produce a good deal of fine literature over many future years, this proved a highly successful publishing vehicle.
As for Conrad and the Fischer Verlag in this context, he did not personally benefit himself, of course, from such innovationshaving shaken off his mortal coil some three years earlier. But I suspect he would most certainly have appreciated some of Fischer’s new publishing practices.
Conrad might not have regretted meeting Samuel Fischer.
Posthumously, though, Conrad, “the German Conrad” as it were, benefited from the fame of the Fischer Verlag—the most important German publisher of contemporary German, European and American literature—and its kind of publishing ethos. It was a crucial factor in greatly enhancing his literary prominence and acceptance in post-First World War Germany. As Fischer had surmised in his 1911 almanac essay, writers such as Conrad could be introduced and promoted to the serious German reading-public in the company of established “Fischer Authors” like Hauptmann, the Mann brothers, Hesse, Döblin, Schnitzler, and Shaw, who alongside Conrad was the most important foreign writer Fischer published in collected form. When we think also of other writers who in the post-1945 Fischer list were brought out in collected editions—Freud, Kafka and Virginia Woolf, for example—we can recognize the continuity of that modern tradition of which Conrad was a central part.
It was vital to the nature and breadth of Conrad’s German reception that from 1926 onwards he was being introduced into that particular publishing and broader cultural context. The ways in which the Neue Rundschau came together with the main publishing house in the specific context of Conrad reception are manifold and the role that it played there cannot be overestimated. Furthermore, because of its position as possibly the leading liberal cultural journal in the country, with its intellectual centrality it represents a crucial moment in the cultural history of Weimar and anti-fascist politics up to and throughout the 1930s. However individually distinct and independent its particular contributors were—which was part of the spirit, indeed, which the journal ideologically fostered—they enjoyed a certain kind of intellectual communality within which each found his or her place. Politically non-partisan at a time of extreme side-taking, but clearly anti-fascist in its orientation, it fostered a secular liberal humanist outlook creating an eclectic community of readers whose own values could find forever sceptical endorsement when they read Conrad.
To translate this notion of intellectual community—which does not imply identity of view—back into British or American cultural terms and journals is almost impossible. We may think of the moment of Scrutiny, of the Kenyon Review of the 1930s or later of the Partisan Review or Encounter.7 However broad-ranging, they tended to represent particular cultural positions closely associated with their editors and clearly identifiable at the differing pivotal moments they were established. Perhaps the very longevity of the Neue Rundschau contributed to its less doctrinaire but nevertheless clear cultural ethos.
Conrad’s works, at least, flourished under it. From 1926 onwards, in tandem with the gradual appearance of the Gesammelte Werke, a number of the issues of the Neue Rundschau contained alongside essays and reviews of his work, either serialized versions of his shorter fiction, or extracts from his letters. The content and pages of the Neue Rundschau were organized somewhat according to genre, and Conrad’s presence was frequent especially in the late 1920s, sometimes under fiction, sometimes under biography or letters. In 1926, we find in one volume a long essay on him by Walter Süskind, and part of “Youth”, as a pre-print to the full translation coming later in the year (Süskind 1926, 536–48). The pre-print became a typical form of publicity which Fischer was also pleased to share with quality newspapers such as the Frankfurter Zeitung, which, for example, serialized An Outcast of the Islands (1934) and Suspense (1936). “The Secret Sharer” appeared in the Neue Rundschau in 1927, by which time such was the growing interest in the person “Joseph Conrad” that the review published a selection of Conrad’s letters to his friends, based on the two-volume G. Jean-Aubry, Joseph Conrad: Life and Letters, which had just been published in Britain. Hardly any of the early review essays on him in the next ten years failed to give the would-be compulsory introductory paragraph on him which stressed his Polish-turned-English and his seaman-turned-writer life-path. Alongside his fiction, his life was also gradually becoming a novel.
This biographical interest was quickly recognized and further fed when S. Fischer Verlag in 1928 decided to publish a translation of A Personal Record, and in the early 1930s the Neue Rundschau followed up with two further selections of letters from 1895–1908, and from 1908–1923. “Joseph Conrad” made a final appearance before the Second World War when in 1939 the Neue Rundschau brought out a section from the forthcoming translation of The Mirror of the Sea.8 This gradual “fashioning”, one might say, of “the Polish Englishman, seaman-writer Joseph Conrad” might go slightly against the grain if we regard it solely as a marketing exercise. But two points are to be remembered. First, it is arguable that as Edward Said, for example, suggests, it is Conrad himself, precisely in A Personal Record and The Mirror of the Sea, who took a lot of care to create himself for his growing readership, to fashion “Joseph Conrad” through his autobiographical writings (Said 1966).
Secondly, and much more important from the Weimar period into the Third Reich, no publishing exercises could be thought of simply as that. To reduce this orchestration of “Joseph Conrad in Germany”merely to a matter commercial interests would deny the increasing politicization of all forms of cultural production. In other words, it would not do justice to the complex ways in which cultural and political choices mattered, and were being partially fought over at the level of who published what, when. The very fact of choosing to publish or serialize a foreign cosmopolitan writer in the Germany of 1927, or 1934 did not mean the same thing as to publish the same work in England in 1910. A serious politics of cultural translation takes this cultural history into account.
There is a certain Conradian irony in the serialized appearanceof his works in this way. He hated the pressures and processes on which such publishing forms—and he—financially relied. He was constitutionally incapable of thinking and writing in the demanded manner, as John Stape argues (Knowles and Moore 2000, 377–80). But he did not have to worry now, and it was an important way in which Fischer publishing interests could orchestrate the emergence of Conrad who came to share a primary place in Fischer’s international list. Tangential evidence for this is no less ironic in its own way. It comes in a letter from Samuel Fischer to Leo Trotsky in 1929 (S. and H. Fischer 1989, 803–4, 1099). Trotsky has been discussing whether his autobiography should really appear with Fischer, who is bringing out Trotsky’s collected works. Fischer, who is very keen on the publication, replies with the firm assurance that they have a strong interest in memoirs and autobiographies and alludes to their recent list including Conrad’s A Personal Record. Trotsky, however, does not loom large in Conrad’s correspondence, nor in his memoirs.
The Fischer policy of consolidating his writers” work through the format of Gesammelte Werke in Einzelbänden lent almost unique prominence to Conrad’s works also as physical, material objects, a fact remarked upon in my personal interviews with readers. The whole collection had from its inception a brilliant visual design and appearance. So strong was it that when S. Fischer decided after the Second World War to bring out a completely newly-translated Collected Edition (1962–1983), the same book design was adopted that had launched Conrad’s works in 1926. A very strong, modernist book-design by Heinrich Hussmann appeared in bright yellow cloth covers, against which on the spine, a block of deep blue bore the name of Joseph Conrad (in yellow) and below it a block of scarlet red carried the title, again in the yellow. Hussmann also designed the book jacket, which, like the advertizing prospectus for the works, carried the famous etching by Muirhead Bone of Conrad in profile, sitting on an upright chair, with legs crossed and hands in pocket. Some people argue the drawing is of Conrad listening to music. But it is also redolent of someone deep in thought, or listening to something metaphysical. The same image with typographical additions features in one of the Fischer Almanacs in the late 1920s (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Above the Muirhead Bone portrait runs the heading: “Who is Conrad?” Beneath the image follows the caption: “What Europe and America are saying about him”, with a strong arrow aiming right, recommending we should turn the page. Wittiest of all, the layout is such that the question-mark to the title is in line with Conrad’s face, appearing to be looking at Conrad, who is either staring back at it or way into the beyond. One might say that the question-mark questions him as much as he does whatever he is looking at—an absolutely appropriate metaphor for the ways in which Conrad was stepping into Germany. For the Weimar German reader he was a fascinating enigma, who could not be easily classified.
What is certainly true is that the sheer physical appearance of the books held strong promotional power and became an abiding “trademark” of the latest Conrad novel. Moreover, the volumes were not numbered nor did they bear a general title on the covers, which meant that readers could slowly build up their collection, as they wished and could afford, and in whatever order Fischer chose to publish them. This was just as his 1911 Almanac essay had proposed would encourage new readers towards books of literary worth.9
But for all these positive posthumous forms of Conrad’s “presence”, his translation into German came at a moment when the economic and cultural-political climate into which he entered was far from benign. Returning in 1926 to the topic of publishing and the marketplace in his essay “Bemerkungen zur Bücherkrise” (Remarks on the Book Crisis) Samuel Fischer talks not just of the economic difficulties of post-war Germany and the effects of massive inflation on the book market. He speaks rather of the stagnation of the (serious) book market as a barometer of a broader cultural crisis in Germany, a crisis of cultural identity, which has as much to do with new forms of leisure, particularly in the rapidly developing metropolises, as it has with sheer economics:

Now it is very telling that at the moment the book is one of the most dispensable objects of daily life. People play sport, they go dancing, they spend their evenings listening to the radio or in the cinema. Outside their working hours they are otherwise completely taken up and find no time to read a book. Of course, the severe economic crisis is hardly the right fertile soil for developing spiritual and intellectual [geistige] interests. People want to escape from the worries of gaining their daily bread, and thirsty for life they escape into the exciting turbulence of the outside world. The lost war and the invasion of things American have transformed our whole attitude to life; our cultural tastes have been changed. Our modern [bürgerliche] world which has a very ready tendency to adapt to every new fashion and life style, cannot turn away from the traditions of former bourgeois life quickly enough. And so we are witnessing an increasing leveling down and superficiality in our spiritual and intellectual life, one which is worryingly on the point of sinking to mere undemanding existence. If this condition persists for any time it will lead to a brutalization of taste, to a draining away of our country’s spiritual and moral strengths. (Fischer 1985, 240–6)

Within only a couple of paragraphs Fischer’s words conjure up a number of dominant cultural tropes employed by and exercising, from their various points of view, the range of literary writers and cultural commentators in late 1920s Weimar.10 Often couched in terms of a post-war cultural and moral crisis, or at least of radical change, the terrain covered by writers as varied as Fischer himself, Stefan Zweig, Robert Musil, Walter Benjamin, his friend Max Rychner, Alfred Döblin and Siegfried Kracauer, to name only a very few, extended to almost every aspect of cultural life. In Fischer Verlag we have the perceived “threat” to an earlier high culture by the incursions made by new technologies (the radio, the film and, particularly by 1929, “the talkies”) and other “distracting” forms of culture as sheer entertainment (Weiβ 1982, 204–08 and 341–44). The quick cultural shorthand for this was the almost ubiquitous, if loose, use of “Amerika” and “Amerikanisierung”, terms which commentators adopted, particularly when bewailing what some perceived as a universal slide into mediocrity.11 What is in danger is the very notion of a distinct European literary and artistic culture embodied in the nineteenth-century idea of the Bildungsbürger, the all-round educated man—and, sometimes, woman—Woolf’s “Common Reader”. We can hear in such arguments the same kind of anxiety preoccupying English critics and social commentators of the day. F.R. Leavis and T.S. Eliot (an American) are obvious examples. They often offer the same oppositions: high versus mass culture, critical discrimination versus alienated distraction, earned individual self-fulfilment versus instant consumer gratification. Alternatively, to put the shoe on the other foot, we could say “American youth and vitality” versus European decadence, democratic popularity versus exclusive intellectual access, liberating technological innovations in the arts versus a moribund formal traditionalism.
The Bücherkrise, and the cultural crisis of which it was a symptom, can perhaps best be seen in arguments about literary fashion, genre and popularity—in short, the “bestseller” and its place in intellectual life—and the ways in which individual writers are interpreted and positioned within these perspectives. Conrad himself had difficulties, or rather he made subtle and often contradictory remarks, about his own writerly position in this regard. If we return to the dis-ease he felt at being published by Baron Tauchnitz, a very popular outlet for English-language books “on the Continent”, we can read the following letter to his literary agent J.B. Pinker. Conrad is complaining about the very poor return of £20 per book for the continental rights—and this assumes these rights were not flouted through the (illegal but frequent) re-importation of books back into England. But Conrad is rather contrary. In his letter of 10 October 1907 to Pinker negotiating further rights for Tauchnitz, he writes complaining of the fact that since the publication of An Outcast of the Islands (1896) and Tales of Unrest (1898) in Tauchnitz, none of his further books have appeared in the continental edition:

With the exception of my first 2 books I think, the publishing house of Baron Tauchnitz has refrained from publishing any of my work. Meantime it had acquired almost every piece of rubbishy fiction You may think of that fell from the press. Considering the literary value of my work as determined by the concensus [sic] of critical opinion in England and the U.S. I have accustomed myself to look upon my exclusion in the light of a distinction. I am not inclined to forego this distinction for the sake of £20. I recognize the special, eminent, standing of Baron Tauchnitz’s collection. But I have my own standing too. I can not allow a publishing House so much in the public eye to take two of my early works, then ignore seven as if they were unworthy or unfit to have a place in that great (and undiscriminating) collection—and suddenly offer to include the tenth. [...] To be excluded from the Tauchnitz Collection is a distinction for Joseph Conrad whose place in English Literature is made. To come at the call of Baron Tauchnitz after 8 years of neglect is not to be thought of. None of my work shall appear with my consent in the Tauchnitz collection unless the head of that eminent firm agrees to include at least four works mentionned [sic] above. [...]The firm should be fully advised of my decision. (CL 3: 498)

Conrad lists the four works as Lord Jim, The Nigger of the “Narcissus”, Youth and The Mirror of the Sea. By the end of the letter, after this “dignified” (Conrad’s word) rejection of Tauchnitz, he nevertheless proposes further negotiations, “if you think I must take the money”, and concludes that “it is really absurd that all the body of my work should be out of the Collection. It’s insulting”. As things transpired, by 1939 Tauchnitz was to publish almost all of Conrad’s works with the exception of The Mirror of the Sea and Nostromo.
We can hear in Conrad’s response to his agent a profoundly mixed message. He wants to be a bestseller but at the same time would resent it for the compromises and bad faith it would imply. He both wants to maintain his cultural and artistic distinction, and indeed is almost offended at the thought of being included in an artistically impoverished “undiscriminating” mass-market. But he is also, as a writer, dependent on income from writing and subject to the vagaries of the bestseller pressures publishers were facing. While his “place in English literature” might have been made by 1906, a popular reputation certainly was not. That had to wait until Chance (1914). Conrad despised but was reliant upon some of the forms of book production which were in part borrowed from American inspired popular marketing. In a number of his works he saves much of his political wrath for the lies of advertisers and popular newspapers. On the other hand, once his honour has been met he still wants Tauchnitz (or at least the money) “if it must be”.
The implicit clash in values was therefore not one that separated “the book” off from other forms of leisure activity as Fischer implies. Rather, in the form of the bestseller, which answers to the moods and “needs” of the moment, the book or rather that sort of book, was not the solution but part of the problem. Fischer has to tread a fine line between conceiving a publishing policy which promotes his authors and their good literature while resisting the commodification of culture of which (some) books are a part.
This contradiction was one that was coming to define a crisis not just in book publishing and the position of literary culture but rather a far broader post-war socio-political crisis on a terrain undergoing traumatic and radical change. Fischer could not fully diagnose this. If Conrad’s epistolary acrobatics about Tauchnitz, implicitly concerning the writer in the market place, exposes unconsciously his contradictory position, then can we fairly expect Fischer to offer a coherent cultural analysis and solution? Conrad could not with Tauchnitz, why should Fischer?
Others, though, are attempting such a diagnosis. Siegfried Kracauer, one of the most astute critical commentators and journalists of the day, wrote an essay “On Bestsellers and Their Audience” (1931), later included in Das Ornament der Masse (1963). In this collection of essays he analyses phenomena of city life—”The Little Shop Girls go to the Cinema”, “The Hotel Foyer”—to provide a critique of the “cult of distraction” which he sees as epitomizing contemporary capitalist society (Kracauer 1995, 64–74, 89–98). One kind of distraction is the mythologizing, the “falsely reconciling form” (my term) of the bestseller. Kracauer’s essay is not offering an account of particular books nor is he talking of Kolportageroman (in present-day terms, trashy airport novels or pot boilers) but ‘serious” books. As a cultural materialist in the vein of Benjamin he is looking less at their content than at their form and socio-cultural origins and how they can shed light on the structure of consciousness of the educated middle class reader. He argues that the bestseller in post-war Germany answers to the unconscious needs of an upper class and cultured middle class reader, whose sense of economic and social position has been rendered frighteningly vulnerable if not totally undermined. Any nostalgic notion of pre-war cohesion (even then in disintegration) is now lost. The bestseller provides an “answer” (or palliative). But it characteristically reduces the social and cultural crisis with narratives of geographic adventure, of exotic and erotic escape, the embrace of an idealized mute nature, or even of the manageable outrage of war. Kracauer cites Jack London and Erich Remarque as examples. Tragedy is not avoided in the fiction; but it is an individual’s tragedy that is played out, not a society’s in crisis. Citing both Frank Thieβ and Stefan Zweig, Kracauer argues that:

[They] both focus on the individual. Wherever the individual appears, tragedy is inevitable. Such tragedy embeds middle-class existence in the depths of metaphysics and is therefore very appealing to readers. […]. In these stories, the fate of the private individual triumphs even in catastrophe. [...] The individual who perishes tragically for the sake of an idea is also a constitutive part of an idealist world view, and thus the favorite texts understandably take on a certain idealism. Not authentic idealism, which is a thing of the past, but rather its blurred afterimage.(Kracauer 1995, 95–6)

The bestseller, other words, may still adopt the narrative concerns and appearance of the great realist novel of the nineteenth century, of a Balzac or a Tolstoy, but it is only a shadowy twentieth-century resemblance—and here there are traces of Georg Lukacs’ Theory of the Novel—transposed in distorted form into a modern world where the social norms and order on which it was based have been shattered. The bestseller’s escape was into a kind of mythic, false totality, a comforting way of avoiding actual social contradictions and collapse through cathartic reconciliation.
How might a “German Conrad” fit into such a picture? Which side of Kracauer’s fence was Conrad, forever “homo duplex”, straddling? “Bestseller” for a fracturing bourgeoisie needing distraction, or critical realist whose rational disenchantment still held out the possibility of real enlightenment? Kracauer does not talk directly of Conrad but two of the earliest and best essays on Conrad in Germany (written before Kracauer) effectively anticipate some of his arguments. Ernst Weiβ pre-war expressionist dramatist and novelist, champion and a close friend of Franz Kafka, published fine, thoughtful essays on The Secret Agent and The Shadow-Line, one entitled ‘Joseph Conrad (1927) the other on “Freya” (Weiβ 1982, 204–8 and 341–4). While he appears to take up the “manliness” line he quickly swerves. The “virile” likes of Jack London and Stevenson are now joined by the greatest, the most manly, Joseph Conrad. But this writer (Dichter) is the most extraordinary, in respect of his “race”, his professions and the “mixture of womanly and manly elements of the soul” in his writing. Weiβ goes on to endorse the sense of multiplicity and contradiction in Conrad at the heart of which, though, almost like a pendulum swinging, there is a compass orientating itself, finding true north, true orientation. The impersonality, the objectivity with which the world is observed is devoid of false idealism, but not of humane sympathy.
At heart Conrad’s novels are only “travel logbooks” of the soul with all its contradictions—unconcerned with all the yammering of the “Wild”. For this the possessed writer (Dichter) needs peace, and for that he takes to the monastic-like isolation of a ship’s cabin. He adopts the clothes of poverty, the name of namelessness—a man who lived just as my friend lived and died an early death did, Franz Kafka. He looks, he observes, he has the eye and the good fortune to get to the very being of things. […] Humour is denied him, the son of an unbelieving age. The fight against hypocrisy and greed, which Dickens, akin to him and Kafka, took up, can no longer hold him; they are passions which are too everyday. What holds Conrad in suspension is suspense itself. The kind of tension Conrad can generate and maintain, a painful and cruel suspense, can only be achieved by a genius (Weiβ 1982, 206–7).
Here is a writer talking of another writer. He often speaks aphoristically, allusively. Weiβ is not easy to summarize, but is all the more interesting for that. There are traces of Loerke’s “reader hung with icicles” when we find reference to The Secret Agent and “its icy cold approach towards the humorous”; and also of Nietzsche. Even more so of the latter when he says that, put crudely, the novel shows the first true imagining of “the transvaluation of all values” when Conrad or [strictly speaking] Vladimir suggests the blowing up of Astronomy. Relativity theory before its time. Weiß conjures Conrad’s “incomparable sovereign mastery of factuality (Sachlichkeit) and detail” which plays alongside “a most sovereign sense of fantasy and extremity”. But unlike Dostoevsky, there is no appeal to “higher ideas, to redeeming Christian belief”. In the novel he can distill “the poisonous extract of human beings” existence” and simply portray it (Weiβ 1982, 207). His essay on “Freya” comes close to Kracauer’s interests when he points out how Conrad precisely avoids the kinds of narrative pattern and easy tragedy and closure which melodramatic plots occasion and bestsellers churn out. He suggests there are almost two stories in one: the first superficial one for the entertainment of (Kracauer’s) middle-class reader; the other, traceable beneath it, a symbolic tale, not of an easily decipherable allegorical kind, but one which (the phrase comes up again) “presents an almost poisonous extract of being”, the distillation into “abbreviated forms the longer processes of time, just one day, one decisive moment, for a whole squandered life” (Weiβ 1982, 342). Weiß, novelist and ship’s doctor, moved into exile in Paris in 1936 and committed suicide the day after the Nazi entry into France in 1940.
Ernst Freissler (who had been translating Conrad since 1912) also sees him as living and writing beyond any clear mould, and certainly unlike the bestsellers he goes on to name in contrast. He asks in “Joseph Conrad in Deutschland” why it has taken so long for him to “arrive” in Germany (Freissler 1929, 125–30). Some of the answers are pragmatic—the war, the paper shortage, inflation. He also admits it took Conrad a long time in England and America too. As an outsider to English writing he was not quickly adopted: his uncompromising truthfulness was a challenge to the Englishman’s habitual well-meaning rules of politeness; his deep scepticism about their enthusiastic embrace of “Progress” was a handicap. But at the heart of Freissler’s essay is a critique not of Conrad, for not being like the more popular Stevenson, Kipling or Jack London, but rather of German readers themselves for wanting him to be. Their fault lies in “the German, oh so German, need to define, stamp and register everything off” (Freissler 1929, 127–8). It is precisely this which Conrad’s works creatively refuse. He lives on the shadow-line, “at the tide’s turning”, defying, also, comparison with Dickens, Dostoevsky, Turgenev. “He is a threshold, a doorway, to a freer future. […] That he cannot be categorized is what makes him a great writer, defines his mission.”
The 1920s and 1930s saw many articles and reviews generated by the Fischer Collected Edition. The journals involved ranged across the complete political gamut, from leftist progressive to nationalist right, from Die literarische Welt and liberal reviews such as the Neue Rundschau and, less political cultural reviews such as Corona, Das literarische Echo, Die Gegenwart and Der Kunstwart; some with more explicit religious orientation, for instance the catholic-leaning Hochland and Orplid; others with growing nationalistic, anti-socialist and anti-semitic tendencies like Die Schöne Literatur. Conrad’s importance as a major writer new to Germany was reflected in the frequency of reviews coming out in tandem with the Fischer collected edition. Without exception these were positive in sentiment ranging in detail and emphasis from brief plot summaries and praise for aesthetic skill to more formulated arguments sometimes inflected by the periodical’s cultural position. Thus Curt Hohoff, writing in Hochland, discerns the spiritual poet (Dichter) in those works most closely associated with his personal experience. Hohoff sees Conrad (with his Polish background) almost as a lapsed catholic, having structures of belief in which he no longer believes (Hohoff 1939, 378–88). Something like the same “religious” reading can be found in Der Kunstwart, in an essay by Friedrich Schnack, Expressionist poet and lyrical celebrant of nature’s forces. He stresses Conrad’s allegedly strong slavic, eastern sensibilities which verge on an oriental mysticism (Schnack 1927, 398–400). But in the same periodical a more atheistic reading from a survey review by Peter Muthmann, praises the moral handling of the theme of active stoical survival drawing on Nostromo, “Freya” and The Rover for his texts. His essay ends, though, with a thought which is not infrequent in reviews and is typically reflective of the felt importance of Conrad to many Germans of the day. It makes explicit the cultural politics of reading him:

We might think it a coincidence that it is precisely now that Conrad is becoming known to us [in Germany], Conrad the poet of unadorned (phrasenlos) resolute (ausharrenden) heroism in the fight against overwhelming forces. But perhaps he means even more than that. It could be that events will occur which will make very essential those manly virtues which we find in Conrad’s works: active stoicism and the will to stand by one’s post even in defeat. And such spiritual sustenance for that which lies ahead of us, such confirming power of comradeship from this side or the other side of the grave, is needed even by the strongest of us. (Muthmann 1932, 532–4)

Muthmann’s essay came out in May 1932; within months Hitler was made Reichskanzler. As it shows, Conrad’s cultural translation into Germany could never occur in a political vacuum, isolated from the needs and perspectives of his readers.
In a poignant way this fact about all serious reading is something repeated in a later essay by Paul Wohlfarth, who wrote a number of articles on Conrad.12 One in particular attests to the ways in which the German readers of the 1920s and 1930s were bound to understand Conrad within their own historical horizons. It is a short review on “Prince Roman”, “Youth” and The Shadow-Line, published in the “New Books” supplement to the newspaper Central-Verein Zeitung, the main organ of the Central Union of German Citizens of Jewish Belief. This long-established organisation was active in asserting the Germanness and loyalty of German Jews, and was still active even after 1933. Wohlfarth’s article starts by more or less characterizing Conrad as the son of parents banished to Russia. The word Verbannung (banishment) cannot be heard in the Germany of 1936 without immediate contemporary political resonance, and Wohlfarth pursues the echo. He asks: “What does he mean directly to us Jews, besides our experience of reading the finest writing in English?” (Wohlfarth 1936a, 1) He mentions positive Jewish characters in Conrad, but more deeply he draws an allegorical picture of Jews from the kinds of tragedies Conrad’s characters confront:

They are all lonely, and even the dregs of the street avoid them, as if they knew they were doom-laden. […] this doom hangs literally or metaphorically like a cloud over them all. […] And yet, and this is what raises the lonely characters above the level of ordinary characters in novels, they have a unique sense of duty and faithfulness, which gives them the strength to look fate in the eyes with raised head, to stand resolutely at their posts to the very end.

The ship in “Youth” provides “the emblem of this resolution and faithfulness”, with its motto “Do or Die”. It is wracked by storm, then a ship’s collision and finally by an explosion and fire at sea. But, Wohlfarth concludes, “it nevertheless pursues its prescribed course according to some law it has accepted. The name of the ship is Judea”. The essay was written almost three years before Kristallnacht, at a time when it was still possible to read allegories into stories and even to believe in them. In Conrad’s fictional tale, the crew has to abandon the burning ship, but they survive. That is the problem with allegories.



1.Loerke cites the German titles. Unless otherwise stated all translations from German in this essay are mine.

2.For an authorative account of the history of the S. Fischer Verlag from its foundation to the death of Samuel Fischer in 1934, see Mendelssohn 1970. For its later history, see Stach 1986.

3. After the First World War, later editions of Typhoon were accompanied by brochures declaring that Engelhorn Verlag had first introduced the great writer to Germany; this was, though, clearly on the back of the Fischer publishing success. Advertizing material for Albert Langen also later claimed to be the first to introduce Conrad to Germany. Conrad was becoming hot property.

4. The essay dates from 1933; there is no given place of original publication. Perhaps Hesse had been recently reading Mann’s “Tonio Kröger”: the “blue-eyed, blond-haired” northern type is a powerful erotic leitmotif in the novella. Contemporary writers of the 1920s on Conrad and other literary figures invoke the “manliness” trope frequently. Kurt Pinthus uses it virtually as a synonym for the objective, sober, realistic writing of the “neue Sachlichkeit” (see Pinthus 1929). Béla Balázs retorts in a fine essay, critical both of the incoherence of the term and its ideological inferences. He more or less describes the notion of such hard “objectivity” as a pathological distortion of vision caused by war experience: “What is particularly “manly” about it? To have delicate hearing, to be able to look more deeply into things, does not at all mean being self-pitying, or florid, or sentimental. Was a writer like Chekhov with the intimate delicacy of his observations, or like Flaubert with his monumental formal constructions, or Joseph Conrad with his piercing analyses of things—were they all strangers to reality?” (Balázs 1929, 333–4). See also Midgley 2000, 14–56.

5. In 1945 Fischer Verlag was asked by the American government to provide a new imprint of some twenty-four “suitable books” for the vast number of German POWs in US camps. Each cheap edition ran to 50,000 copies and included works by Mann, Conrad, and Hemingway. In 1950, Peter Suhrkamp left Fischer Verlag on amicable terms to found his own imprint, which remains probably the most important German publishing house in the humanities and political theory and philosophy. In 1962, Fischer Verlag launched a newly-translated Collected Edition of Conrad’s works.

6. For an informative account of the rise in the mass reading public and the production of newspapers in the early years of the century, see Fritzsche 1996.

7. I am alluding here in part to Francis Mulhern’s The Moment of Scrutiny (1981).

8. The following extracts from Conrad appeared as pre-prints: “Jugend”, Neue Rundschau 37/2 (1926), 371–94, trans. by Ernst W. Freissler [LINK]. (This volume also contains José Ortega y Gasset on cosmopolitanism and Süskind on Joseph Conrad); “Der geheime Teilhaber”, Neue Rundschau 38/1 (1927), 128–161, trans. by E. McCalman [LINK]; “Briefe an Freunde”, Neue Rundschau 38/1 (1927), 621–37, trans. by Leo Klein [LINK]; “Lebenserinnerungen”, Deutsche Rundschau (Sept. 1928), 263–81 [LINK]; “Werkbriefe I” (Letters 1895–1908, trans. and ed. by E. Franzen), Neue Rundschau 41/1 (1935), 148–159 [LINK]; “Werkbriefe II” (Letters 1908–1923), trans. and ed. by E. Franzen, Neue Rundschau, 41/1 (1935), 312–24 [LINK]; “Der Obersteuermann” (trans. by Görge Spervogel, pre-print from The Mirror of the Sea), Neue Rundschau 50/1 (1939), 258–64 [LINK].

9. This is anecdotal evidence I have gained in talking to German readers of Conrad, now in their eighties, of their first encounter with his works in the late 1920s and 1930s. They speak fondly and with strong memories of the physical appearance of the volumes they collected. Among others, I interviewed Günther Danehl, the most important of the post-war translators of Conrad in the new 1960s Collected Edition. He explained how he heard of the novelist. While he was a young boy in the early 1930s, Kurt Tucholsky, a close friend of his father’s, suggested that young Günther should “Read Conrad!” This early exposure apparently did not deter Danehl from what he described as the very difficult task of translating Conrad.

10. The literature on this aspect of Weimar culture is challengingly great. The two anthologies edited by Anton Kaes (Kaes 1983) and his different version of the same topic (Kaes 1994) offer excellent material covering the cultural issues and heated debates of the time. For a fuller critical account of the literary debates see Midgley 2000. Barnouw 1988 and Schivelbusch 2000 also offer very interesting accounts of the Weimar cultural crisis.

11. See Kaes 1983, particularly 264–286. Kaes points out that the discussion was not exclusively a German one, citing Bertrand Russell’s essay “Wird Europa amerikanisiert werden?” (Will Europe become Americanized?) (Kael 1983, 273).

12. Writing in Germanoslavica in 1936, Paul Wohlfarth asked whether Conrad was really an English writer (Wohlfarth 1936b). His answer is “no”, because the strongest characteristic of great English writers is their sense of humour—citing Dickens and Sterne—and this kind of humour is something Conrad lacks; he is a much darker, more slavic, English adoptee. See also Wohlfarth 1936c on domestic murders.

Works Cited

References to Conrad’s letters are taken from The Cambridge Edition of the Letters of Joseph Conrad, general editor Laurence Davies, 9 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983–2007), and here abbreviated as CL.


Almanach. Das XXV. Jahr.1911.Frankfurt: S. Fischer.

Almanach. Das vierzigste Jahr. 1886–1926. 1926.Berlin: S. Fischer.

Almanach 1928.1927.Berlin: S. Fischer.

Balázs, Béla.1929. “Männlichkeit oder kriegsblind” [Manliness or blinded by War?], Die Weltbühne, 25.1 (1929). Rpt. in Kaes, 333–4.

Barnouw, Dagmar. 1988. Weimar Intellectuals and the Threat of Modernity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Fischer, Samuel. 1926 “Bemerkungen zur Bücherkrise.” Die literarische Welt 2.43 (22 October 1926): 1–2.

-----. 1985. “Der Verleger und der Büchermarkt.” In Pfäfflin, Friedrich and Kussmaul, Ingrid (eds), S.Fischer Verlag, 240–6. Marbach am Neckar: Deutsche Schillergesellschaft.

Fischer, Samuel, and Hedwig Fischer. 1989. Briefwechsel mit Autoren, ed. Dieter Rodewald und Corinna Fiedler. Frankfurt: S. Fischer.

Freissler, Ernst W. 1929. “Joseph Conrad in Deutschland.” Neue Rundschau 40.1: 125–30.

Fritzsche, Peter. 1996. Reading Berlin 1900. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Hesse, Hermann.1970. “Joseph Conrad.” In Gesammelte Werke, vol. 12, 374–76. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Hohoff, Curt. 1939. “Über Joseph Conrad.” Hochland 2: 378–88.

Kaes, Anton. 1983. Weimarer Republik: Manifeste und Dokumente zur deutschen Literatur, 1918–1933. Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler.

Kaes, Anton, M. Jay, and E. Dimendberg. 1994. The Weimar Republic Sourcebook. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Knowles, Owen and Gene M. Moore.2000. Oxford Reader’s Companion to Joseph Conrad Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kracauer, Siegfried. 1995. The Mass Ornament. Weimar Essays, trans. with an introd. by Thomas Y. Levin. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Loerke, Oskar. 1955. Tagebücher 1903–1939, ed. Hermann Kasack. Heidelberg: Lambert Schneider.

Mann, Thomas. 1933. Past Masters and Other Papers, trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. London: Secker.

Mendelssohn, Peter de. 1970. S. Fischer und sein Verlag. Frankfurt: S. Fischer.

Midgley, David. 2000. Writing Weimar, Critical Realism in German Literature 1918–1933. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mulhern, Francis. 1981. The Moment of Scrutiny. London: Verso.

Muthmann, Peter. 1932. “Neue Joseph-Conrad-Bände.” Der Kunstwart 45.8: 532–34.

Pinthus, Kurt. 1929. “Männliche Literatur.” Das Tagebuch 10.1. Rpt. in Kaes, Manifeste, 328–33.

Said, Edward. 1966. Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. 2003. The Culture of Defeat, trans. Jefferson Chase. First published in 2000 as Die Kultur der Niederlage. London: Granta.

Schlawe, Fritz. 1962. Literarische Zeitschriften, Teil II, 1910–1933. Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler.

Stach, Reiner, 1986. 100 Jahre S. Fischer Verlag, 1886–1986. Kleine Verlagsgeschichte. Frankfurt: S. Fischer.

Süskind, W. E. 1926. “Joseph Conrad.” Neue Rundschau 37.2: 536–48.

Theweleit, Klaus. 1985. Male Fantasies, trans. Stephan Conway et al., 2 vols. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Unseld, Siegfried (ed.). 1969. Hermann Hesse – Peter Suhrkamp. Briefwechsel 1945–1959. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Weiβ, Ernst. 1982. “Joseph Conrad” (1927) and “Joseph Conrad, ‘Freya von den sieben Inseln’” (1929). In Die Kunst des Erzählens, 204–08 and 341–44.Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

West, Russell, 1996. Conrad and Gide: Translation, Transference and Intertextuality.Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Wohlfarth, Paul. 1936a. “Joseph Conrad.” C.V. Zeitung: Blätter für Deutschtum und Judentum. Organ des Centralvereins der Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens 2, Beiblatt 3:1.

-----. 1936b.”War Joseph Conrad ein englischer Dichter?” Germanoslavica: Vierteljahresschrift für die Erforschung der Germanisch-slavischen Kulturbeziehung, 146–51.

-----. 1936c.”Der Gattenmord in Der Geheimagent von Joseph Conrad.” Monatsschrift für Kriminologie 26.7: 523–31


Anthony Fothergill teaches English literature and cultural theory at the University of Exeter, where he is Senior Lecturer and Honorary Research Fellow. He has also studied and taught at Heidelberg University, Germany, and taught at Kenyon College, USA. He has published a book-length study of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1989),and more recently a monograph, Secret Sharers: Joseph Conrad’s Cultural Reception in Germany (2007). In addition he has edited works by Conrad and Oscar Wilde, and written widely on Modernism, and modernity, including essays on Henry James, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, Georg Simmel, and Walter Benjamin.


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