The last of its kind
Klaus Wagenbach published Günter Grass and Ulrike Meinhof and, with his publishing house, created a bastion of the left-wing intellectual spirit. Now the legendary publisher has died. Obituary for a man who called himself “Kafka’s widow”.
AWhen I heard of Klaus Wagenbach’s death, I remembered the many meetings in his kitchen: editorial meetings for the literary yearbook “Octopus”, which we published (with great success) for twenty years from 1968 onwards. We sat at the corner table in the kitchen, his wife Katja and the three daughters within sight, a bottle of red wine within reach, of which he drank little and I drank more. Klaus had a rather large scar under his head of hair that he (allegedly) got when he fell from a donkey. It had been somewhere in Italy or Greece, where he had worked as an archeology student.
He was an excavator in many ways. In a tall wooden cupboard in his study he had kept his Kafka archive, accessible to everyone, a treasure trove of photographs and documents that God knows where he had dug up and that only he owned because German studies did not care about such things and they Gentlemen in Prague didn’t want to worry about it. Wagenbach did his doctorate on Kafka’s youth, his rororo monograph on him was not only a bestseller in Germany, Kafka’s works were part of his daily dealings. (We got to know each other through Kafka: I had written to him as a student – long before Wikipedia on the one hand and the Collected Works on the other hand – about a publication by Kafka in “Hyperion”, Wagenbach, who at the time could be called Kafka’s widow without scruples – I’ll take it an, he himself invented the term – wrote a long reply back, which was followed by a meeting and a friendship of more than fifty years.)
A Kafka discoverer
His first reading of Kafka took place at S. Fischer-Verlag, where he began as an apprentice (with the recently deceased Andreas Landshoff) in 1949; then he was a lecturer at the Modern Book Club, where he oversaw a demanding program: from Hanns Henny Jahnn to James Joyce and, of course, Kafka. And in 1964 he founded his own publishing house in Berlin, which initially limited to the book series “Quarthefte” published German literature: Günter Grass, Ingeborg Bachmann’s Berlin Notes, stories by Johannes Bobrowski, Christoph Meckel or Stephan Hermlin – and by his friend at the time Wolf Biermann, which brought Wagenbach, among other things, a “travel ban” through the GDR, so that he could only leave West Berlin by plane (Biermann, in turn, looked for a larger publisher after his expatriation in 1976 and left Wagenbach).
The time of political turbulence and the extra-parliamentary opposition came, which was reflected in Wagenbach’s program – and ultimately led to a split between Wagenbach and Rotbuch. Rudi Dutschke, Ulrike Meinhof, and Peter Brückner published with Wagenbach; Lawsuits had to be conducted (Wagenbach liked to describe himself as the most accused German publisher, he was legally represented by Otto Schily). The “Kursbuch”, which appeared after Suhrkamp at Wagenbach, went to the Rotbuch-Verlag: If Klaus Wagenbach hadn’t been such a headstrong stubborn man, the publisher (at that time the only serious literary publisher in West Berlin, from the many interesting publishers of the twenties if nothing remained, most of the publishers had been expelled or killed) would have been smashed into pieces (and the Springer corporation’s newspapers tried to ensure that his headaches did not diminish).
But he solved all problems in his sometimes pea-telling way and, with his boundless love for Italy, conquered a literary and cultural-historical field that he did wonderfully in publishing: from Pasolini to Manganelli, from Camillieri to Malerba, more than a hundred Italian writers have appeared in the various series of his publisher (including a paperback edition) and anyone who was allowed to appear in the red linen series Salto was considered immortal.
But it wasn’t just the writers who attracted him, but also the art historians, from Salvatore Settis to the great two-volume Renaissance anthology and Lampugniani’s history of the city to Horst Bredekamp – thank goodness Wagenbach still has the publication of the magistral „Michelangelo“ witnessed, after the publication of all of Vasari’s vitae, the great masterpiece of the publishing house, which has been led by his third wife, Susanne Schüssler, for almost twenty years.
Klaus was anything but an easy friend, and sometimes it was good not to have him around. But he was without reservation one of the most important publishers in the Federal Republic of Germany and a role model for anyone who refuses to accept the fact that only a handful of corporations determine literary taste.
Klaus Wagenbach died on Friday at the age of 91 in Berlin, accompanied by his family and surrounded by his books, the publisher announced on Monday. The publisher will continue to operate in accordance with Klaus Wagenbach’s motto: “Something can never be gained through sadness.”
Michael Krüger, born in 1943, is a writer and publisher and the former director of Hanser Verlag.