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Rowohlt Celebrates 100 Years

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A Profile by Philip Oltermann

Most German readers will at some point in their lives have held a Rowohlt paperback in their hands and looked at the memorable logo on the back or spine. It’s simple, almost laughably so: three pairs of lower-case letters, stacked on top of each other. They roll off the tongue, and saying them out loud sounds a little bit like Father Christmas’s chuckle.
 
Originally, RO-RO-RO stood for ‘Rowohlt Rotations Romane’: large-format novels printed on cheap newspaper stock and sold at no more than 50 pfennig apiece. In June 1950 their format shrank, as did the letters in the logo: Rowohlt published the first paperback novels on the German market. They were affordable – mainly because they would contain full-page ads for petrol, cars, perfume or cigarettes – and for many, rororos became the first books they could afford to buy with their pocket money. And yet they weren’t just pulp fiction. The first four rororos were by first-class writers of international renown: Hans Fallada, Graham Greene, Rudyard Kipling and Kurt Tucholsky. Rororo told the young Germany of the post-war generation good stories, but it also taught them something about the world.
 
In 2008, the year of Rowohlt’s hundredth birthday, the rororo paperback ethos still sums up the ideals and ambitions that the publishing house believes in. As Thomas Überhoff, Rowohlt’s fiction editor-in-chief, puts it: ‘We all believe that our books have something to say – they have an aufklärerischer Gestus – but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be fun to read. For us, there’s no necessary contradiction between intellect and entertainment, not even between schlock and avant garde.’
 
Ernst Rowohlt might well have agreed. Only twenty years of age when he started his business for the first time in Leipzig in 1908 (there would be two more ‘founding moments’, after World Wars One and Two), his first published work was that of a friend, Gustav Edzard, with his Lieder der Sommernächte. Rowohlt had a knack for befriending promising young writers and publishing them: the dadaist Hugo Ball, Georg Heym, Max Brod and Franz Kafka, who had his first work, Betrachtungen, published here (and who persisted in an irritating habit of misspelling his patron’s name as ‘Rohwolt’).
 
Väterchen’ Rowohlt enjoyed ambitious experimental fiction but he was also a man of epicurean pleasures – it showed up in his fabled social life as it does on the current Rowohlt backlist. ‘Balzac zahlt alles!’ (‘Balzac foots the bill!’) became a motto of his parties, where the successful and not so successful of the publishing world drank and danced into the early hours. Minor to major scandals became part of the Rowohlt editorial agenda, from Carl Einstein’s 1921 novel Die schlimme Botschaft, the story of a modern, foul-mouthed Jesus Christ which was sued for blasphemy, right through to Nabokov’s Lolita and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. On its theatre list, the firm championed Neil LaBute, Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill, none of whom are exactly known for mincing their words. ‘We have always liked drinks-and-drugs literature, and we still do’, says Überhoff.
 
Little surprise, then, that Ernst was drawn to Ernest, Rowohlt publishing Hemingway’s Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises in 1928 and making In einem anderen Land (A Farewell to Arms) one of the first newspaper RO-RO-ROs in 1946. By that time, Rowohlt had already become one of the first German publishers to push American authors, in particular the later Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis. An internationalist, anglophile editorial policy runs through the house’s history, and Überhoff’s current list boasts Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt, John Updike and many more. Sometimes, the American publisher Roger Straus once remarked, Rowohlt feels like an American publishing house that just happens to be based in Germany.
 
Hemingway felt a deep kinship with his German publisher – but he did like to be paid on time, and that wasn’t always Rowohlt’s forte in the early years. Ernst had been poor when he started his business, widely known by his nickname ‘Pumphut’ (‘Beggar’s Hat’) and often forced to sleep in his office. He prided himself on his businesslike way with authors, publishing a list of tips on ‘How to Deal with Authors’ in the literary journal Der Querschnitt, which included such sage advice as ‘always put your author in an armchair that is lower than yours’ and ‘wear tinted glasses so that he can’t detect the movement of your eyes’. But when it came to toughing out a hard bit of bargaining, one gets the feeling that Rowohlt wasn’t always as tough as he liked to think. Kafka, for one, noticed stillstehenden Schweiss, a face covered in perspiration, at his first meeting with Rohwolt. The publisher was evidently more nervous than his author.
 
Many of Rowohlt’s greatest books were published in spite, not because, of their commercial potential. Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities was nearly vetoed because one of the chairmen thought it had ‘commercial suicide’ written all over it. In the end, the book was pushed through because editor-in-chief Paul Meyer made a passionate plea: ‘Cotta had Goethe, we have Musil.’
 
These days, Rowohlt is no longer based in Leipzig, but in Reinbeck just outside Hamburg, having relocated there in 1960, the very year that ‘Väterchen’ Rowohlt died. These days, the company is also better off commercially. Some might say that this is because, at the start of this decade, when the house’s books were deep in the red (‘rororot’, as one newspaper used to quip), then-publisher Nikolaus Hansen brought in business consultants McKinsey, who established a more modern business spirit within the company. Others might point to Rowohlt’s consistent and reliable non-fiction output: the memoirs of opera singer Leo Slezak, biographies of Goethe and Alfons Goldschmidt’s reportage masterpiece Moskau 1920 helped Rowohlt to prosperity in that decade, and in the 1960s the same tradition was continued by the ever-popular ‘Rowohlt Monographien’ biographies and Fritz J. Raddatz’s ‘rororo aktuell’ series, through which the company published slim but well-researched booklets on political issues of the day.
 
And yet, as non-fiction director Uwe Naumann points out, even the best publisher of quality cultural histories and literary fiction could not survive without a few bestsellers: Ohne Schwarzbrot kein Kaviar. (‘No caviar without bread’). Luckily, Rowohlt had a bestseller in nearly every decade: from Emil Ludwig’s biography of Napoleon in 1924 or Hans Fallada’s Kleiner Mann – Was Nun? in 1932, to the Rosamunde Pilcher phenomenon throughout the 1990s and, most recently, Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World, currently the bestselling German author since Patrick Süskind. Some of the company’s greatest moneyspinners were ‘in-house productions’ in the most literal sense of the phrase: Götter, Gräber und Gelehrte, a ‘novel’ about the history of archaeology which has sold more than two million copies since 1949, was not only written by editor Kurt Marek (under the pseudonym C.W. Ceram), he was also the only person to read the manuscript before it was sent to the printer.
 
A sneak preview at the anecdoterich company chronicle 100 Jahre Rowohlt (to be published in April) reveals that there could have been even more bestsellers along the way: the commissioning editors turned down Leonie Swann’s Glennkill, Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (‘too much Latin’). Still, looking at the current set-up of the company, there is little cause for lingering over past mistakes. In current publisher Alexander Fest Rowohlt has a young boss with a good name (his father is the celebrated historian Joachim Fest, author of In Hitler’s Bunker, filmed as Downfall), an international profile and, last but not least, charm: one German broadsheet has already dubbed him the ‘Sun King of the publishing world’. With the blessing of the gods, those stacked-up ROs may well roll over book counters for many years to come.
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Philip Oltermann’s
journalism has appeared in The Guardian, The Times, Prospect, the Süddeutsche Zeitung and Spiegel Online. He is currently writing a book about Anglo- German meetings which Faber & Rowohlt Verlag, Reinbek Faber will publish in 2010.
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