Hermann Kesten: Obituary
Wednesday 08 May 1996
Kesten was born in Nuremberg in 1900, son of a Jewish merchant. In the early 1920s, while a student in Frankfurt, he was already writing plays and forging literary plans. Even at this early stage he seems to have envisaged twin careers for himself, as a writer and as a publisher. Personal contacts - Kesten always relished the company of fellow writers and publishers - facilitated the move to Berlin to take up, in 1928, a post as an editor with the left-wing publisher Kiepenheuer. In the same year he published his first novel, Josef sucht die Freiheit ("Josef breaks free"). Reviewers were enthusiastic, and Kesten was awarded the prestigious Kleist Prize.
Two more novels quickly followed: Ein ausachweifender Mensch ("Running Riot", 1929) and Gluckliche Menschen ("Happy Man", 1931). Both were judged highly topical and were well received - the last was chosen as book of the year by Thomas Mann.
But his other career was not neglected. Kesten was a key figure in the innovative literary programme of Kiepenheuer. In 1929 he published a collection of new writing by 24 authors, a selection so judiciously representative that it was reprinted more than 50 years later. Kesten's publishing gifts were brought into even sharper, if unwelcome, focus by the catastrophic turn of events in 1933. Kesten saw where the turn was likely to lead: early in 1933 his friend and fellow-novelist Erich Kastner met him on the Kurfurstendamm, suitcase in hand - "Where are you going?", Kastner asked. "Paris." "For long?" "About 10 years," Kesten replied. He was in one sense nearly right, in another wholly wrong - he never again permanently settled in Germany.
In Paris Kesten began working for the Amsterdam publisher Allert de Lange. Amsterdam became a centre of exile for German book-publishing in the 1930s and Kesten, who moved there and became part of it, took seriously the task of creating communities and preserving continuities, editing banned writers known and unknown, past and present, from Heinrich Heine to Bertholt Brecht. His support of exiled writers was well known and it could take remarkably creative forms: in 1935 he wrote to his friend Klaus Mann suggesting "You should write a novel about a homosexual careerist in the Third Reich." Mann did - Mephisto was the result.
In 1940 Kesten emigrated to New York and later acquired American citizenship. Here too, as a central figure in the Emergency Rescue Committee, he assisted other refugee writers and, with Klaus Mann, edited a hugely influential anthology of European creative writing from 1920 to 1940, called Heart of Europe.
Throughout the Hitler years and beyond Kesten continued to write prolifically. Indeed the experience of those troubled times yielded fiction and non- fiction: novels tracing contrasting fates - Die Zwillinge von Nurnberg ("The Twins of Nuremberg", 1946) - or a Jew's recovery, against the odds, of his faith - Die fremden Gotter ("Strange Gods", 1949) - or biographies of seekers after varieties of freedom - Copernicus (1948) and Casanova (1952).
Kesten's periodic moves ( he lived in New York, in Munich, in Switzerland and for many years in Rome) did not sever his links with Germany. Distance and seniority gave him a special status as Germany, and German literature in particular, emerged from the ruins. In the 47 Group, by far most influential grouping of writers and critics in the 1950s and early 1960s, he was regarded as "the Old Master", "the kindly, almost paternal mentor". He embodied, it seemed, a continuity reaching back into the far-distant 1920s. The recognition was there - Kesten received many prizes, was elected President of West German PEN in 1972 - but mentors are more likely to fall behind than to lead. After speaking out against what he wrongly saw as the Communist sympathies of one of Germany's most promising writers, Uwe Johnson, in the early 1960s, he was increasingly seen - and sidelined - as an old- style liberal in a literary culture that sought newer styles of political commitment.
But the "paternal mentor" was no casual tag. The creative, preservative effects of Kesten's commitment to fellow writers during the dark years are incalculable. Nor is it incongruous that in one so committed to unbroken continuities his own early novels should seem to have lasted best. The three novels published between 1929 and 1931, with their ironically matter-of-fact handling of often macabre events are among the most vivid accounts in fiction of the moral chaos at the end of the Weimar Republic. As the critic Arthur Benjamin said, "Kesten's powerful realist gaze was penetrating those places where the world was trying to batten down the hatches."
Hermann Kesten, author, publisher: born Nuremberg 1900; married Toni Warowitz (died 1977); died Basle, Switzerland 3 May 1996.
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