Hermann Kesten: Obituary

National literatures are peppered with so-called living monuments, last surviving rep- resentatives of this and that, often more dreamed up than verifiable. It is, however, difficult to avoid the conclusion that, with the death of Hermann Kesten, an entire chapter of German literary history really has closed. And not only literary history - Kesten's presence at the points where literature and politics met or, more often, collided derived from his own clear sense that literature needed to be not only written but also promoted, organised and protected.

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones