Jun 2015

Frederick A. Lubich

Frederick A. Lubich, Interview with Michael Eskin, Scholar, Author and Co-Founder of the German-American Publishing House Upper West Side Philosophers

Michael Eskin

Michael Eskin

F.A.L.: Michael, you were born in Riga, Latvia, how did you end up in America?


Michael Eskin: Yes, I was born in Riga in 1966 and wound up in the US by somewhat of a circuitous route. In the summer of 1972, my parents and I left the Soviet Union for Israel as part of the very first wave of several hundred Jews permitted to emigrate by the Soviet government. I have since deduced that our family must have been on the same train that also carried Joseph Brodsky to the West. The journey first took us to Vienna, where all emigrants had to undergo what I think was some sort of clearance that lasted several weeks. We were all housed in an old castle not far from the Austrian capital. We were subsequently flown to Israel and taken to Dimona in the Negev desert, where we spent a couple of months, before moving to Lod and then on to Tel Aviv, where both my parents found work: my father, a violinist, with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, and my mother, a former chemistry teacher, as a dental assistant. We spent a total of about three years in Israel, before emigrating again – this time to Germany – for the simple reason, as my mother would often tell me, that she was not willing to live and bring up her child in a country beset by war. I think that the experience of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 as well as frequent reports of school busses blowing up tipped her internal balance in favor of starting afresh in more pacific climes.

Why my mother chose Germany, as opposed to Canada or the US (as others did), I will never know for sure. But I think it was a squarely pragmatic decision: apparently less was involved in going to Germany than to the other destinations, which would have meant spending a significant period in transition-cum-clearance camp in Ostia, Italy. And so, in the summer of 1975, we found ourselves in what was then West Berlin – in a DP camp in the borough of Marienfelde, where we lived for almost a year, and where I began learning and speaking German. When my father was hired by the Bavarian State Opera, we relocated to Munich. Soon after our move, my parents got divorced, and my father eventually settled in Salzburg, which is why I spent the tail end of my childhood and almost my entire adolescence and young adulthood shunting back and forth between Germany and Austria.

After finishing high school and completing my two-year stint as a conscientious objector, I moved to Paris to study French and philosophy. Upon my return to Munich I successfully applied for a fellowship to the US, which is how I came by a BA in English and philosophy from Concordia College in Minnesota. I once again returned to Munich to complete an MA in comparative and American literature and philosophy, before being awarded a graduate fellowship to do a Ph.D. at Rutgers – at which point I officially ‘immigrated’ to the US. With the exception of a two-year stint as a fellow at Cambridge University, I have lived here since.


F.A.L: Your trajectory cannot fail to raise the question of language: what language or languages did you grow up speaking?


Michael Eskin: I can’t help thinking of Mandel’shtam’s phrase “Judaic chaos” when I think of the languages I have been exposed to growing up. It began with Russian – and, marginally, Yiddish (through my maternal grandmother). Then, in Israel, Ivrit – modern Hebrew – moved to the forefront, flanked by English, as Israeli culture (television in particular) was and is saturated with it. Everything was broadcast in the original. In Germany, then, German was added to the mix and – after my parents’ divorce and my mother’s remarriage to a Polish pianist – Polish. Thus, at my mother’s house Russian, Polish, and German were spoken, and at my father’s house it was mostly Russian and German, and sometimes English – as my father’s long-time partner was American. Interestingly, the languages were person-dependent. Thus, I spoke Russian with my mother and father, Russian and Polish with my step-father (he happened to have studied music in Moscow and had fluent Russian), German and occasionally English with my father’s partner, and Russian and German with my siblings. As you can imagine, as time goes by one or the other language gets rusty – thus, my Ivrit is virtually nil at this point, and my Polish as well – although I have to say that it has stood me in good stead when it comes to eavesdropping on contractors in New York City, many of whom hail from Poland.


F.A.L: Since our years together at Rutgers University in the mid 1990’s we have become very good friends and throughout the years we also collaborated on various cultural projects. During that time you have taught for several years at the University of Cambridge in Great Britain and at Columbia University in New York and have established yourself not only as a very prolific author and editor of close to a dozen books with such prominent publishers as De Gruyter, Oxford University Press, Stanford University Press, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux but also as the co-founder of the publishing house Upper West Side Philosophers, Inc. which has by all accounts become a great success. Tell us more about it.


Michael Eskin: That, too, is somewhat of a longish and circuitous story. After receiving my Ph. D. from Rutgers – four years that I deeply cherish, not least because I had the fortune of meeting and befriending some wonderful people there, such as yourself – I landed a Junior Research Fellowship at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge, England, which turned out to be a marvelous and truly interesting sojourn for me. I was then hired by the Columbia German department – a non-tenure track professorship in German and comparative literature. While I was still at Columbia teaching courses mostly in poetry as well as philosophy and intellectual history, a life-changing event happened that enjoined me to explore intellectual paths beyond the academy: I became a father. For reasons that I will probably never be able to plumb, and that, I assume, had to do with my personal and family history as well as with my particular brain chemistry, I felt that I needed to do something meaningful and worthwhile in addition to and beyond my academic work. Which is why I cofounded what was initially envisioned as an independent center for philosophical thinking.

However, the center gradually morphed into a full-blown publishing house with the specific goal of providing a venue for original philosophical thinking in line with our motto ‘lived philosophy and philosophical living’. And since this kind of thinking can take a variety of forms, we publish a range of genres, including poetry, essays and novels.

UWSP Publishing was born, I imagine, from my love of books as objects (and not merely as repositories of content) – a love that goes back for as long as I can remember. I had always been very aware of and attentive to how the books I was reading were made, how they felt in my hands. To this day, the sight of spines arranged on a shelf affords me a sense of joy, a certain serenity and peace, and what might be described as the reassuring sensation of existential, aesthetic and intellectual limpidness or order in an otherwise murky and more or less chaotic world.

One day my wife, Kathrin Stengel, cofounder of UWSP, and a professional philosopher in her own right, handed me the manuscript of her second book, November Rose: A Speech on Death. I read it, was overwhelmed by it, and had a vision as to what it should look and feel like as a published book, from stock and binding to design and layout. She trusted me enough to publish her book, and so I embarked on the journey of becoming a publisher, which involved learning the ins and outs of the business (from obtaining ISBN numbers to registering with the Library of Congress and books-in-print, to typesetting, selecting stock, determining weight, binding, headbands, and foil stamping, die-cutting, rights-purchasing and much, much more). To cut a long story short, the book came out and won an Independent Publisher Book Award. This convinced us that we couldn’t have been too bad at our new job, and so we decided to continue. Here we are today, seven years, eighteen books and seven awards later, and still going strong.

As to our success – that is very kind of you. Success, though, is relative. And while we are very proud of what we have thus far achieved, there is lots of room for growth, and the work that lies before us is massively increasing with every new book we put out. But it has been quite exhilarating to not only read and write about books – as academics tend to do – but to actually make and sell them. All the while, I have continued writing and editing both academic and non-academic books – something I immensely enjoy and wouldn’t want to miss.


F.A.L: With your publishing company in New York you are continuing a remarkable German-Jewish tradition which has been building bridges between German authors and American readers for almost a century. This cultural transfer between the Old World and the New World probably started with Alfred Knopf’s English publications of works by Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka, to mention only the most prominent German speaking authors, and it reached its culmination point in the wake of the exodus of German-Jewish publishers during the Third Reich, represented most notably by Frederick Ungar, Salman Schocken and Kurt & Helen Wolff. As far as I can see, you are the only one who continues this venerable German-Jewish tradition. How do you see yourself in this context?


Michael Eskin: It’s really interesting how all this came about. You know I never saw myself as the bearer of any kind of tradition, although I have always felt strongly about my being Jewish. The thing is that when we started publishing books, we simply had a vision – or shall I say that we were possessed by some sort of ‘hubris’ – of putting valuable content into the world geared toward lived life; we simply felt we were particularly well equipped to do so. And, as we all know, without the requisite ‘hubris’ – which has more to do with hearing a call than with arrogance or vainglory – no creative endeavor would ever get off the ground. Apparently, we were so convincing that some of the authors and publishers I knew in connection with my academic work suggested that we publish their work. These authors happened to be German, and so we suddenly found ourselves fully immersed in the business of cultural transfer, which in turn reinforced our belief in the value of our endeavors. We have been very fortunate in our partnerships with Suhrkamp, Insel and Random House Germany, and we are very proud of our German list, which includes Durs Grünbein and Hans Magnus Enzensberger, NZZ correspondent Andrea Köhler, and bestselling philosopher Wilhelm Schmid.

But our publishing decisions have never depended on whether any given book was originally written in a language other than English per se. At the same time, I cannot deny that I am eternally curious about what is going on outside the US in the republic of letters. Thus, I tend to forage in those territories in particular whose languages I speak and read in the original: Russian, German, French. At the end of the day, though, we simply look for original, well-written books that give pause, entertain, and inject our lives with novelty (of perspective, sensibility, mind) and that we feel humanity would be remiss in doing without (even though it may not know it yet). At this point, we have books by English, Hungarian, German and French authors.


F.A.L: The books your company publishes are very much in the high-brow category. On the other hand, Benedikt Taschen, your German counterpart in Los Angeles, produces books in the middle brow category and above all in the art-historical section. Do you see both of you as an east-coast, west-coast complementation which brings German and European literature and the visual arts to the United States?


Michael Eskin: I have never thought of UWSP in relation to Taschen – an imprint I know well and have admired for a long time – if only because our lists are so different. But, who knows, maybe, if we survive long enough, that is how we might be viewed from some future vantage point.


F.A.L: “All the news that’s fit to print”, that was Adolph Ochs’ slogan for the New York Times of his times. As you know, Gabriele Eckart’s interview with the author Irina Liebmann as well as my introduction to it, published in Glossen 39 (December 2014), had to be withdrawn in April 2015, because Ms. Liebmann considered the references to her Jewish heritage not fit to print. Both Gabriele’s questions and my introduction were inspired by the American tradition of ethnic pride and cultural identity. But our German efforts to celebrate her Jewish heritage obviously backfired. How do you feel about your Jewish identity?


Michael Eskin: Being Jewish is an inherent part of how I view and experience myself. At the same time, I still don’t really know what being Jewish essentially means, what it is at its core. Coming from a cultural tradition that views Jewishness – I am advisedly eschewing the term ‘Judaism’ here – as an ethnicity rather than a religion, I am as befuddled as ever whenever I have to define or explain it. This being said – only because I cannot explain Jewishness doesn’t mean that it is not real – very real, in fact – and that it has no real effects in and a real impact on the world we live in. So, to get back to the real-life occasion that prompted your question: although I will abstain from commenting on this specific case, as I am simply not familiar enough with the details, I feel that the overall topic ‘Germans-and-Jews’ no longer inspires insights that add anything creative, inventive, novel to our thinking about it. But my sense is that as long as we view this painfully complex and convoluted relationship virtually exclusively under the sign of the Holocaust, it is going to stay that way. The problem is that we might no longer be able not to view this relationship under the sign of the Shoah at this point. Looking ahead, I would imagine that it will be key to unburden future generations of Germans and Jews of the weight of this inherited, circular dynamic and all the repressions, transferences and displacements that go along with it, while keeping the history and memory of the Holocaust fully alive. I am not sure that it will be possible on a large social scale, but I know that it can work starting with the singular person. My own family is a good example. Thus, my wife’s paternal grandfather was heavily involved with the Nazis as the head of a chemical plant. Does this mean that my relationship with my wife is but an instantiation of the ‘Germans-and-Jews’ topic – by default, as it were? I don’t think so. In certain ways, contemporary Germans have it harder than other nations (especially those who collaborated with the Nazis) when it comes to the curses of the past. After all, nobody has ever regarded (and judged) me in light of my paternal grandmother’s Stalinist affiliations (she was an avid communist and district judge during some of the darker moments in the Soviet period …).


F.A.L: Speaking of censorship and political correctness: In fall 2014 you wrote a short piece in Glossen 39 titled “How Writing a Novel Can Get You Fired … in London. A Publisher’s Field Notes”, in which you describe the fate of the British author Stephen Grant, whose contract was terminated by his college, because its representatives felt they could recognize themselves and their institution in Grant’s novel A Moment More Sublime.


Michael Eskin: Yes, that was a very interesting concatenation of events: in the fall of 2014, we published Stephen Grant’s debut novel A Moment More Sublime, upon which he began being investigated and persecuted by the college he was then teaching at for allegedly bringing it into disrepute by publishing his novel – allegations that were utterly frivolous. The story was subsequently picked up by several British newspapers, including the local paper of the London borough where the college is located. What goes around comes around, indeed … In a way, the college was hoist with its own petard.

It was the first time in my life that I had been confronted with censorship first-hand, as UWSP also found itself in the college’s cross hairs: the head of Human Resources wanted us to quash the novel and withdraw it from circulation, which we didn’t do, of course. It was very different from reading and writing about repression and censorship in the lives of others. We are truly fortunate to have been in the position to do what we felt was right and stand by our author without having to fear for our livelihood or physical safety.


F.A.L: Which brings me to Charlie Hebdo. After the assassination of several members of this satirical journal at the beginning of this year in Paris some argued that maybe western societies should be less satirical in caricaturing other cultures, especially Muslim cultures. What are your thoughts on the current state of satirical criticism and political correctness especially with regards to ethnic and religious identity?


Michael Eskin: In principle, I am with Epictetus, who says (and I am quoting from memory here) that it is not another’s words that are insulting but our interpretation of those words. In other words, nobody can insult us unless we give them the power to do so … This is to say that in principle, I am for complete freedom of speech even hate speech and unkind speech – at least, to state the obvious, then you will know what others really think. I also believe that even the most insignificant act can be turned into the occasion of an act of violence. But being made an occasion doesn’t imply causation. It follows that those who hate and truly intend to do harm will find ways and means and occasions to do harm to those whom they hate one way or another. I also believe that satire is absolutely crucial and indispensable in a free society. In my opinion, political correctness, while born from a deeply admirable impulse, is often invoked to the detriment of human expression, creativity, and humor. At its best, it makes for social kindness and peace. At its worst, it polices our speech and, consequently, our thoughts as well. So, all in all I am torn on the issue. In a world without sexists, racists, and so forth we wouldn’t need it. But that is not our world. As to Charlie Hebdo, it seems to me so much has already been said that all I can ad to it is that I am appalled and saddened by this kind of extremism and hatred. To the extent that our hermeneutic tools vis-à-vis such gross acts of inhuman violence rely on reason and aim at explaining them they are bound to fail, such acts are not reasonable – in this case, disproportionately unreasonable, in fact. And just as you cannot reason someone out of something they were not reasoned into in the first place (to quote Jonathan Swift), so attempts at reasonable explanations of unreasonable acts, while potentially exorcising their sublime exorbitance, will not really supply a meet response to them.


FAL: Both you and I have moved in recent years from writing exclusively academic articles and books more and more to writing creative texts. In the olden days, traditional scholars of literature tended to consider literary texts by academics a somewhat dubious or frivolous enterprise. Glossen is currently the only American journal in German Studies which publishes texts in both genres. What are your impressions and conclusions?


Michael Eskin: In a way, like the lover, the author has no choice in the sense that if you do have the inveterate urge to express yourself creatively – rather than academically (which can also be creative, but in very different ways having to do with the logic of apophantic speech) – you will simply have to go with it. Personally, I have found it very important and liberating to write books and essays that do not allow me to ensconce myself within the bulwarks of academic dialogue and authority, that expose me personally to my readers’ responses and criticisms. But this may sound as though I had planned it that way: finding it important first and then getting on with it. In reality, it was certain ideas grabbing hold of me and literally wanting out and to be articulated and shared. But I think that academic and creative writing are not at all mutually exclusive – as many a cross-over act attests to.


F.A.L: How would you assess recent trends and developments in both German Studies and publishing German literature in the United States?


Michael Eskin: It seems to me that there is a general return to philology and historical analysis in English and modern language departments – also a fascination with world literature and what Franco Moretti has called ‘distant reading’, but I might be oversimplifying here. In any case, theory writ large appears to have receded into the background.

As far as publishing German literature in the US is concerned, one has to contend with two major hurdles: the first applies to all translated literature – there is so much incredible native talent that any translated work has to compete with that. Thus, if you look at contemporary German writers who have ‘made it’ – I mean truly made it – in the US market, I can think of two in the recent past: Bernhard Schlink and W. G. Sebald – and, more recently, the rediscovery of Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone. The reasons are obvious (aside from the sine qua non of certain literary standards that will have to have been met): all three deal with National Socialism in very gripping and interesting ways.

But, it seems to me that there is another hurdle as well (this applies to literature translated from German in particular) – and that is my very personal, purely intuitive, hypothesis (so please take it with a grain of salt): all three authors have last names that don’t really sound German. What I mean is, if your name is Ulf Stolterfoht or Ingo Schulze, your chances of truly catching on in the US will most likely be slimmer than if your last name is Bernhard Schlink, W. G. Sebald, Daniel Kehlmann, or Patrick Süskind. For a publisher this means that an author’s overly Germanic name might represent a hurdle when it comes to public appeal. Unfortunately – and here the Holocaust yet again rears its ugly head – our US culture doesn’t really associate anything ‘romantic’ or ‘adventurous’ with Germany (pace the blue flower, the romantic road, and love parades), but rather jackboots, beer steins, bratwurst, uptightness and order-obsession, Mercedes, Audi, Beamers, and masses chanting and saluting … So, all things being equal, if one Klaus Uwe Ochsenknecht had written something in the vein of My War, I somehow doubt that it would have become the global mega success that Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle has turned out to be – to the point of the world’s virtual forgetting that the title conjures another book, also a bestseller in its time … Just think of the difference in appeal emanating from the names Jean-Joaquin Mont-Limaçon and Hans Joachim Schneckenberger, respectively … Which one would you gravitate toward? Is this the reason that Rilke has become such a fixture in the American and British imaginaries, whereas Goethe and Eichendorff have not?

Again, all this is highly speculative – but at the same time, talking to other publishers on these issues, there seems to be some truth to the matter. When it comes to marketing, often nomen est omen.


F.A.L.: Is there an American future for readers and publishers of German literature?


Michael Eskin: Yes! Despite the above-mentioned hurdles. We, Americans, as a nation must continue translating works from other countries and cultures, lest we fall into parochialism. Thus, I could imagine that had works in translation from countries such as Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and others been part of our school curricula, we, as a society, would not be groping in semi-darkness today when it comes to Islam.

But, to get back to Germany: to the extent that strong and historically and globally pertinent writing continues to come out of Germany and the German-speaking lands, the world will appreciate knowing about and reading it. But you cannot build a life and a career on publishing specifically German writing. It seems to me that one could make the following hypothesis: German literature isn’t interesting to readers abroad on account of being German per se, but on account of being literature that happens to be written in German. It might be a bit different with other literatures that originate in cultures that are part of our erotic, culinary, spiritual, and ethnic-exotic imaginaries – I am thinking of France, Spain/South America, Russia, Africa. All this is very complicated, and I am sure haven’t done justice to the issue here, but maybe I have given some food for thought?


F.A.L.: You also jam in a jazz and rock band in Manhattan. Maybe that can give us a clue how we can further mash up poetry slams into mosh pits of modern literary master pieces from Franz Kafka to Hermann Hesse and from Rainer Maria Rilke to Durs Grünbein – not to mention Rammstein – in order to reach today’s Millenials?


Michael Eskin: Maybe, indeed! Who knows. But how to make contemporary German literature and culture more widely exciting and worth engaging with in depth is definitely the task here. I don’t have a recipe for it, but I think that uncoupling German culture and history from some of the stereotypes it has been saddled with – and which don’t tend to be positive – would go a long way. How to accomplish that might be the million-dollar question. But that’s probably something for another conversation …

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