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Subject: Siegfried Unseld, German Publisher Noted for Erudition

Dies at 78
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Date Posted: October 31, 2002 6:02:44 EDT

Siegfried Unseld, the head of the major German publishing house Suhrkamp Verlag and the man considered to be Germany's leading literary publisher, died at home in Frankfurt-am-Main on Saturday. He was 78, and had been suffering from the effects of a stroke.

During the decades he spent at Suhrkamp, Mr. Unseld published the major figures of German literature past and present. The fortunes of the house were built on the twin pillars of Hermann Hesse, who helped to found Suhrkamp, and Bertolt Brecht, who was a friend of Mr. Unseld. Suhrkamp owns the global rights to both authors.

But Suhrkamp also published German writers ranging from Goethe to Rilke to Mann to Peter Handke, as well as German translations of such major international figures as Eliot, Gide, Hemingway, Joyce, Lorca, Mishima, Proust and Sartre. Recently, Suhrkamp signed Imre Kertesz, the Hungarian Jewish writer who won this year's Nobel Prize in Literature.

In the second half of the 20th century, Suhrkamp published some 12,000 titles, more than half of which are still in print. The success of this huge backlist helped the company to remain independent and to resist the temptations of commercial blockbuster publishing.

"Siegfried Unseld was an ideal publisher," said Louis Begley, one of Suhrkamp's American writers. "He loved books, his erudition was immense, his taste was uncompromising, and he was tender and nourishing with his authors."

The critic George Steiner, writing in the Times Literary Supplement in March 1973, referred to "what one might call `the Suhrkamp culture' which now dominates so much of German high literacy and intellectual ranking." He continued: "Almost single-handed, by force of cultural-political vision and technical acumen, the publishing firm of Suhrkamp has created a modern philosophical canon. In so far as it has made widely available the most important demanding philosophical voices of the age, in so far as it has filled German bookshelves with the presence of that German Jewish intellectual and nervous genius which Nazism sought to obliterate, the Suhrkamp initiative has been a permanent gain."

In 1980, when the American edition of his book "The Author and His Publisher" (University of Chicago) appeared, Mr. Unseld told The New York Times, "I'm the Alfred Knopf of Germany."

If Mr. Unseld was Knopf-like in the geographical breadth of his literary tastes, he also entertained his authors in the tradition of his American forerunner. Part of his Frankfurt house was converted to self-contained apartments where his authors could stay undisturbed and free of charge whenever they were in town. Among the decorations of his home were two Andy Warhol portraits of Goethe, about whom Mr. Unseld wrote "Goethe and His Publisher" (Chicago, 1980) and "Goethe & The Ginkgo: A Tree & a Poem" (Chicago, 2002), and a picture of Marilyn Monroe reposing on a lawn with Joyce's "Ulysses" on her lap.

Also reminiscent of Knopf was his decision not to pass on his publishing house to his son. Joachim Unseld left the company sometime after his father divorced his mother, Hilde, and married the young novelist Ulla BerkÚwicz.

"He was pushing for power," Mr. Unseld said of Joachim, who still owns a percentage of the company. "So he had to leave." Instead, the senior Mr. Unseld set up a foundation to which he planned to leave his 51 percent stake in Suhrkamp.

Siegfried Unseld was born Sept. 28, 1924, in the southern city of Ulm. He studied at TŘbingen University after being drafted into the military as a marine radio operator in World War II, during which he served in the Black Sea. He obtained a doctorate in 1951, writing his dissertation on Hermann Hesse.

Mr. Unseld arrived at Suhrkamp in 1952, two years after it was founded by Peter Suhrkamp with Hesse's encouragement.

Mr. Suhrkamp had been managing S. Fischer Verlag since 1936, but in 1942 he was forced by the Nazis to change its name to Suhrkamp Verlag (because Fischer was Jewish) and sent to a concentration camp for his opposition to the Nazis. After the war, having survived but fallen out with the Fischer family, Mr. Suhrkamp went his own way with Suhrkamp Verlag. Thirty-three of Fischer's authors followed him in solidarity with his opposition to the Nazis, among them Hesse and Brecht.

In 1957, Mr. Unseld became a partner in the firm, and in 1959 he took over as head of the house after Mr. Suhrkamp's death. Under his leadership, Suhrkamp expanded, in 1962 acquiring Insel Verlag (founded in 1899 in Leipzig and the publisher of Rilke, Zweig and Hofmannsthal) and in 1991 taking over the Jewish Press.

But despite becoming what the German critic Marcel Reich-Reinicki called "the most important German publisher of our time," Mr. Unseld refused to join the bidding wars for the rights to American best-sellers. He made no secret of the fact that he could afford such independence because of Suhrkamp's backlist. "I would be a rich man if I lived on a Caribbean island and just bartered the rights of Hesse and Brecht," he told the International Herald Tribune in 1999. "But I would be a poor man if I actually did that."

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