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Steppenwolf's archivist

Roman Bucheli visits Volker Michels at his Hermann Hesse archive, the "most functional" documentation centre on one of Germany's best selling authors.

Author Hermann Hesse in 1927 (© Gret Widmann), and Hesse archivist Volker Michels. Courtesy Suhrkamp Verlag

The sight is so overwhelming you'd think you were entering another world. For from the outside nothing indicates the concealed universe within. The house facade is nondescript, and the way through to the inner courtyard has a downright gloomy appearance on this winter's day when it never really seems to get light in Offenbach. You enter the house, so to speak, from the back, where there was once a bakery. But there is nothing there any more to remind you of its working past, except, perhaps, for the plain architecture of this square building, which just manages to squeeze into the inner courtyard and which you can tell was not designed for living in.

Although the Michels family lives in the house, you notice as soon as you open the front door that living is only a peripheral activity here, one that has to be put up with, as closer examination reveals. But the main thing here is the mass of books, or rather the papers – copied documents, stacks and piles of them, some on tables, some underneath; sometimes ordered, but in many cases apparently tossed together in complete chaos, as if there had been just enough time to drop them before another bundle arrived. You can practically smell the paper and the dried ink, even if you know the sensation is really imaginary. As you gaze around in stunned amazement you see among all the books and papers the owner of the house, Volker Michels, editor of Hermann Hesse's works for more than thirty years. He points to his life's work with a slight air of embarrassment, unable to decide whether he should justify himself, apologise or explain, for he too has noticed that the visitor is overwhelmed, if not indeed rather dazed, struggling to regain his composure.

It's difficult to say where and when the seed for what was later to become a passion was sown. Perhaps back at the boarding school in Salem, where Michels read Hesse's "Unterm Rad" (The Prodigy) in the late 1950s and felt that the writer had discovered his most intimate feelings. So strong was Michels' sense that Hesse had looked directly into his soul and thus spoken to him that he was unable to contain himself. He wrote a letter to the master in Montagnola – and received a reply by return of post.

Or perhaps it began later – still in the late 1950s, when the world was lingering between the hardship of the post-war years and the beginning of the modern era – when Volker Michels spent the summer holidays with his parents in Ascona and had asked the writer in advance for permission to visit him. He could come if he liked, Hesse had replied, only, the author would, as always, be spending the summer months in the Engadin. The housekeeper would be there and would be happy to show him around the house if he wished. That's how the 15-year-old boy came to ride his bicycle down over Monte Ceneri in the direction of Lugano and up the other side to the Collina d'Oro, to Montagnola and through the village up to the Casa Rossa (where there was a notice on the garden gate saying "no visitors please" to frighten off unwelcome guests). In other words, to the house that Hesse's Zurich friend and patron Hans C. Bodmer had built in 1931 according to plans drawn up by the writer and where Hesse and his wife Ninon had right of residence until they died.

The way Volker Michels tells the story today, he heard the music already from far away, even before he could see the house, resounding through the silent landscape far across the valley. It was the housekeeper taking advantage of the writer's absence to make her musical favourites – Elvis Presley and Bill Haley – known to the villagers. Rather embarrassed, as one can imagine, he had a look around Hesse's atelier and library and the garden too; he says he didn't stay long, though, but rode his bicycle back through countryside that is only familiar to us now from old, faded photographs.

Or did it actually all start much later? When the twenty-five-year-old medical student arrived in Frankfurt in 1969 to do an internship at Suhrkamp publishers and a year later abandoned his studies to grab the opportunity to start work there. At the time publisher Siegfried Unseld, who wrote his doctorate on Hesse, was having a tough time keeping the publishing house together, for it was in danger of being shaken up by the student revolts just like other bastions of the bourgeoisie. At that point Volker Michels may have impressed him, for when asked what he read and which writers he treasured, he did not name just the usual culprits, but also mentioned Martin and Robert Walser, and above all Hermann Hesse.

Since 1969, at any rate, Volker Michels has been working for Suhrkamp. After starting as a reader for modern literature, he later became editor of the series Bibliothek Suhrkamp, where he was initially still very much in Unseld's shadow, publishing one new edition after another of Hermann Hesse's books under Unseld's name, before finally assuming responsibility for the editorial work on his own. That was how three people came together who complemented one another in an ideal manner: Hesse's legacy provided the raw material; Unseld revealed his talent for packaging; and Volker Michels displayed that mixture of painstakingness and passion that is required to reinvent the writer for each new generation of readers.

The figures alone provide a measure of how successful this trio became. While four million copies of his works were sold during Hesse's lifetime, since 1970, twenty-two million copies have been sold in the German-speaking countries alone. During the celebrations in 2002 to mark the 125th anniversary of the writer's birth, more than a million of his books were bought, and since then sales of the German-language edition have levelled out at around 400,000 copies a year. That means that each day, including Sundays and Christmas, more than a thousand of Hesse's books are sold in an area stretching from Hamburg to Innsbruck and from Basle to Görlitz. And that's not counting the translation rights, which now extend to sixty languages. If it was once the Americans who ushered in a Hesse renaissance, nowadays his works are sold in the Arab world, in Japan and in Korea. Indeed, according to Volker Michels, the Asians could not believe that Hesse was actually a European author.

Just as Hesse's work has circulated all over the world and made its mark on the lives of his readers, it has also, in a different manner altogether, you might almost say cast a spell on the life of the Michels family in Offenbach. Hesse is her everyday life, says Ursula Michels, Michels' wife: "I live in a menage a trois." She laughs as she says it, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Volker Michels has supervised the publication of more than 120 books, most of them containing Hesse's writings. Currently an illustrated volume entitled "Vom Wert des Alters" (on the value of old age) is in preparation. Books of this kind devoted to particular themes are in great demand, says Michels, adding that Hesse is very rewarding for someone putting together this kind of anthology. For there is scarcely a topic you can think of on which you would not find some sort of reflection in Hesse's works, although, as Michels says, he does not lend himself well to every subject. At the same time, however, he concedes: "The worm must taste good to the fish, not to the fisherman." In other words, books cannot just be a publisher's whim: they need to sell and be economically viable.

Which isn't to say that in the almost four decades he has been working on Hesse, Volker Michels has not indulged one or two extravagant wishes, even if the businessman in him might have advised him to do otherwise. Between 2001 and 2005, for instance, the first complete Hesse edition was published in 20 volumes, with an index volume to follow. But the project Volker Michels' has put all his heart into is one he has been working on quietly for years, well actually for decades, and which he would like to realise next. It should really be the culmination of his life's work: an edition of Hermann Hesse's letters published in ten volumes to follow publication of Hesse's correspondence with specific people like Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig (already published) or Alfred Kubin, Conrad Haussmann and Peter Weiss (in preparation).

For years Michels has been searching all over the world for the writer's letters, an endeavour pursued together with Hesse's son Heiner until the latter's death. The writer's estate contains around 35,000 letters written to Hesse, and Michels has so far managed to collect around 17,000 of Hesse's replies. He has put multiple copies of these (most of the originals have remained in archives or with the heirs of their previous owners) in his Hesse edition archive in an endless series of brightly coloured files. They are ordered first chronologically, then alphabetically according to the names of the recipients, and finally, according to keywords – in copies of copies and as excerpts.

To show how efficient his archive is, he asks visitors to give him a keyword. After hesitating a bit, you pick a word at random, choosing one you know you can't go wrong with: psychoanalysis. No, too easy, says Michels, and doesn't even bother looking it up in his treasure trove. So then you say Proust instead, because you want to sound particularly clever and think that Hesse did not have anything to do with Proust. But Michels proves just how wrong you are: triumphantly he pulls the corresponding file off the shelf, places it on the desk already strewn with papers, books and folders, leaves his way through... et voilà: Proust. And as if conjuring out of a top hat, he magically pulls out a number of excerpts from letters and reviews, above all, however, the following: an urgent recommendation addressed to Peter Suhrkamp to have Proust's "A la recherche du temps perdu" translated.

His is not the largest Hesse archive, Michels says; the literary archives in Bern and Marbach are more extensive. But he does believe his archive is the most functional, and by way of demonstration he takes out some card indexes in which Hesse's life is minutely documented from different points of view. A chronological index traces Hesse's biography day by day, recording when he visited someone or someone visited him, when and where he gave readings from his works, went to a spa or travelled on business. Another index, also ordered chronologically according to months, documents the writing of his works, while a third card index contains an alphabetical "Who's Who" of Hesse's life and work.

Of course, sometimes it takes even Michels a bit longer than he would like to locate certain documents. But usually, after a bit of rummaging, he finds what he wants, suddenly handing you a so-called "Notturni" manuscript. These were the earliest manuscripts of poems that Hesse sold to readers and friends in order to finance his first journey to Italy in 1901. Or he gets out of a box the manuscript of Hesse's study on Francis of Assisi, written on the back pages of a shredded illustrated Bible from the missionary publishing house run by Hesse's forefathers. But what he fishes out next from the files crammed full of copies, as if by magic, from a treasure chest stored high up under the ceiling is enough to make the heart of any archivist beat faster or even miss more than a few beats out of sheer fright. For not only is there no way any index would allow the uninitiated to find treasures like this, you also realise that there is nothing protecting the papers from the ills of time or from corrosion. Indeed, it would take only a fire or a flood for much to be irretrievably lost.

But Michels is not a curator, so his papers are not stored in safes or behind glass. Instead, he actually works with the materials that he has collected in decades of painstaking labour, and his archive resembles a workshop more than a treasury of belle lettres. In any case it is not the worries of a curator about preserving the materials so much as grievances and setbacks of other kinds that trouble Volker Michels. His greatest disappointment, he says, was in 1992 when Heiner Hesse tried, unsuccessfully, with the support of patrons to buy the Casa Camuzzi in Montagnola. Contrary to Siegfried Unseld's directive that he should be making books rather than trading in real estate – so the publisher decreed – he tried in vain to collect money in Germany to make the house in which Hesse lived from 1919 to 1931 accessible to the public.

Another thing that upset him of course was that in 2005, when the twenty-volume edition was completed, hardly a national newspaper reported on it. Instead, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published a spiteful article talking about how "nonsensical" this enterprise was. But in fact it is only through the publication in five volumes of Hesse's collected reviews of more than three thousand books – the project for which Michels was criticised – that another important aspect of Hesse's life's work has become visible: namely his immense service to literature as a mediator, patron and gentle critic, unmatched by any of his contemporaries or successors.

Michels believes the full extent of this aspect of Hesse has yet to be revealed, and only once the edition of Hesse's correspondence has been published will the truly Herculean proportions of Hesse's life achievement be appreciated. With the help of patrons Hesse was able to make life easier for himself in many respects, but what one forgets is how much he did for others – services that over the decades ranged from the financial to the intellectual; for so many he was a mentor and friend, confessor or adviser. There must be few people who have known such generosity personally and also spent their lives dispensing it.

Perhaps if Volker Michels manages to achieve this goal, the sting will lose its power that sometimes makes the work a bitter experience for him: the arrogance, or what Michels calls the "snobbishness" of scholars of German literature when it comes to Hesse. Although he knows what this is based on, it nonetheless worries him that there is hardly a scholar of German literature or a doctoral student writing about Hesse. Authors like Hesse or Stefan Zweig and Antoine de Saint-Exupery are simply not suited, Michels says, for "multiple interpretations and need to be taken heed of rather than flogged to death." Hesse may, Michels adds, "be easy to read," but he is "difficult to live." The uncompromising nature of Hesse's views on people and politics deeply impressed him, and they are what has kept him going for so long. He still enjoys reading Hesse's texts, particularly "Kurgast" (Spa Guest) or excerpts from "Betrachtungen" (Reflections); but for him the most important things are the letters.


The article was originally published in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on March 19, 2007.

Roman Bucheli, born in 1960, studied German, philosophy and business history in Fribourg and Zurich. Since 1999 he has worked as literary editor at the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Translation: Melanie Newton - let's talk european