With the death of Helen Wolff, something precious has been lost to American publishing, and to the life of world literature in English. Mrs. Wolff, who died in March at the age of eighty-eight, was the last of that generation of European-born editors and publishers who fled their homelands in the years culminating in the Second World War and who later came to work in, or even to found, English-language book firms in the United States. These remarkable individuals brought to America not only the writers they had published overseas but also a command of European languages that enabled them to respond to the best non-English postwar writers with a quickness, a conviction, and an enthusiasm that few Americans could match. They also brought with them a European sense of publishing as something more than a mere business—as, indeed, a vocation—and this, at least in the case of Mrs. Wolff and her husband, Kurt Wolff, resulted in the loyalty of authors and booksellers and in hard-won financial success. The Wolffs’ publishing philosophy, practiced in America for over half a century, was simple: stay small while thinking big, invest in writers rather than in individual books, take long views regarding profitability, and handle as many details as you can—from contracts to jacket blurbs to press releases—personally. A simple philosophy, perhaps, but one seldom imitated here, and with good reason: it cannot be practiced by the impatient, the greedy, or the unsure in matters of taste.
Mrs. Wolff, the daughter of a German electrical engineer and an Austro-Hungarian mother, was born Helen Mosel in Macedonia in 1906. “At home,” she once told an interviewer, “we learned German, but I also spoke Turkish and Serbian,” and to this she later added French, Italian, and English. She adored books from the time she could read, and always wanted to be involved in publishing. At the age of twenty-one, she went to Munich to apprentice at Kurt Wolff Verlag, today best remembered as Kafka’s original publisher but at the time most noted for Pantheon, its international art-book series. She soon made herself indispensable to Wolff not only as an editor of Pantheon but also as a translator of books into German. Helen and Kurt Wolff were married in 1931, and shortly after Hitler’s assumption of power Wolff dissolved his publishing company and wisely moved with Helen and their infant son to Nice. “Don’t forget,” Mrs. Wolff told her interviewer, “[Kurt] had been publishing a lot of avant-garde writers—leftists and so-called degenerate artists—many of whom were Jewish.” After Nice came Paris, and, in 1941, a harrowing escape from occupied France to the United States.
Within a year of their arrival in New York, the Wolffs had founded Pantheon Books, which at first was run out of their one-room apartment in Washington Square. They began with new editions of Dante, Goethe, and other writers in the public domain, but soon built a list of such contemporary authors as Hermann Broch, Robert Musil, and Mary Renault. Pantheon was chosen by the Mel- lon Foundation to be the original publishers of the Bollingen Series, which sponsored English-language editions of the complete writings of Jung, Valéry, and Unamuno. In the Fifties and early Sixties came a string of outstanding publishing successes: Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. The Wolffs left Pantheon in 1961 due to a disagreement with their investors, and later that year the firm was sold to Random House.
In 1962, the Wolffs were invited by William Jovanovich to publish books with Harcourt Brace under the imprint “A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book.” The venture was only just launched when Kurt Wolff was killed in a pedestrian accident. In her grief Mrs. Wolff considered leaving publishing but was encouraged to continue by Mr. Jovanovich and many of the authors she’d edited with her husband. Over the next three decades, assisted only by a skeletal staff, she not only continued Kurt Wolff’s work with Günter Grass, Iris Origo, Konrad Lorenz, and others but also hand-cultivated the American reputations of dozens of writers of her own choosing, among them Max Frisch, Italo Calvino, Stanislaw Lem, Georges Simenon, Danilo Kis’, Uwe Johnson, Amos Oz, and George Konrád. Perhaps the greatest success of her years with Harcourt Brace was the publication, in 1983, of that most unlikely of best sellers, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. But who other than Mrs. Wolff would have believed that this unapologetically abstruse novel, the first work of fiction by a then little-known Italian semiotician, could find an American readership at all?
When we think of Helen Wolff as an editor and a publisher, we think not only of the many fine books she brought over into English but also of the care with which she published each author on her list. One instance of this care can stand for them all. From 1970 on, Mrs. Wolff was the publisher of the Italian novelist Giorgio Bassani. His first book to appear here, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, had been published in 1965 by Atheneum. “I felt betrayed by the translation as it first appeared,” Bassani later recalled, for unlike the Harcourt Brace editions of his books, all of which were translated by William Weaver and meticulously line-edited by Mrs. Wolff, “there were a number of mistakes, and it lacked subtlety and elegance.” When the U.S. rights to Finzi-Continis reverted back to Bassani, he approached Mrs. Wolff about a paperback edition of the book, and in 1977, one appeared. But in defiance of all conventional publishing wisdom, it wasn’t a cost-effective reprint of the Atheneum translation: Mrs. Wolff, though she expected no additional sales or even reviews to come out of it, granted Basanni’s extravagant wish to have Mr. Weaver do a new translation from scratch. As Bassani later commented, “the difference between the translation in the Atheneum edition and the one in the Helen and Kurt Wolff edition is the difference between prose and poetry.” But then, the difference between publishing as practiced by the majority and publishing as practiced by Helen Wolff is the difference between the expedient and the extraordinary.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 9, on page 3
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