View From Another Shore: An Interview with Franz Rottensteiner
Franz Rottensteiner has written and edited many books in the fields of science fiction and fantasy, including two excellent illustrated histories, The Fantasy Book and The Science Fiction Book. (On this blog I've repeatedly used his description of Der Orchideengarten from The Fantasy Book -- the book will point you in many interesting directions.) He has edited the German-language SF journal Quarber Merkur since 1963. His anthologies in English include:
- The Black Mirror & Other Stories: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Germany & Austria (2008, Wesleyan's Early Classics of Science Fiction series)
- View from Another Shore: European Science Fiction (1973, reprinted 1999)
- The Best of Austrian Science Fiction (2001, Ariadne)
- The Slaying of the Dragon: Modern Tales of the Playful Imagination (1984 HBJ; named after a Dino Buzzati story)
In interviewing Franz I hoped to learn more about European science fiction and fantasy and how it makes it to English-language readers. The interview was conducted via email throughout 2009. Many of the illustrations here come from Franz's personal collection.
JRMS: In the seventies, Seabury Press published many books by Stanisław Lem (I believe you were his agent at the time) and a number of translations of European and Russian science fiction, including the first edition of your anthology View From Another Shore. Who was behind Seabury?
FR: Well, it all started when Frank Schwoerer, the publisher of Herder and Herder, discovered a Lem book in a catalog of the big German paperback publisher Fischer. Herder and Herder was a foreign subsidiary of the German Herder (a religious publisher). I talked with him about the first books, including The Science Fiction Book, a proposal of Schwoerer.
Herder and Herder was sold to McGraw-Hill, and Werner Mark Linz, who had got Schwoerer's position when Schwoerer moved to Germany to found the academic publisher Campus, became a vice-president at McGraw-Hill. The first books, including my own View From Another Shore, were scheduled to be published by McGraw-Hill (I still have prints of the covers with the imprint of McGraw-Hill). But somehow this didn't work out, and Linz moved the Herder and Herder division to the Seabury Press. It was I who suggested to Schwoerer that they start a whole series of European SF, and I suggested to them my own anthology, Herbert W. Franke's Zone Null, and the Strugatskys' Hard to Be a God. Unfortunately, the Strugatsky novel was translated from a very bad German translation of that novel, so one can say that Americans had no real chance to get to know this novel. (I hope this will change with the forthcoming Russian film History of the Arkanar Massacre, directed by Aleksei German. That and the Bondarchuk film based on Inhabited Island -- titled Prisoners of Power in the U.S. -- should give the Strugatskys a second chance in English.) Seabury did also Lem's Invincible in hardback which I had originally sold to Donald W. Wollheim at Ace Books. I also gave Lem his start in English, for I was instrumental in bringing Solaris to Faber and Faber in England.
I was then a young SF fan and used sometimes to write letters to publishers. Faber than had an SF line, and I had suggested to them that they do a Best Science Fiction Stories of C. M. Kornbluth: They did, and they were apparently successful with it, and this must have caused them to consider Solaris, and then to publish it. By the way, an editor at Seabury that I worked with was Karen Ready, the daughter of writer Kendall Foster Crossen, who was very pleased that I knew who her father was. I was then very enthusiastic about Lem, had become an SF editor in Germany, and thought I could do more for him if I became his agent (outside of Germany; I never was his German agent). Our ways parted in 1995 when he wanted an agent in the U.S., who could do more for him, he believed. He probably was right as far as films are concerned (although his could have been handled differently), but after my time no new Lem book appeared in English, only reprints of the books that I had sold. In fact, Lem wanted me to remain his agent in the rest of the world, but because he made a gift of a 5 paperback-reprint deal -- which I had worked hard to arrange with Harcourt -- to his new agent, I simply was not interested in that. I do not need a client who doesn't keep contracts, let alone his word. After that Lem started an expensive nuisance suit that he lost on all counts. And he demanded that Harcourt make all accountings and payments to him, pocketing my commissions, fully trusting that a law-suit in Poland against him would be prohibitively expensive and uncertain. May he have been happy with those few cents, for Lem's books do not sell in the U.S., and other publishers than Harcourt would have pulped his books long ago.
Daniel Mroz, illus. for The Cyberiad by Lem
JRMS: Can you think of any international fantasy/SF authors who are read across the world in many languages, but who have not yet made it into English?
FR: There must be many European fantasy writers who have been translated into several European languages, but not into English. There are, after all, huge international bestsellers (not in fantasy) that either never were translated into English or, when they were, made absolutely no impression. This is especially true for genres like mysteries or thrillers in which there is an abundance of English language writers. Writers who are bestsellers in Germany or France naturally attract much interest in other European countries and are widely translated. And there is the case of Donna Leon, the American mystery writer living in Italy. I doubt that many American readers even know her name. But she is a huge success in Germany, with 17 novels set in Venice so far. And in the wake of the German success she has been translated in many European countries. Ephraim Kishon, a Hungarian-Israeli writer, is a giant bestseller in Germany, but although most of his books have been translated from English and not Hebrew, and he is appearing in English, he hardly has any presence in the U.S.
Ed Emshwiller, from the collection of Franz Rottensteiner
For fantasy writers the situation is worse. I doubt that even Michael Ende was more than a middling-success in English, and he was translated rather late, after he had sold millions of copies in Germany. Wolfgang Hohlbein is an incredibly prolific and successful fantasy writer in Germany; his Das Druidentor (Portal of the Druids) was the bestselling title of the Bertelsmann Book Clubs in the quarter when it appeared there. He had, I am told, an English translation made at his own expense, but found no taker. To my mind, Hohlbein is a very trivial author, and I can understand that nobody was interested in a kind of fiction that just does what countless other writers do, and many of them much better, but it is an indication of the resistance to translated fiction in the U.S.
The situation seems to be different in the children's book sector, see Kai Meyer's trilogy of the "Flowing Queen" (while none of this novels for "adults" has been translated) or Cornelia Funke's Ink Heart.
It would seem that foreign fiction must be sufficiently different from the English language material, which precludes (as the case of Stanislaw Lem shows) a really great success with readers, but increases the chances that this material will be translated at all. Such writers find an enthusiastic audience, although it is too small to make for big sales. Latin-American tales of magic realism or the work of Italo Calvino are an exception.
Andrzej Strumillo, 1975, detail from Polish edition of Little Man by Sologub, from the collection of Franz Rottensteiner
JRMS: Thinking of Calvino, what fantasy or SF authors from Europe do you believe could "cross over" to mainstream literary success among English-language readers.
FR: Calvino is a case like Saramago, he never was considered a genre writer. Of course there are many European mainstream writers who have an affinity to SF, but little chance of ever appearing in the U.S., let alone of becoming widely read. One of those is Julien Green who is widely read in France and Germany, and is of American extraction but writes in French. I do not know (having now access only to a very slow internet) whether he has even appeared in English. There is Guido Morselli, a writer who became a celebrity in his own Italy only after his death and wrote brilliantly difficult novels but didn't catch on with readers (at least not in Germany).
One who might make it is Zoran Zivkovics, who writes both genre and non-genre books. So far he has been published only by small houses, but I think that he might become a success if a big publisher takes an interest in his works. But he is also a difficult writer, and he writes mostly short stories (although they often amount to "mosaic novels").
But it is even difficult for many British writers. J. G. Ballard, despite a bestseller like Empire of the Sun and a successful Spielberg film, is out-of-print most of the time in the U.S., and his SF novels short stories are not available in mass-market at all. [Ed. note: this part of the interview was done before Ballard died.]
JRMS: Who are the international counterparts of an American Press such as Small Beer, who publish highly-literary works steeped in the fantastic? I know of Zulma in France.
FR: I must confess that I do not know Small Beer, but one publisher that comes to mind is the British Dedalus, another is the small Swiss publisher Waldgut which has started a fantasy and mystery line, and there are some even smaller outfits. And while not many concentrate on the fantastic, few would not be prepared to add fantastic tales to their lists, if they are good.
Cover illus. to German edition of the Strugatskys' Second Invasion of Mars, from the collection of Franz Rottensteiner
JRMS: Can you name some more of these smaller publishing outfits?
FR: I don't think that any of the small German publishers (I don't know about France, and doubt that there are any in other European countries) could be of international importance. Some publish older German (and translated material), such as Shayol in Berlin. But mostly they publish newer science fiction and fantasy (Sturgeon's stories in 2 volumes, Jeff VanderMeer's short stories), collected works of German writers like Erik Simon, Karlheinz and Angela Steinmüller, Wolfgang Jeschke, and Rainer Erler. Dieter von Rreeken published a number of old German SF (Oskar Hoffmann, Carl Grunert, Albert Daiber) as well as books by Camille Flammarion and Percy Gregg's Across the Zodiac, but he has stopped publishing fiction since he hardly got the necessary number of subscriptions. Publication of the complete Kurd Lasswitz (including many essays and poetry never before collected in book form) is his last great project. After that, he will only publish non-fiction. His most important non-fiction books are Rainer Eisfeld's history of early German SF fandom (Die Zukunft in der Tasche, "The Future in your Pocket") and a three volume history of German dime novels by H. J. Galle. Gerhard Lindenstruth does some classic German (and British) fantasy, as does Robert N. Bloch in very limited and expensive editions (some 50 or 60 copies). None can compare in output and print-run to Ash Tree Press or similar publishers. Wurdack and Fabylon do some original German fantasy and science fiction of mixed quality, and there are also some publishers who reprint old dime novel series (and new additions) in book form.
Hans Bok, 1946, from the collection of Franz Rottensteiner
JRMS: For people interested in world fantasy, what publications (not necessarily in English) should we pay attention to?
FR: There is the highly academic Journal for the Fantastic in the Arts. In German, I have always tried in my Quarber Merkur to be as international as possible, and I have (since 1963) published a good deal on fantasy from all other the world, especially on the Strugatskys, including a number of translations of Russian pieces.
Golem, Helmut Wenske, Gesichte des Athanasius Pernath, from the collection of Franz Rottensteiner
JRMS: What books most influenced you growing up?
FR: I was a vociferous reader and read everything that came in my hands, from the most trivial stuff to complicated works of philosophy (such as Kant, whom I cannot have understood at the time), but especially the great Russian novelists, in particular Dostoevsky -- I was a fan of Prince Myshkin. But I discovered Pushkin, Chekhov, and especially Gogol only later. But the decisive encounter was that with science fiction of the Anglophone kind. I discovered at first some German dime novel series, outgrew them in a couple of a weeks, and came then upon some works that really impressed me. I am afraid it was works by third-rate British authors like Jonathan Burke or Kenneth Bulmer. Heinlein's juveniles were also an influence, but later I came to dislike Heinlein intensively. And I was hooked on an excellent early German anthology of American SF, edited by Prof. Gotthard Günther (a sometimes contributor on non-Aristotelian logics to Astounding SF), with stories by Henry Kuttner, A.E. van Vogt, Clifford Simak, and others. And I was hooked.
JRMS: What are your favorite novels of the 19th century?
FR: Dostoevksy's The Idiot, The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment.
JRMS: What are your favorite novels of the 20th century?
FR: Hard to tell. Leo Perutz' The Marquis de Bolibar, By Night Under the Stone Bridge; Bulgakov's Master and Margarita. I have always read pretty widely, but mostly, for reasons of time, within the boundaries of fantastika, and haven't developed any strong preferences. Haruki Murakami has impressed me greatly, but he's probably already 21st century; and I liked Kobo Abe.
'The Terrifying Children of Madness,' Hoffmann's sketch for his Erzahlungen, 1839
JRMS: Who are your favorite authors?
FR: E.T.A. Hoffmann, J.L. Borges, Gogol. Dostoevksy. In SF, Lem, Ballard (the short stories), Cordwainer Smith, the Strugatskys, Philip K. Dick, and Ursula K. Le Guin.
JRMS: Who are the best living European writers of fantasy?
FR: Zoran Živković is certainly among them; the Pole Andrzej Sapkowski is also quite witty. But the greatest fantasists are all dead, some for centuries.
JRMS: Who are the best living European writers of science fiction?
FR: Certainly Boris Strugatsky, the surviving brother of the writing team of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky; in Germany H. W. Franke and Wolfgang Jeschke. I do not care for French science fiction. Sergey Lukyanenko is also quite entertaining, although not completely serious, perhaps a sort of Russian Alan Dean Foster that sometimes raises to become a Russian Philip José Farmer, but doesn't quite make it to the Strugatskys. But now Russian SF is not so different any more from the American stuff.
Roadside Picnic aka Stalker [ed. note: one of my fave books -- that's my copy -- and fave movies]
I think that the great difference between the mass of American SF and the (very rare) European masterpieces is their degree of seriousness, moral seriousness. Best exemplified perhaps by Frederik Pohl's "Gateway" novels and the Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic. Roadside Picnic is in essence an existential novel about fighting on and keeping your moral integrity in a corrupt world where life is constant fight for survival. Pohl's novels are simply about winning in the lottery, hitting the jackpot. It may cost your life, but the rewards for winning are tremendous, and the universe is full of gifts. The Strugatskys adopt fairy tale motifs, but their stories are the realistic ones, and Pohl's the fairy tales.
JRMS: Name three young writers that readers should pay attention to.
FR: I would be hard pressed to name three, I haven't really been up to the latest developments. Is Robert Reed a young writer? I found his short stories always interesting. Some of the short stories of Eric Brown or Charles Stross are original, but some of their novels are awful. I don't care for the big novels of the "New Space Opera": Kevin J. Anderson is unreadable, Richard K. Morgan, Peter F. Hamilton, or Alastair Reynolds: endless machineries that produce exactly nothing: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Even Iain Banks produces a great show, but it is all a circus act with little substance. But in SF you can always find stories that are astonishingly non-commercial (as different from the novels) and which you are surprised to find in such a seemingly commercial genre. [Ed. note: Most of this response is over my head, but I hope it's controversial!]
JRMS: What European or Russian genre authors today are influenced by strains of world fantasy -- Potocki, Hoffmann, Gogol, French authors of "contes cruels," Kafka.
FR: Kafka in ubiquitous in fantasy writing the world over; the influence of Hoffmann was pivotal in the work of J. and G. Braun in Germany, "contes cruels" have influenced many European, especially French and German authors, without Gogol and Bulgakov, the Strugatskys are unthinkable, and some influence can also be seen in Lukyanenko and other Russian writers, and I like to think that something of Potocki survives in Sapkowski, a Polish fantasy writer who is also appearing in English.
Iain Banks is straight out of French contes cruels and decadent literature, and in many modern SF novels, as in those of Richard K. Morgan -- where people freely travel from body to body or from computer simulations to flesh -- one wonders why people are so bent on immortality, when the novels clearly show that their fate is only to be tortured and killed again. Is the fear of a final death greater than the very real danger of dying a horrible death again and again?
Franz Rottensteiner anthologies
The Black Mirror and Other Stories, book cover (illus. is a lithograph by Paul Scheerbart)
Read a review of this anthology on io9