Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Literary Frankfurters

Frankfurt: Three hundred thousand books are some bonanza for the book lover, especially when 40,000 of them are new titles. So it was no surprise, making my first visit to the biennial Frankfurt Book Fair in October of 1985, to find wall-to-wall readers in halls large enough to park several Graf zeppelins.

Frankfurt itself is a most beguiling city, a sort of Indianapolis of West Germany, rather surprised at its own cultural explosion—there are seven museums on the Schaumainkai (roughly translated as the Main River Prospect), a glorious site for any musuem, but veritably epiphanous when you descry seven in a row—for handicrafts, folk art, film, architecture, postal, the city art museum, and sculpture, in that order, as you walk from the youth hostel to the main train station.

But the wheelers and dealers at the Buch Messe have little time for museums, concentrating as they are on buying and selling rights internationally.

The fair itself is more exhaustingly exhaustive than the Louvre. I came to make a perfunctory pitstop and couldn’t tear myself away for another full day, only departing Frankfurt with rue because I had a long-planned rendevous in Geneva with the jazz pianist, Achille Scotti, of Radio Suisse Romande.

The fair is also a marvel of Teutonic organization. The fat bible that was its indispensable guide through the multinational, multilingual maze had the over 1,000 vendors clearly sited by hall, floor, letter, and number. Press formalities took exactly five minutes (compared with seventy minutes getting through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin the week before!). Press releases were neatly stacked in five languages in adjacent bins.

And while the superpublishers dominated the affair, the access of mini-firms was impressive indeed. For example, because I attended the first World Negro Arts Festival in Dakar in 1966, I stopped to chat with a Senegalese publisher. A former professor of linguistics at the University of Dakar, he quit the faculty several years ago over the issue of French versus the vernacular language.

One of his best-selling items (ironically mostly in France!) is a Wolof/French dictionary. His country’s economic crisis has depressed his business as well as everyone else’s. But things were on the upswing again, and he was ebullient over his prospects. Most of the twenty publishers in Senegal are connected either with the Catholic church or the state. He was one of three private publishers, one of whom was beholden to a political party.

Similarly, since I then lived in San Francisco (there were almost a dozen firms there, include the local giants—Chronicle Books and Sierra Books)—I stopped by the booth of Synthesis Books to see what they were up to. The forty-year-old woman (French major, U. of Wisconsin, 1967) and thirty-four-year-old man (criminology major, U.C.-Berkeley, 1974) stood out from the grey-flanneled pack in any case, dressed yuppishly in a leather collage dress and a tweed jacket.

They got into publishing because the man’s self-published book on criminology was getting nowhere. So he learned the business. How were they doing—at their second visit? Just fine, thank you very much.

Twenty years before, they gambled $2,000 on airfare and food and stayed at a friend’s home making just enough by selling foreign rights to two firms (one in Canada and one in England) to cover their costs. Unlike then, this time they no longer had to scrounge for appointments; people come to them in satisfying numbers, impressed that an American firm is publishing books and magazines critical of American foreign policy.

Small businesses thrive on the perimeters of the fair as well. I’ve never attended a mass gathering where it was so easy to get food, ice cream, souvenirs, newspapers. Outside the main halls, alternative factions—from integrationist feminists from Munich to Trotskyites from Frankfurt—hawked their wares to attentive buyers.

Sidebar features included exhibitions on the Art of the Book and the Craft of Bookbinding. Barnum and Bailey would feel right at home in this three-ring circus of the Higher Literacy. All the national and local upscale newspapers fattened their editions with literary supplements that would make the editors of the New York Review of Books mouths water.

No longer intimidated by their century-old sense of inferiority as a city of hustling businessmen, the good burghers of Frankfurt-am-Main have gotten up to speed with panache and energy. Those culture seekers who now tarry in Munich and Vienna must learn to reckon with the bounty of a city better known heretofore as the home town of Daimler.

The German economic miracle is clearly being consolidated with a cultural one of world-class stature. Frankfurt, in short, is beginning to hotdog it in the arts; and it has every right to feel smug about how far it as come so fast.

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