Q&A: James J Conway (Rixdorf Editions)

An interview with James J Conway, founder of Rixdorf Editions…

Rixdorf Editions is a Berlin-based indie press set up in 2017 by Australian expat James J Conway, with the aim of bringing “unfairly neglected texts of the German Empire to a contemporary English-language readership”.

More specifically, the press shines a light on lesser-known works and an array of intriguing authors and individuals from the Wilhelmine period, translating and publishing essays, reportage, fiction and non-fiction titles that span topics such as female emancipation, antisemitism, sexual minorities, lifestyle reform and utopian visions.

Until now, the press has breathed new life into significant and fascinating works by the likes of Arno Holz and Johannes Schlaf, Else Lasker-Schüler, Magnus Hirschfeld, August Endell, Hermann Bahr, Ilse Frapan, Franziska zu Reventlow—with even more from this culturally vibrant era introduced through Conway’s Strange Flowers project…

Founder of Rixdorf Editions and translator James J Conway

Can you tell us a bit about yourself, and how and when you ended up coming from Sydney to Berlin?

I was born and grew up in Sydney and then moved to London in 1998. I ended up in financial reporting because I felt I should have a grown-up job but it turned out that being a grown-up, or being that version of a grown-up, sucked. But I stuck at it; maybe it was something I inherited from my parents’ generation, this idea that you’re not supposed to like your job.

But I grew to actively hate it, I was stressed the whole time, and the hassle of living in London outweighed the appeal, and in 2006 I moved to Berlin to seek a more fulfilling existence. I had only been here a few times and it was a shot in the dark. It’s not exactly the most original trajectory, but there is a reason people keep coming here. I’m certainly glad I did.

As I understand it, you were already working as a commercial
English-German translator when you arrived—what got you interested in The Awful German Language?

I don’t have a German background. German and Germany had never really been on my radar but in London I felt I really should be able to speak another European language besides some so-so French. I started learning German with all the humility (and humiliation) that comes with embarking on a new language as an adult. I was using outdated text books which grossly misled me about the wisdom of referring to a German waiter as “Herr Ober”.

But I kept at it, upgraded my materials and after I arrived in Berlin I got a Diploma in Translation and started commercial translation work. I instinctively felt an affinity for literary translation. But it took a while until I realised no one was going to wave a wand and say “NOW you can translate novels!” and sprinkle me in literary translator dust. You just have to try it and if the outcome sucks too hard then you don’t have to show it to anyone.

You set up Rixdorf Editions in 2017; can you outline the events that led to that decision?

In the earlier part of the decade I developed a fascination with the Wilhelmine era which ripened into obsession. I read and researched and there was so much I wanted to share, but I didn’t know what form that should take.

I was amazed to discover Berlin’s Third Sex, Magnus Hirschfeld’s incredible document about queer life in early 20th century Berlin, had never been published in English. I wanted to translate it, but my partner Miles suggested that if I was going to pitch it to a publisher, maybe I should think about other titles from the era to go along with it (he probably regrets ever saying that). And then I thought through what titles they might be, how they could be presented, and I had such a clear image in my mind of how it should all come together that I decided to do it myself, even though I have zero experience in publishing.

Rixdorf Editions began in 2017, which was also the year I became a German citizen and the first year I got to vote; unfortunately it was the year that the AfD entered the Bundestag. They were recalling the worst aspects of German history and it really consolidated my resolve to use my utterly minimal resources to show that there was a rich progressive heritage in Germany which was even older than their Völkisch phantoms.

What made you particularly interested in the time period your works cover, i.e. the Wilhelmine era, which for most people conjures up associations with conformity and militarism?

Kaiser Wilhelm II

If you hear someone using the term “Wilhelmine” at all it will usually be a historian, often a military historian; the culture of the period (approximately 1890 to 1918) is more or less invisible. But it was precisely the disconnect between that conformity and militarism you mention and what I came to realise was an incredibly productive, diverse and radical counterculture in the German Empire that drove my interest. The challenge comes not just in presenting writers and works which may be unknown to the general reader today, but also shading in the wider context, because there are few coordinates available to us; the era as a whole is a bit of a blank in Anglophone thinking.

Considering there was extensive censorship at the time, the fact that you could be fined or even go to jail for your writings, it is astonishing to me what was actually published—incredibly progressive, radical, visionary writing. Even I recognise it’s kind of a weird hill to die on, but I am more convinced than ever that the Wilhelmine era was the crucible of so much that came after it. There has been some reassessment of the German Empire this year with the 150th anniversary of its inception, but there is still something of a taboo around it for those reasons you cite, which prevents people from seeing that it actually offers a good news German culture story.

Is it fair to say your work is partly about shifting the spotlight
away from the bright dazzle of Weimar Germany and more towards those whose ideas made some of that era’s exuberance possible?

Very much so. Of course, Weimar is closer to us in time and there is far more visual material to make it present to us. But we also know what came after, so an affinity for Weimar culture takes on a moral dimension. And in navigating the vastness of history we tend to adopt a shorthand for eras, so the Weimar Republic comes with tags like “daring” and “experimentation” and the preceding Wilhelmine period is written off as unworthy of further attention.

Like many people I arrived in Berlin with a showreel of Weimar hits playing in my mind, and I certainly don’t think that era is played out, particularly the literature. But the more I looked at the preceding period the more I realised that it didn’t just prefigure Weimar, it offered absolutely everything that we associate with Weimar—women’s liberation, confident sexual minorities, transgressive cabaret, lifestyle experimentation, distrust of authority, radical new forms in art and literature—but under more repressive conditions.

In a way I feel like posterity has punished the progressive German writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries for being too far ahead of their time. And Wilhelmine culture doesn’t just suffer in comparison with the Weimar Republic, but also other European centres at the same time; if you think of culture in Paris, Vienna or London around 1900; images, names, venues, groups will come to mind, but Berlin is, again, largely a blank. And the fact that Munich, say, was an incredibly productive avant-garde centre at that time is largely forgotten, even within Germany.

How do you set about finding what you have described as ‘unfairly
neglected texts’?

In my obsessive phase of immersion in Wilhelmine culture I would return from Stabi with stacks of books, hunt for original editions in antiquarian bookshops, find texts online. You read about one writer, they introduce you to another, and before long I had a (very) long list of dozens of titles. I was eager to indicate the breadth of material, so the first two titles were the non-fiction Hirschfeld and a set of short stories by the writer Franziska zu Reventlow.

She was probably the most liberated woman in Germany at the time and I couldn’t believe she had never been translated. Essentially each title has to suggest something of the time after it. Brevity is another important consideration; personally I like shorter books, and I’m trying to offer manageable entry points rather than forbidding great volumes looming out of the past. And as well as all that I have to feel that I can inhabit the style, that I can reproduce the author’s voice.

One of the starting points was Hirschfeld’s ‘Berlin’s Third Sex’ from 1904. How did you discover that particular book and how did you feel when you first read it?

I did a talk about Berlin’s Third Sex with a library reading group in London a few months ago and one of the participants said they were well into the book before they realised it wasn’t actually contemporary, but written at the beginning of the 20th century instead. Which I completely understand: you’ve got all-night parties, cross-dressing, scandals in high society, people being outed but also domestic circumstances which were marriage in all but name.

And by the time Berlin’s Third Sex came back from the printer in 2017, the first same-sex marriage in Germany had taken place. I try not to get in the way of the books by passing them through a filter of my own persona, but it was impossible not to reflect on my own circumstances when I was translating Berlin’s Third Sex. Here I was, living in Berlin with someone of the same sex (now my fiancé), we have a daughter, we’re not outcasts, we have the protection of the law and there are few people who fought harder to bring about that state of affairs than Magnus Hirschfeld.

And as focused as he was on repealing the law which targeted gay men, he embraced the entire spectrum of sexuality and gender, and he remains immensely important for his studies of trans identity, for instance. In Berlin’s Third Sex you sense him thinking aloud, the terminology isn’t fixed and I think a mature present-day reader can acknowledge his missteps—like his disastrous embrace of eugenics—while admiring his overall achievements.

Same question for The Beauty of the Metropolis by the architect August Endell, which you have said reminded you very much of your own thoughts and feelings of the contemporary city—and, as such, collapses time.

Living in a country and a culture you weren’t born into, you naturally reflect on your place in it, you’re constantly renegotiating your sense of belonging and locating yourself in the flow of history that has passed through that place. I think a lot about the past, but I am not trying to recover a “golden age” and I am highly suspicious of people who are. It’s almost always a reactionary mirage, something that never actually existed.

The Beauty of the Metropolis really expressed, much better than I could, ways of seeing and thinking about and embracing place. August Endell took the idea of “Heimat” and uncoupled it from nationalism and kitsch, showing that it could be something very personal, and that culture is accessible to anyone with the sensibility to appreciate it. And I found that so refreshing and inspiring. And so paradoxically, this text from the past helped me to celebrate the present.

It’s both highly specific and universal. Endell is applying a way of seeing to what surrounds him in Berlin, and there are beautiful, intensely lyrical descriptions of gaslight reflected in the Landwehrkanal, or the choreography of crowds around the Gedächtniskirche, or the way mists and smoke veil the city throughout the day. But he also says to the reader: here, take this way of seeing and use it wherever you are. Take aesthetic ownership of your surroundings. The impulse to seek visual nourishment in fleeting impressions—Instagramming an eye-catching bit of wall, for instance—is something that August Endell expressed very eloquently over 100 years ago.

Your press also translates fictional work by women, such as the short stories in The Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe and Wedding. Is uncovering obscure female and LGBT+ authors something baked naturally into Rixdorf Editions?

My next translation is a prose collection by Else Lasker-Schüler; it’s the eighth Rixdorf book and with that half of the catalogue is by women. The women writers of the Wilhelmine era have been doubly ill-served; dismissed by their contemporaries and ignored by posterity, and honouring their lives and their work is absolutely central to the Rixdorf project.

Common to the four women writers I’ve translated—Franziska zu Reventlow, Anna Croissant-Rust, Ilse Frapan and Else Lasker-Schüler—are lives of poverty and struggle but also phenomenal strength of character. It’s unfortunate that some independent presses engaged in the otherwise commendable work of recovering lost writers sometimes reproduce the gender imbalance of the publishing world at large.

Do you translate and edit all the texts yourself or are there others
helping behind the scenes?

Apart from the design, it’s pretty much me. My partner Miles, who is also a translator, proofreads the texts which is utterly invaluable. He also helps me work through issues of scheduling and prioritisation when everything seems impossible, those moments when I wonder why I ever started the whole thing. I really couldn’t have done it without him. Whenever I’m in the final stages of a project I think “OK, that’s it, I’m done” and then as soon as it’s finished I want to move onto the next one. I am definitely someone who needs to have a project on the go at all times. And the upside is: I am never, ever bored.

The books have a wonderfully distinctive look: who is behind the artwork?

I really wanted a series identity, and to re-contextualise original postcards and other imagery from the era, with a black background to suggest things emerging from obscurity. I had been buying old postcards at fleamarkets for years, just things that caught my eye. The format of the books was originally developed with my friend Cara Schwartz, a wonderful American designer with a real feel for printed products who was very patient with me as I worked through the hundreds of questions that arise when you’re making books for the first time. And the last three are designed by Svenja Prigge; her cover for the forthcoming Else Lasker-Schüler is probably my favourite; it captures the surreal, weightless quality of the text; Svenja also curates a great online collection of feminist posters.

The latest book is Papa Hamlet by Arno Holz and Johannes Schlaf: what can you tell us about that and the so-called Naturalist movement it’s a part of—and/or especially the Berlin literary group ‘Durch!’?

Durch! was a Berlin grouping associated with Naturalism, and it was one of the first literary groups to champion modernity in and of itself. Arno Holz and Johannes Schlaf were both members, along with people like Gerhart Hauptmann, John Henry Mackay and the Hart brothers, Heinrich and Julius. Their activities went well beyond the page; they experimented with new ways of living, and there was considerable overlap between Naturalism and, say, anarchist groups and the early gay rights movement.

Durch! and the Naturalists essentially brought bohemianism to Berlin, and with it the inception of the Berlin that many of us value today—open, experimental, non-conformist, questioning, rebellious. One of the many things that attracted me to Papa Hamlet was that it was steeped in this bohemian character. So weirdly enough, there is a squiggly line that goes from the squalid garret in the novella to the liberated Berlin of today.

All of this wonderful translation and publishing work of course
overlaps with your wonderful online Strange Flowers project. Can you explain what that’s about and how it intersects with Rixdorf Editions?

I started Strange Flowers in 2009 to explore figures from cultural history who were fascinating to me but often largely forgotten or misunderstood. Even then the idea of a blog about personal obsessions was a little creaky; like Michelle Wolf says, a blog is just a conversation no one wanted to have with you. But over the years I got to riff on whoever I wanted to – everyone from the original hippie, Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach, to Ganna Walska, the much-married, highly glamorous and delightfully talent-free opera singer who was an inspiration to Orson Welles.

Rixdorf Editions very much grew out of Strange Flowers. I was writing about Else Lasker-Schüler, Magnus Hirschfeld, August Endell and Franziska zu Reventlow at least a decade ago, so when I came to translate their work I had already established “relationships” with them. Sadly there hasn’t been enough time to update much of late, but I do post occasionally and I tweet anniversaries every day. And yes there is a book on the way – “A Year of Strange Flowers”, featuring 365 and a quarter of the most eccentric, extravagant and extraordinary people who ever lived!

Lastly, what can we expect from RE, and James J Conway, in the near and perhaps also more distant future?

The Else Lasker-Schüler book, Three Prose Works, will be out next spring and that will be the last book in the current format of Rixdorf Editions. I want to shake it up and find different ways to draw out what makes the period so special. And I am working on a radio play about the origins of bohemian Berlin and then there’s the Strange Flowers book. I always have far more in planning than I could ever possibly achieve. I guess I just live for disappointment!

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