International Letters

A strong dose of idealism is needed to keep any magazine going. For Lettre Internationale, it’s no less than to counteract the ‘provincialism of the great cultures’ and induce them to ‘see themselves through the eyes of others’. How? By scouring the world for the best texts in any language and offering them in exquisite translation.  

That was the ambition of Antonín Liehm, a Czech editor who spent his life between France and the US after the crushing of the Prague Spring. On December 4, he passed away in that city, at the age of 96. Three-quarters of a century before, he had started his first magazine, Kulturní politika, along with E. F. Burian, one of the country’s most innovative theater directors. As the rubble from World War II was still being cleared, the 21 year-old Liehm churned out the culture-meets-politics platform at the mad pace of a weekly. The magazine was pro-communist, but not an appendage of the Party, and ran for three years before Liehm rubbed the government the wrong way by publishing a poem deemed an anti-state conspiracy.

In 1960, he took over the Litérarní noviny and transformed what had been a Stalinist mouthpiece of the Writers’ Association into the most popular intellectual journal of the country. The LN wove a critical politics out of reportage on culture, philosophy, film, theatre and literature – Sartre, Aragon, the New Wave. For a readership of over 130,000, it supplied uncompromising and provocative articles that shimmied past the censors via sympathetic connections. Within a few hours of its appearance every Thursday, the magazine was sold out.

In 1960s Czechoslovakia, Liehm later reflected, its place was akin to that of the Encyclopédie in eighteenth-century France: a venue for the taboo in pamphlet form. And it carried similarly profound political repercussions. Promoting the reform of communism, Liehm’s concoction was a crucial catalyst for the Prague Spring, and several of its writers were leaders in the uprising. A year after the Soviet tanks rolled in, the magazine’s editor, on the list of people to be ‘shot down’, found refuge in Paris.

In exile, Liehm cobbled together his finances by teaching film and literature at universities in France and the US while searching for another publishing venture.  Gunter Grass and Heinrich Böll showed interest in assembling an East-West magazine, but for Liehm, this was too parochial. Only something truly international would suffice, something that would take down not only the wall separating Eastern and Western Europe, but the pedestal on which the latter stood as well. For Grass, this was not German enough, and the two parted ways.

It was at sixty that Liehm founded the outlet for this vision: Lettre Internationale. Funding he scrambled together from the French Ministry of Culture and Polish and Hungarian émigrés, who were willing to support an intellectual journal of the type they knew from home.  It wasn’t a fortune, but it was enough to birth the magazine in a one-room office shared with another dissident leftist, Paul Noirot. What money there was all went to pay the translators, whose work had to be of the highest quality: the texts were to read as fluently in French as they did in the original. Without funds to commission writers, the magazine was assembled as a collage, anchored by central text, juxtaposed against others, and refracted through images and poetry interspersed throughout. 

But it was to be much more.  The foundational idea was an international network of publications, but one quite unlike the standard sort that offers simply the same fare in different languages. Moving past the intellectual divisions in Europe and beyond – not merely East-West, but also North-South – meant not standardization but localization: half of the texts in each issue were to overlap, while the rest could be determined on the ground. Perhaps only Le Monde Diplomatique’s global federation of partner editions provides a contemporary comparison. 

In the late 1980s, Leihm’s vision spread quickly, with the rapid appearance of sister magazines in Italian (Lettera Internazionale, 1985), Spanish (Letra Internacional, 1986), and German (Lettre International, 1987). When the East opened in the 1990s, the pan-European ebullience, buoyed by foundation funding, spawned even more – Czech, Polish, Hungarian, Russian, Croatian, Serbian, Bulgarian, and Macedonian versions, while smaller western countries, Denmark and the Netherlands, caught up.

But noble intentions alone don’t pay the presses and the idealistic aim struggled against the technology available at the time: the texts circulated, slowly, by post. Within a decade, the French version collapsed, and no edition ever appeared outside Europe, which remained the central geographic focus. Now merely six languages remain: the Russian edition has found refuge online, and the rest struggle to hang on.

Only in Germany has the project continued in full form, without qualification, under founder-editor Frank Berberich. With a circulation of over 20,000, the Berlin-based Lettre International is the widest-read literary magazine in the country. This is no small feat for a chunky periodical of 150 pages printed on broad A3 paper. As such, it’s very much a stay-at-home quarterly: even rolled up, it won’t fit into a handbag. In public, it can be seen mostly in the window of cafes or wine shops, like a Zagat sticker signaling taste.

But the uncooperative format is perhaps a needed concession to the magazine’s interdisciplinarity. In the tradition of Breton’s Minotaure, it showcases artworks between the articles, and the uncompromised size gives them their rightful due. Covers are typically head-turners (for example, a watercolor of an S&M orgy), while the pictorial contributions inside, from the likes of Ai Weiwei, Annie Lebowitz, or Georg Baselitz, offer a moment for breath between the texts.

Three-quarters of these are translations that range across essays, reportage, interviews, poetry, fiction, commentaries and analysis. European languages predominate, but authors outside the West are not in short supply. The point is discovery – German readers have Lettre to thank for the introduction of Slavoj Zizek and Liao Yiwu to their shelves – and disruption. The magazine darts between political perspectives and hovers around the contentious.  It was in an interview with Lettre that then Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin first expounded his views on Muslim immigrants’ ‘unwillingness to integrate’, sparking a media frenzy and his eventual departure from public life. Recent issues have covered deglobalization and epidemics, the ganglands of Kosovo, the transformation of writing, apocalypse past and present, mutations of racism in America, the fraught Americanization of Europe, as well as the philosophy of touch – all from original texts in more than a half-dozen languages – and in its massive, obstinate format.

How should we conceptualize these internationalist endeavours? In The World Republic of Letters, Pascale Casanova mapped the global literary order onto an uneven political-economic terrain. If universalist vernaculars once facilitated literary communication across vast swathes of territory, the Herderian revolution of nineteenth-century nationalism swept them aside as authors embraced writing in one’s native tongue as both right and necessity. The outcome was a more localized literary space, bounded by nationalized languages. Yet if languages were increasingly homogenized within state borders, literary worlds remained vastly unequal beyond them, country power a determining feature of their global rank. The effect is a hierarchy, much as in the field of international relations.

Within it, what passes now as world literature is determined in the hubs of power – London, Paris, New York. These dominant centres host the publishing, reviewing, translating and prize-giving mechanisms that function as gatekeepers of taste and arbiters of the new. The result is not a Republic of Letters, but an Empire of the same. Outsiders, whether from social margins or peripheral countries, gain admittance only if they conform to the establishment’s criteria of taste. The parochialism is perhaps strongest within the current global hegemon: in the US, works in translation account for only 3 percent of all books sold. 

Liehm’s vision for Lettre – like his politics since the 1940s – subverted this order from the inside. He took a project, born on the periphery of Europe, and transposed it to Paris where he attempted to raze the inequalities on which the continent’s literary capital rose, for translation was supposed to go both ways. There are as likely to be Arabic texts that readers of Swedish should access as vice versa, he would comment. The success of the magazine’s offspring in Germany would not have surprised Casanova. The country’s linguistic power lags far behind its economic might; as such, interest in translation from its hinterlands is an understandable response.

Or maybe it is that Germany remains the last bastion within Europe of the once wide-spread feuilleton culture, still materialized as an extended section in weekend newspapers. These, as a rule, carry long-form essays on politics and arts that assume a far more literate public than even the London Review might expect of its readers. Perhaps only this, and the feuilleton’s ritual venue – the Sunday breakfast that stretches on until sunset, round a table covered in jam and breadcrumbs – can explain how a magazine as thick and uncompromising as Lettre can survive in an age of blogs.