Two Viennese book-lovers

Above, Richard Flatter with my infant father

The internet brings unexpected connections. It led the other day to my drinking coffee with a writer whose family had crossed paths with mine in Vienna two generations ago.

Dudley Curtis had read about my Jewish family in Uncle Otto’s Puppet Theatre, and is himself about to write about a relation of his who had played a major role in the life of one of my great uncles. Dudley and I both live in Brussels, and had once worked together, but we neither of us had any idea about this family link.

Richard Flatter, my great-uncle, was Germany’s foremost translator of Shakespeare into German, and it turns out that Dudley’s great-uncle Herbert Reichner was his publisher, and also of Stefan Zweig. Both book lovers would have been in regular contact in the 1930s.

Reichner began publishing literature after 1933, and despite being known as a Jewish publisher, succeeded in selling books in Nazi Germany until his warehouse in Leipzig was expropriated in 1936. This just as my great-uncle Richard had begun collaborating with Reichner on the beautifully-produced Die Fahne. Englische Lyrik aus fünf Jahrhunderten (Five Centuries of English Poetry).

It was while translating Romeo and Juliet that Richard had fallen in love with an English song that Shakespeare quoted. He raided Vienna’s National Library for sonnets, songs and poems in English, “and found such an overwhelming abundance of beauty that, in the end, I thought it would be a crime to leave untranslated anything that might admit of translation.” 

After several years researching and translating, Richard selected 80 poems as his own personal hit parade of English lyric poetry spanning the years up to Shelley and Keats. Die Fahne proved an immediate critical and public success, and Reichner asked Richard to prepare a second volume. One hundred poems were ready for publications when, as Richard wrote in his memoir, “the brown pest of 1938 cancelled everything.” 

“Everything” included the publication of Richard’s New Shakespeare translations, which Reichner had taken on and that was going to appear in instalments over several years. The first volume came out just before Christmas 1937, containing Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet,  produced with Reichner’s signature attention to detail on thick, high-quality paper and a gilt-edged linen binding. “When Mr Reichner handed me the first copy my eyes shone with pride and pleasure,” Richard wrote.

Although the proofs were ready and the printers about to go to press, there no was second volume. This was February 1938, only weeks before the Nazi jackboots marched into Vienna. 

Dudley Curtis’s story of Herbert Reichner’s fight to keep his publishing house alive through exile and a new life in America will be told in the forthcoming book. Meanwhile, although AbeBooks is replete with beautiful volumes bearing the imprint of his publishing house, it didn’t survive the war.