Zeit für Brot
I’ve stayed in the same hotel for most of my trips to the Frankfurt Book Fair. In 1987 it was lamentably youth hostel-like; the towels were so thin I insisted on buying a softer one in the nearby general store, and the atmosphere was more like a municipal hospital than an international hotel. The breakfasts, though, were filling and the Polish family that owned it was always welcoming. It was a relief to close the doors on the drug dealers and pimps on the street outside (early in the 1990s a colleague and I were approached as we entered reception and asked, ‘How much for both of you?’). Now it is unrecognisable; well-appointed, four star, with fancy machines that make pancakes and squeeze oranges as you press a button or turn a crank, and rooms with balconies overlooking the Kaiserstrasse, the central station at one end and the enormous Euro statue opposite the modern opera house at the other.
Coming home early one morning I was accosted again and felt apprehensive; this time a staff member from an upmarket bakery chain thrust a croissant into my hand and urged me to eat it rather than let it go to waste. (The shop’s name, Zeit für Brot, translates as Time for Bread; I’ve often wondered when that is, exactly, and now I know it is 2a.m.)
Younger colleagues are kind enough to feign enjoyment of my ‘in the olden days’ stories; travelling from London by car with a wallet full of Belgian, Dutch, French and German currency; heading out to the disco at the airport; drinking in the grand horseshoe Lippizaner Bar at the Frankfurter Hof; hearing the closing siren echoing around the halls at 1400 on the Monday; enjoying the glamour of the lavish parties, a stark contrast with the only food formerly on offer at the Messe, frankfurters (natch) rotating on metal spikes.
It was a shock last year to see the Hessischer Hof closed, scene of so many meetings and events (in its restaurant a waiter once brought me a choice of five different sets of reading glasses nestled in a cream leather box, so that I could read the menu). The Messe halls now seem shrunken and distances less forbidding, the new S-Bahn and U-Bahn stops contracting journeys around the city.
The Frankfurt Book Fair has existed in its current form since 1949, but literature was fundamental to German culture for centuries before that. Gutenburg lived in nearby Mainz, so this area has been a hub of mass market information provision for nearly 600 years. Indeed a recreation of his workshop, featuring a man dressed in an approximation of what he might have worn, was a much-photographed exhibit this year.
The German language united peoples who were geographically widespread long before they had a country of their own.
And now? Has much changed in my 35 years of attending? When I started coming it was English language books that were bestsellers all over Europe, with the narrative drive, their psychological realism and middle brow appeal dominating bookshops and rights deals. Nowadays there are far more German writers on the bestseller lists, as well as authors from other European countries whose work is in intra-national demand. The English-speaking world is even, with reluctance in some quarters (i.e. no translator’s name on the cover), steadily increasing its imports of writing from other languages.
Mainly though, this year, publishers were cautious to the point of pessimism. Big houses were increasing revenue through going downmarket, as manufacturing prices soared (I was quoted figures of 40 – 60% increases) and cover prices couldn’t keep pace. Smaller, more literary houses were, in many cases, in despair; sales had dwindled to near invisibility. Several women I’ve known all my publishing career, including scouts Maria Campbell and Koukla Maclehose, editor Alexandra Pringle of Bloomsbury and rights supremo Anne-Solange Noble of Gallimard, drew the equivalent of the Moor’s last sigh as they headed home after their final fair. I bumped into a retired editor at a party and realised that, out of ten of us who’d celebrated my wedding twenty-five years ago at the London Book Fair, only three are still alive.
Frankfurt is far more shiny and consumer-obsessed than in 1987 but we still found time for smoky cocktail bars and ancient student haunts in Sachsenhausen.
German bookshops are well-stocked and the fixed prices mean independents thrive. The air of professionalism in Halle 3 and in the Spanish Guest of Honour exhibit demonstrated a seriousness about the role of freedom of expression in world affairs, alongside a video link up to President Zelenskyy of Ukraine and a sad update about the health of Salman Rushdie via an article in Spanish newspaper El País. Covid was another big topic of conversation, war and financial collapse were discussed, but the climate wasn’t centre-stage, which felt wrong.
I wholeheartedly recommend bookending one’s visit with forests; I spent the first Sunday near the Müggelsee south east of Berlin, in Köpernick, and the second in the Black Forest just outside Freiburg, in the far south western corner of the country.
This charming city has mosaics outside shops which denote the goods for sale within; a symbol of permanence, literally set in stone, that came as a surprise after the Covid-era retail closures in the UK.
This immersion in nature reminds me of a more ancient Germany, as does the frustratingly unreliable Deutsche Bahn railway system (British people are often surprised by how bad it is). It is an uneasy time for the country. As in many other places, right wing parties are making gains at the ballot box, and its proximity to Russia makes food, energy and physical security the subject of many conversations. (Brot is not yet in short supply.) There are multiple demonstrations on any given Saturday in any given city.
Two Black friends recounted shocking stories of racist treatment in Berlin; other non-Germans described unpleasant encounters with hospitality staff, an ironic term when applied to a doorman who took one look at my VIP ticket for a party and pushed me forcibly away saying ‘Zurück’ (which confusingly means return. Me neither). One of my authors, Priya Hein, has written a book set in her home country of Mauritius which was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement after experiencing years of micro-aggressions in Munich.
During this fair we were all transfixed by a webcam of a lettuce and the descent into Nero-like collapse of the Tory party, while the Franco-German political pact was under strain.
I’d like to think that our traditions will keep going for hundreds more years, but unless the publishing industry can use its clout to convince readers that preserving those forests is more important than extractivism, I’m not entirely optimistic.
About Susie Nicklin
Susie Nicklin began her career at The Bodley Head publishers and co-founded foreign rights specialist The Marsh Agency in 1993. She was Director of English PEN from 2002 – 2005, and inaugurated its translation programme (now PEN Translates). She was Director of Literature at the British Council from 2005 – 2013, creating international literary partnerships and events.
From 2015 – 2019 she was the owner of award-winning independent bookshop Dulwich Books, and she produced and directed ten literary festivals in that time. She founded The Indigo Press in 2018.