German literature is incredibly rich. From Goethe to Hesse, it has much to offer. No wonder Germany is regarded as the land of poets and thinkers! What’s Up, Germany? looks at the country’s literary heritage through five influential writers, four of whom were awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Let’s get started!
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)
A literary titan, Goethe is most famously known as the author of the magnum opus Faust, a two-part tragedy. At the young age of 25, his first novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774, The Sorrows of Young Werther), made him a household name not only in Germany but also throughout Europe. Goethe wrote this story of unrequited love in just six weeks. It is said to be part autobiographical. Later, in 1791 he became the managing director of the court theatre at Weimar and went on to pen his bildungsroman, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795–1796, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship). Goethe’s vast oeuvre of plays, novels, poems and essays remain relevant even after 240 years of their publication.
Günter Grass (1927–2015)
Another literary heavyweight, Grass received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999 for his “frolicsome black fables [that] portray the forgotten face of history”. He published the Danzig trilogy between 1959 and 1963, which explored post-war Germany and the Nazi years: Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), Katz und Maus (Cat and Mouse) and Hundejahre (Dog Years). Die Blechtrommel stands out for its magic realism. Though not the easiest of reads, it’s certainly worth it! Give it a shot!
Thomas Mann (1875–1955)
Germany’s leading man of letters is known the world over for his classic novels Buddenbrooks (1901) and Der Zauberberg (1924, The Magic Mountain). A social critic, Mann’s books are filled with irony and humour, and a blend of realism and symbolism. If you’d like to get a taste of his writing, begin with his novella Der Tod in Venedig (1912, Death in Venice). It’s a tale about a famous writer suffering from writer’s block.
Hermann Hesse (1877–1962)
This Nobel Prize-winner worked as an apprentice in several bookshops before he put pen to paper. He wrote Der Steppenwolf (1927, Steppenwolf) and Das Glasperlenspiel (1943, The Glass Bead Game) and Siddhartha (1922). The latter, which follows the spiritual journey of a young man living during the time of the Buddha, is a must-read, whether in German or in English. Interestingly, Hermann Hesse’s grandfather and parents worked as missionaries in India for several years!
Heinrich Böll (1917–1985)
One of Germany’s most widely read writers, Böll was non-conformist and anti-war. His characters were constantly confronted with what remained after World War II. This Vergangenheitsbewältigung or coming to terms with the past is a recurring theme in his works. Böll’s first novel, Der Zug war pünktlich (1949, The Train Was on Time), was published when he was 32 years old. Many novels, short stories, political essays and radio plays were to follow. Between 1945 and 1947, he published 60 stories in ten different magazines! Ansichten eines Clowns (1963, The Clown) and Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (1974, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum) are some of his popular novels. From 1971–1974, Böll served as president of PEN International, a worldwide association of writers promoting intellectual cooperation and freedom. Now that’s what you call a life well spent!
“The writer may very well serve a movement of history as its mouthpiece, but he cannot of course create it.”
— Karl Marx, German philosopher & economist