German Literature

July 17, 2014

Yet more of my thoughts on why other countries are producing more interesting literature than we are…

As I thought about this topic, it became more and more complex. For starters, I realised I don’t mean just German, but literature written in the German language, which brought in Austrians and Swiss, and then I realised that writers like Kafka also wrote in German, although they were not German; and then, frontiers have moved about so in the last century…

I also realised that my reading in, in some ways, quite limited. Although I’m working on my German, I read in translation; from the past, some Goethe and Fontane; from earlier this century, Herman Hesse whose spiritual romanticism hooked me in my hippy days but does seem to have dated rather as time has passed. Ernst Wiechert‘s The Simple Life is one of my all-time favourite novels. Thomas Mann I have to admit to failure with. Joseph Roth I think is wonderful: his evocation of those lost times of the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is unsurpassed, I think, and I often go back to him.

What marks German literature out for me – and now I do mean literature written by Germans – is, of course, the Second World War, and the Hitler period more generally. It has marked, as it must have done, everything written since then. And the response is a complex one, depending on the age of the writer at the time of the events. Hans Fallada‘s Alone in Berlin is a chilling tale of an ordinary German couple’s quiet acts of resistance – anonymous anti-Hitler postcards dropped around Berlin – which ends in their capture, trial and execution, and I am looking forward to the translation of Iron Gustav which has just been published. Others of his novels capture (for me) very skilfully the crazy atmosphere of the years leading up to Hitler’s seizure of power. Heinrich Boll addresses the Nazi years well, but for me the most interesting and effective explorer of those times is Gunter Grass.

I’ve never forgotten a graffito I saw on my first visit to Gdansk forty-four years ago, which my father translated for me: ‘We have not forgotten; we shall not forgive.’ It shocked me, and since then, I have sought to understand its implications. Grass explores the Hitler time in his native Danzig in the celebrated Danzig Trilogy (The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, Dog Years) metaphorically through the child Oscar who deliberately stunts his growth to remain child-sized, but who cannot escape growing adult consciousness. It’s magic realism long before the Latin American writers came up with it; it’s also a magical evocation of a totally lost world, the multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-ethnic city, the Free City of Danzig which, having been on the wrong side in the war, was ethnically cleansed by the Soviets, and is now a totally Polish city. In The Call Of  The Toad, Grass twins the tragic story of this city with the equally tragic – and almost unknown,  unless you are familiar with the writings of Czeslaw Milosz – story of the city of Wilno, part of Poland, home of one of its oldest universities, multi-ethnic and the largest Jewish city in the world outside Jerusalem until the war. It is now Vilnius, capital of Lithuania.

Grass has fallen from favour with some recently, following his admission in his autobiography that he had been a junior member of the SS (at age fourteen) at the very end of the war; some have felt that he ‘concealed’ an awkward detail; I think that’s an uncharitable view; for me it does not diminish his stunning literary achievements, but it does underline even more pointedly the difficulty for Germans of dealing with these times…

3 Responses to “German Literature”

  1. cooperatoby Says:

    There’s lots to read! The images and symbols in ‘The Tin Drum’ are as unforgettable as they are confusing. I usually don’t know whether to ponder them deeply or giggle at them. The film doesn’t cover the half of it. Böll (Ende einer Dienstreise’) is drier with his irony. Christa Wolf (‘Der Geteilte Himmel’) tackles the German split from the Eastern point of view.

    A much lighter evocation of the lost life in deepest East Prussia is Siegfreid Lenz’s ‘So zärtlich war Suleyken’.

    I have tried to read Döblin’s ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’ but it has defeated me, it’s so dense. I didn’t like Fallada very much: I never really understood just the timid act of resistance it describes. was meant to have any effect in then first place, without any organisation.

    But my favourite German-language (Swiss) novel – a detective thriller – is Dürrenmatt’s ‘Der Richter und sein Henker’. Better than Morse!


  2. litgaz Says:

    Well, you reminded me I forgot to mention both Wolf and Lenz! I will look up the Lenz you mention, which I don’t know. I read Berlin Alexanderplatz once and don’t remember a thing about it… I think you are a bit harsh on the Fallada, though, as I think it took great courage to do what the couple did; very little organised resistance was possible. Have you visited the Museum of the German Resistance in Berlin? Very sobering, & I can recommend it.


    • cooperatoby Says:

      No, i haven’t been to that museum although i did go the the Stasi one. And I forgot ‘Im Westen nichts Neues’, which is very moving by virtue of what it omits.


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