For nearly 350 years, the German novel has used everything from history to philosophy to war to explore the nature of the human spirit. Its novels are not characterized by their length or their subject matter, but rather by their devotion to the cerebral. Whether it be the social realism of the 1800’s or the metafictional explorations of post-war life, the literary movements that dominated Europe throughout the ages served only as templates upon which these authors tackled some of life’s more prescient questions. Have your say in the comments, and let us know what you think of the selection.
Just like Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, Simplicius Simplicissimus is both a timeless classic and a seminal text for its nation’s literary heritage. Combining adventure, satire and light philosophical exploration, Grimmelhausen’s novel follows his title character over several decades in a Europe still recovering from the Thirty Years’ War. Many other great German novelists including Gunter Grass and Alfred Döblin, have cited this novel as a major inspiration for their work.
Goethe will likely retain his status as the greatest German writer of all time for years to come, but it is his theater and poetry that have more strongly endured over the past 200 years. His famous coming-of-age novel, however, helped spurn the Romantic literary movement in Germany, and it is today regarded as one of the first novels of a genre later explore by F.Scott Fitzgerald and J.D. Salinger.
By the beginning of the 19th century, Western Europe’s signature epistolary style had moved eastward to Germany, but instead of exploring the morality and etiquette of urban society, Holderlin instead drew from antique classical sources and contemporary Romantic sources to create a unique work of poetic genius. About a letter-writing soldier fighting against the Turks in Greece, the novel’s magic is an elegy to both the ancient world and a despairing narrator.
The English-speaking world has largely forgotten Hoffman, and to many, he is only familiar for his appearance in several of Sigmund Freud’s essays on melancholia and the uncanny. The Devil’s Elixir is an extremely influential text, though; not only did it inspire M.G. Lewis’ The Monk, but it arguably became Germany’s most famous novel of the brief but popular Gothic movement. Drawing from old forms of the Romance, it combines suspense and horror without excluding a troubling psychological underbelly.
Karl Gutzkow and Gustav Freytag would be two of the many to promulgate the zeitroman — or the novel looking at the state of present times in a particular region or country. Debit and Credit is such an exploration, as it follows the decline of a wealthy German family from a particularly conservative perspective, emphasizing the lives of many who have chosen exclusion over Germany’s push for moral rectitude.
Largely overshadowed by the great 19th century novels of adultery (See: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina), Effi Briest has nevertheless survived in large part because of the praise of Thomas Mann and Samuel Beckett. Similar to Bovary for its subtle social critiques of rural life and marriage, Fontane’s tragicomic tale remains notorious for its ability to make the most erudite of readers weep uncontrollably. Written after Otto Von Bismarck’s forceful push towards modernization, this novel heralded the end of Germany’s idyllic and isolated country life.
Written at the end of Realism’s firm grip on the written word, this lengthy elegy to 19th century merchant-class life witnessed the dissolution of Germany’s firm strictures on life and narrated the inevitable rise of modernist thought. Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain have been more commonly revived in academic circles, but Buddenbroooks was, up until the 1930’s, the crown jewel of fiction in Germany, appearing in 159 different printings.
Rilke’s poetry largely overshadowed his prose fiction, but this short epistolary nevertheless announced the arrived of literary modernism in Germany. About a wealthy Dane who chooses Bohemian-style poverty in Paris over a comfortable life, the text gains its lucidity from its existential treatment of time and space; exploring what Martin Heidegger would end up postulating decades later, Notebooks confronts the fragility of existence and the great vacuum that time and space can be in times of suffering.
I must also include Mann’s Death in Venice on this life because of how strikingly different it is from Buddenbrooks. This novella-length piece about an old man’s liberation and suffering in Venice is a tribute to the dual qualities of literature and all art in general. Written from the perspective of an aging author, Mann foresees (and forewarns of, for that matter) the inevitable intrusion of decadence, violence and passion upon the conventional literary text.
This novel has been called many things: a religious text, a bildungsroman, a parable, a bridging of Eastern and Western traditions. It is without a doubt, however, a sublimely-written piece about finding absolution and finding peace through charity and goodwill. Today, Siddhartha is a testament to the spiritual power of the novel, demonstrating how stories can empower the individual to change their life for the better.
Although Czech author Franz Kafka contributed to the rise of what we may now call “World Literature”, his contributions of the German literary scene were extremely profound. The Trial, along with Metamorphosis and his collection of shorter works, subverted many of the literary conventions of the time and introduced an endless trove of complex explorations of language, law, and life. The novel in question tells the story of K, a man who is summoned to a trial without explanation, and must spend the entire novel figuring out the nature of his “crimes””. The sheer confusion and complexity of his plight is one of the reasons the word “kafkaesque” is still used today.
One of the great war novels of all time, Remarque’s straightforward and honest portrayal of a generation destroyed by the horrors of war became a huge success on both sides of the Atlantic, and although it was banned by the Nazi party soon after its release, its dramatic rebuke of the glories of battle marked a major shift in European thinking. Paul Baumer’s relatable narration sublimely demonstrated the troubling disparity between the ideals of a new generation against an old one.
13. Alfred Döblin – Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929)
Doblin’s sharp language, playful narration and honest depiction of life in down-and-out Berlin is both thrilling and cinematic. Using several forms of print–such as newspaper, street signs and popular music,Doblin—along with fellow Berliner Bertolt Brecht—would later influence the use of multimedia in late 20th century literature. It was also one of the first major novels to use cinematic montage to enliven its storytelling, making it today one of the most influential German novels in the world.
Broch great century-spanning trilogy has not left as enduring a legacy as other German-language novelists from this era, but the recent resurgence of this Austrian novelist’s popularity is unsurprising. Like fellow Austrian Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities, Broch’s epic is a serious look at a society from the point of view of the “insignificant”, or those who are subject to the unpredictable changes history may bring.
During the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930’s, many novels were written with their looming presence gradually imposing itself upon the average citizenry. Keun’s short work about a forbidden love story places us right in the center of unsettling German life, detailing the challenges of being a young woman in a Germany ruled by an iron fist. While Keun would later seek exile and release her works outside of Germany, the novel has returned to its place of origin and has retained a high level of popularity.
16. Anna Seghers – Transit (1942)
Seghers set her 1942 novel among European refugees trying to escape the atrocities of Vichy France and Nazi Germany by going through Marseille. Transit explores the stories of how everybody got to the South of France, providing a panoramic view of what the entirety of Europe had to go through. Just as German literature would pioneer the bildungsroman and the zeitroman, Seghers’ work would end up becoming one fo the great exilromans of World War II.
17. Herman Hesse – The Glass Bead Game (1943)
Few 20th century novelists explored the nature of art and literature more profoundly than Hermann Hesse, and The Glass Bead Game is a testament to such a quixotic search. The novel tells the story of Joseph Knecht, a man who has lived three lives but seemingly lives without a purpose, playing a game with glass beads instead of confronting the “real world”, per se. The novel questions but also argues for the place of art in society, but it also shows why art cannot exist without the physical presence of life to validate its presence.
18. Gunter Grass – The Tin Drum (1959)
The first part of Grass’s epic Danzig Trilogy follows the lives of a German family before World War II from the perspective of Oskar, a young man holed up in an insane asylum. Both a revisiting of the first half of the 20th century and a look at the country in the present day, the novel explores life in the region of Danzig while also challenging the moral responsibility of the observer after witnessing the Second World War. It is also a piece of social commentary–as Germany is undergoing its economic miracle during the reconstruction era, who, Grass demands, will have the willingness to look back?
19. Christa Wolf – The Quest for Christa T. (1968)
Drawing from the works of Milan Kundera and Jose Luis Borges, The Quest for Christ T. is in large part a metafictional exploration of the self by the author. The novel is a bricolage of sorts, combining letters, diaries and other forms of text as the narrator discovers more about a doppelganger that is haunting her. Although such an outline seems simplistic and perhaps a bit cliché, it serves more than just a myopic purpose; rather, Christa Wolf explores how identity is formed and denied in particular societies, and it shows how certain types of governance modify the individual in harmful ways. A pariah among other German authors, this short work is a tribute to her own personal fortitude.
20. Heinrich Böll – The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1974)
Written at the height of sensationalist tabloid journalism in West Germany, the novel uses the trope of the “fallen woman” from 19th century literature in a contemporary context to show just how indifferently the public sphere is in the destruction of people’s lives. When Katharina Blum takes a man home after a party, the subsequent turmoil results in her getting charged with the murder of a snooping journalist. Inspired by true events, the novel is an indictment of such journalistic tactics, and by using fiction to look closely into the life of “ruined woman” (note the irony), Böll shows us the true extent of such a ruthless industry.