German Literature: Weighty? Yes. Boring? No. | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 05.02.2009
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German Literature: Weighty? Yes. Boring? No.

Deep, serious, and bleak -- these adjectives are frequently used to describe German literature. But German writing can also be ironic and finely nuanced. A look at some of the 20th century’s greatest German authors.

A colorful stack of books

From Goethe to Grass, Germany is rightly proud of its literary legacy.

German novelists like to tell epic stories with detailed depictions of their characters: how they look, how they live, how they think, and what fates befall them.

Thomas Mann portrait

Thomas Mann told detailed stories of ordinary lives

Thomas Mann (1875-1955) took this style to new heights in his novel "Buddenbrooks," about the decline of a Luebeck merchant family over three generations. A room was created in the Heinrich and Thomas Mann Memorial in Luebeck, based on his precise descriptions.

Hermann Hesse's teen appeal

Mann’s novels, including "The Magic Mountain" and "Death in Venice," describe the fall of the upper classes and the end of a particular era. The novels of Hermann Hesse, on the other hand, describe the suffering of everyday people.

Self-exploration is the big topic in Hesse's novel "Steppenwolf," about a solitary person whose isolation and confusion appears likely to end in a breakdown. As with "Siddhartha," a fable-like tale of religious self-discovery, "Steppenwolf" is particularly appealing to adolescent readers. The hippie movement made it into a cult book, partly because the protagonist took drugs.

Another novelist who took on German middle-class values was Elias Canetti, although he approached the topic in a completely different way. Born in Bulgaria, Canetti grew up in England, Switzerland, Austria and Germany. A Jew, he emigrated to London in 1938. His multi-volume autobiography describes his multilingual, multicultural life.

Focus on the Nazi past

Peter Handke is another author who writes on topics of self-discovery. His 1966 political play "Offending the Audience" and the 1972 story "Short Letter, Long Farewel"l -- a subtle drama about a relationship --found a large audience. But when Handke made a speech at the funeral of Serbian leader and war criminal Slobodan Milosevic, he lost a lot of sympathy among the German public.

Guenter Grass, portrait

Grass' "The Tin Drum" is one of German literature's best known works

The Nazi era and World War II are a leitmotif in modern German literature, from the works of Guenter Grass (1927) and Martin Walser (1927) to Bernhard Schlink (1944), and Julia Franck (1970). These authors tend to focus on the inner lives of their subjects. They examine how the passage of time affects the characters and their actions, how they navigate their lives, and the subject of guilt.

Among the best of these is Guenter Grass’s surreal 1959 novel "The Tin Drum," about a dwarf named Oskar Matzerath. The story is narrated from a child’s perspective, and it made Grass into a moral authority in Germany. But the fact that he himself was a member of the Waffen SS as a youth only came out much more recently, in his 2006 book "Peeling the Onion."

Modern writers and a new approach

Older authors may have had personal experience with the Nazi era, but younger ones shed a different light on that time. Bernhard Schlink’s novel "The Reader," about an illiterate concentration camp guard, and Julia Franck’s work "Lady Midday," about a woman who abandons her son in a railway station in the final years of the Third Reich, both tell unusual and disturbing stories of the era.

Patrick Sueskind (1949) has taken a playful approach to history. In his incredibly successful book "Pefume," he writes about a man who is in search of the perfect scent, and who becomes a murderer.

Daniel Kehlmann is a highly talented young writer (1975) who, given his erudition, craft and creativity, looks likely to join the big leagues of German literature. His novel "Measuring the World" is about two great figures in German history -- mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss and natural scientist Alexander von Humboldt. It was a surprise success, and showed that an intelligent book could become a best seller.

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