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What's so funny about German literature?

Jeffrey Michels, New YorkFebruary 29, 2016

Can German-language authors tell a joke? They've long been seen as overly serious. But despite bad sales abroad and tough times in Germany, German writers remain in good humor.

Smiley and frown faces, Copyright: Photo-K/Fotolia
Image: Photo-K/Fotolia

"Seriously Funny," the theme of this year's Festival Neue Literatur in New York, a three-day introduction of German-language authors to a U.S. audience, was not chosen to sit easy. Rather, in the words of this year's curator, Ross Benjamin, it was meant as a "provocation."

And what was the inflammatory premise exactly? That German writers - often thought of as wearers of big beards and bearers of bad news - actually have a sense of humor.

Friedrich Nietzsche, for instance, believed he had a very strong sense. "Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs," he once wrote. His answer: "He alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter."

Though the theme of the festival was ultimately meant as a funny way to enter into conversation over the use of humor in confronting difficult topics, it nonetheless spoke to a deep-seated stereotype, one that still stands in the way of German-language authors seeking to publish their work abroad.

Two German-born authors participating in the festival, Christopher Kloeble and Sibylle Berg, sat down with DW to discuss the humor in their work and their experience trying to attract an English-speaking audience.

Their approaches are vastly different. Kloeble excels at using humor to smooth readers into discussions of tough topics like mortality, while Berg does so more by smacking them on the head with it. Yet they agree on the necessity of humor for earnest discussion, and they share the struggle to reach readers in other languages.

People have the idea that German literature is "very heavy on the head," Kloeble said, and "not a lot of fun to read."

Berg was a bit more blunt about the acceptance of German literature among audiences abroad. "The reputation is that German-language authors are quite boring. So they don't touch it."

Sybille Berg, Copyright: "picture-alliance/dpa
"Hope is for losers," says Sybille BergImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Dark humor even in times of war

A number of factors have shaped this long-standing perception, according to Jill Twark, professor of German at East Carolina University and an expert in the usage of humor in German culture.

Weighty tomes written by authors grappling with angst and anguish have long been translated abroad, garnering multiple Nobel Prizes. Meanwhile more humorous books were left in German - either for being too culturally specific or possessing too little literary merit - and children's tales à la Brothers Grimm arrived in need of a Disney sanitization of gruesome endings.

And though highly regarded German authors often employed humor in their work, what other countries read by Germans fit too easily with the widespread belief that they were at best rigid, a stereotype fueled by the rise of Prussian militarism and Germany's role in the outbreak of both world wars.

But even World War II hardly suppressed the use of humor in German literature. Rather, it reinforced its expression in dark tones, sparking "thought about past and present injustice," Twark said.

Heinrich Böll satirized the wartime experience of a German soldier in "And where were you, Adam?" Marta Hillers mocked the rapists who stalked the streets at the end of the war in "A Woman in Berlin." And through the eyes of an adult character in a child's body, banging on his eponymous "Tin Drum" as Nazis danced along, Günter Grass forced Germany society to confront its disavowal of its earlier complicity.

As Germany reunified and generations grew distanced from war, there has been more openness in the country in facing its past. Perhaps most symbolically, it has become increasingly acceptable to joke about Hitler.

But German authors have held to their responsibility to shed light through laughs on the uncomfortable truths of life in the 21st century, a time of great insecurity and inequality. They continue to do so in a variety of ways, however, defying easy categorization.

'Hope is for losers': The persistence of misery

Sibylle Berg was gazing out the window of the Central Park Ritz-Carlton Hotel when asked which topics inspired her most.

"You can focus on the lovely horse in the park," she said, her eyes fixated on the handsome cabs waiting down below. "Or you can look over there into the alleyway. I'm more interested in how you survive if you do not live in the Ritz."

Berg was born into a Jewish family in East Germany, but fled as a teen. To her, life is absurd and short and stupid and hard - a belief not dissimilar to stereotypical German intellectualism. But she shrugs rather than anguishing.

"Hope is for losers," she said, before adding, while sitting beside her husband, "I don't even believe in love."

But she does believe in humor. It's a "state of living," she said. "It's how I see the world." And it allows her to give one grand piece of advice to her readers: to take a step back to realize how ridiculous we all are, how unfit all of us are to any give advice at all.

"There is nothing funnier than a serious writer," she said.

Person reading a book, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Endig
It's hard enough for German authors to have their works translated into EnglishImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Endig

Kloeble wields humor more actively. To him it can be a weapon (against bullies, for instance) or an alternative to arms (amongst rivals). It can be a defense (it's just a joke!) or a means of coping with a personal or collective past.

It stands to reason, then, that it also has a role to play in these tense political times.

As an author, "You have to force people to feel empathy," he believes. "You can often do that through humor."

Professor Twark agrees with this sentiment. “Humor is best when it provokes thought," she says, "and thereby maintains its potential to change unjust or exclusionary attitudes." It now provides a opportunity for intercultural dialogue in a diversifying German population, with immigrants and the descendents of recent immigrants, which make up an "ever-expanding group of humorists from German-speaking countries."

But Berg holds few illusions about the limits of humor. "I cannot change a neo-Nazi. I cannot change a homophobe. Because they hate me. They don't listen to me."

Laughs in translation

What about humor's ability to finally win over a foreign audience?

Indeed, there will always be the pitfalls of translating humor from one language to another. Jokes frequently don't even make it from one region of Germany to the other, let alone across the Atlantic. Humor can be "like a language on top of a language," Kloeble believes.

But he adds that it is also possible for something to be gained through translation. Distance can be a problem, but it can also be an asset, making irony easier to detect and digest.

He has found American and Israeli audiences to be more receptive to his light approach to dark topics. "They totally got it."

Christopher Kloeble, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Kalaene
With humor, you can force people to feel empathy, says Christopher KloebleImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Kalaene

While cultures may share an interest in and demand for humor, this also means that there is little need to import it - particularly from a region regarded as deficient in the resource.

This is one aspect of a larger struggle of German-language authors that goes beyond the quality of a translation to the struggle to get translated at all.

"It's weird because Germany has the second-largest publishing scene in the world," Kloeble said. Yet only "a few dozen" German books get published in English a year. "Less than one percent."

Berg has a considerable following in the German-speaking world. Her books sell in the hundreds-of-thousands, her columns in "Der Spiegel" are widely read and she's now part of the popular "Schulz & Böhmermann" comedy talk show.

Still, the only English publisher to translate her work turned out to be run by thieves who pocketed her money without even paying the translator, as she recounted. "And this was my closest success in the English-speaking market." She laughed.

Berg still thinks a lot about trying to gain a foothold in the U.S. market. "I'd like to be famous," she admits. "I'd like to have a winter house in L.A."

"But here, I'm nobody. You have to want it so bad. I'm not sure I'm willing to do this - to spend two or three years to come here and try."

Kloeble, who splits his time between Berlin and New Delhi, is currently on a U.S. book tour for his first English-translated novel "Almost Everything Very Fast." The story deals with, among other things, mental illness, incest and imminent death. He is well aware that he is one of the lucky few to be translated.

"Now I can prove to my friends in India that I am a writer," he said. "The question is whether they will stay friends after they read it."