"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

December 12, 2016

Best European Novels (2): Germany & Switzerland

Although earlier novels exist, such as the picaresque Thirty Year War novel Simpliccimus, the German novel only really gets under way with Weimar giant Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who, although in the first place poet and playwright, also wrote three important novels: The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), an epistolary novel about an unhappy romantic infatuation that ends in suicide; Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1795), the first German Bildungsroman (novel of self-cultivation); and Elective Affinities (1809), which will be treated below.


Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) was also in the first place a playwright; he wrote one novel, Michael Kohlhaas, but also a number of intriguing short stories, of which I include the somewhat strange and uncanny The Marquise of O... below.


The fantastic stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) were very influential during the whole 19th c., being adapted into such ballets as Coppelia and The Nutknacker, as well as Schumann's piano work Kreisleriana. Hoffmann was one of the major authors of the Romantic movement. The Sandman is a short story that not only introduces the horrific titular character, but also brings a woman who is in reality an automatic doll on stage. It was one of the core texts studied by Freud in his essay "The Uncanny."


The 19th c. saw few novel writers in Germany, in contrast to France and England; most of 19th c. Germany fiction was truly the territory of the novella and the short story with such authors as Tieck, Von Chamisso, Von Droste-Hülshoff, Von Eichendorff, Mörike, and others. They were not pure realists as Flaubert, but wrote in a romantic style that has been called "poetic realism." I have below selected Theodor Storm (1817-1888) and his novella The Rider on the White Horse as an example. Usually considered as Storm's masterpiece among his in total 50 novellas, through its setting on the North German coast it sets the stage for the battle of man versus nature - the dykes and the sea -, while creating an unnerving, superstitious atmosphere with the haunted white horse and its ghostly rider.


Germany's greatest 19th c. novelist who brings Germany at long last into the European realistic tradition was Theodor Fontane (1819-1898). Born in Prussia, Fontane was a journalist (and for many years correspondent in London) and drama critic, who only at age 57 wrote his first novel. His in total 15 novels are mostly about modern life and are characterized by ironic humor and fluent dialogues. It is regrettable that from this major European author almost no English translations are available. Besides Effi Briest treated below, major works are Irretrievable (like Effi Briest, about a failed marriage), On Tangled Paths and Der Stechlin.


Thomas Mann (1875-1955) was without a doubt Germany's greatest novelist of all time. His ironic novels and novellas are noted for their insight into the psychology of the artist and the intellectual, as well as his analysis and critique of the European and German soul. Three of his novels, Buddenbrooks (about the decline of a merchant family in Lübeck over the course of four generations), The Magic Mountain (about a Swiss sanatorium as a microcosm of the ideological conflicts and discontents of contemporary European civilization) and Doctor Faustus (the story of composer Adrian Leverkühn and the corruption of German culture in the years before and during WWII) have been included in "The Ten Best German Novels of the Twentieth Century" as selected by 99 authors, critics and scholars. One of his many novellas, Death in Venice, became extra famous through the excellent film by Luchino Visconti. In 1929 Thomas Mann received the Nobel Prize in Literature.


Another Nobel Prize winner was Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), who, although a very respected author in Germany, achieved world fame only after his death as his books were taken up by the 1960s counterculture (hippie) movement. This was in particular with such novels as Siddharta, with its quest-for-enlightenment theme, or Narcissus and Goldmund. The "magic theatre" sequences in Steppenwolf were interpreted by some as drug-induced psychedelia, although Hesse never used substances. His last work, a dystopian novel called The Glass Bead Game was arguably his best. All his novels explore the individual's search for authenticity, self-knowledge and spirituality.


Alfred Döblin (1878-1957) was a prolific author and important representative of Modernism in Germany. He is best known for his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (see below). Despite the canonic status of that work, Döblin can be called an under-recognized author; although his work has received increasing critical attention in Germany over the last few decades, he is little known in the English language area and too few of his novels have been translated. (Berlin Alexanderplatz is currently unavailable in book form in English).

Anna Seghers (1900-1983) was famous for depicting the moral experience of the Second World War as her major theme. As she was Jewish, she emigrated in 1934, and after the war returned to what soon became East Germany, where she received many prizes for her work. Besides The Seventh Cross, another important novel was Transit Visa, about Jewish people trying to escape Fascist Europe.


Günter Grass (1927-2015) was the greatest German novelist of the postwar period, and another German Nobel Prize winner. Grass is best known for The Tin Drum (see below), a key text in European magic realism. His works often have a left-wing political dimension; in his fiction he also often returned to the Danzig of his youth. The Nobel prize committee praised him as a writer "whose frolicsome black fables portray the forgotten face of history." Other important works are Cat and Mouse, The Flounder (about the roles of and struggle between men and women, from the Stone Age to the present time) and Crabwalk.


Christa Wolf (1929-2011) was one of the best-known writers to emerge from the former East Germany and was instrumental in establishing a distinct literary voice for that part of Germany. She also experimented with prose styles. Besides her best known work, The Search for Christa T. (see below), she is also known for Kassandra, a reinterpretation the battle of Troy as a war for economic power and a shift from a matriarchal to a patriarchal society, and Kein Ort. Nirgends about the fictional meeting of the German poet Heinrich von Kleist and Karoline von Günderode.

Uwe Johnson (1934-1984) was a member of Gruppe 47 and, together with Heinrich Böll and Günther Grass, is counted as one of the three greatest authors of the generation that started to write immediately after WWII. His early work is often about the division of Germany. He uses a difficult and discontinuous style, with sudden shifts of time and perspective. His magnum opus is the tetralogy Jahrestage (1971, 1972, 1973, 1984). Use Johnson is virtually unknown outside Germany.


That is not the case with Heinrich Böll (1917-1985), as he is another German Nobel Prize winner and has been translated in more than 30 languages (all the same, it is difficult to find an English translation of his work today). Many of his novels and stories describe individuals struggling to sustain themselves against the wider background of war, terrorism, political divisions, and profound economic and social transition. Sometimes his protagonists are stubborn and eccentric individualists opposed to the mechanisms of the state or other public institutions. His best-known works are Billiards at Half-past Nine (1959), And Never Said a Word (1953), The Clown (1963), Group Portrait with Lady (1971) and The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1974, see below). While his early novels usually treat WWII, his later work draws a grim picture of postwar German society.

Peter Weiss (1916-1982) earned his reputation as the proponent of an avant-garde type of meticulously descriptive writing, and as an exponent of autobiographical prose. As a politically engaged dramatist, he gained international success with his play Marat/Sade. Weiss' magnum opus was the novel The Aesthetics of Resistance, called the "most important German-language work of the 70s and 80s." He was also active as a painter and experimental filmmaker. Again, an author who today is almost completely unknown outside Germany.

Happily, that cannot be said about W.G. Sebald (1944-2001), who lived and worked as a university lecturer in Norwich in the U.K. Sebald came late to literature and is especially known for his four postmodern prose fictions: Vertigo (1990), The Emigrants (1992), The Rings of Saturn (1995), and Austerlitz (2001). They combine memoir, fiction, travelogue, literary criticism, history and philosophy in a new form of prose fiction, and are all written in a haunting style with sentences that sometimes meander over several pages.

When we look at German-language Swiss literature, we have to mention four authors. Jeremias Gotthelf (1797-1854) was a pastor and novelist about the Swiss countryside; he is especially remembered for his nightmarish, allegorical novella The Black Spider (see below).


Gottfried Keller (1819–1890) is best known for his novel Green Henry as well as the short stories collected in The People of Seldwyla. Although he is one of the most popular narrators of literary realism in the late 19th century, nothing of his oeuvre is in print in a modern English translation.


That is different for the Modernist Robert Walser (1878-1956), who has received some welcome attention in recent years. Walser has been called "the missing link between Kleist and Kafka." He was unsuccessful during his lifetime, and even forgotten, until he was rediscovered in the 1970s. His work has influenced contemporary authors as Peter Handke, Elfriede Jelinek and W.G. Sebald. Representative novels are Geschwister Tanner, Der Gehülfe and Jakob von Gunten.


The best postwar author from Switzerland, and one of the most important writers of the German language sphere, was Max Frisch (1911-1991), whose works are shot through with irony and who focused on problems of identity, individuality, and responsibility. He was also active as an important playwright and practiced the diary as a literary genre. His major novels are Stiller (1954, I'm Not Stiller - see below); Homo Faber (1957 - about an engineer whose rational ideology is shocked by wildly unpredictable events after crash-landing in the Mexican desert); Montauk (1975); and Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän (1979, Man in the Holocene - a chillingly beautiful portrait of a man who, surrounded by nature's erosion in the Swiss mountains, suffers from loss of memory due to senility).

The best German novels are:

1. Heinrich von Kleist, The Marquise of O... (1808)
A disturbing novella about a young widow who one day finds herself pregnant without having a clue as to how that could have happened, and advertises in the newspaper for the father of the child to present himself for marriage - this all to the dismay of her highly respectable family! The man who appears is a Russian count, who during an attack at the citadel of her father, saved her from a gang of Russian soldiers... She can't believe it... [tr. Penguin Classics]

2. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Elective Affinities (1809)
An elusive book: even Goethe's contemporaries didn't know how to explain it - was the great author in this tragic story of persons attracted to each other as by some natural force, against which nothing helped, pleading in favor of marriage or rather against it? The novel was even misunderstood as a metaphorical argument for the chemical origin of love (as in the tendency of chemical species to combine with certain substances in preference to others)! Written in a detached, even august tone (the principal characters always maintain the strictest decorousness, no matter how strong their feelings) and composed with well-balanced care, the novel itself is an expression of Weimar Classicism, a movement inspired by the humanistic, classical art of Greece and Rome, of which Goethe was the foremost proponent. [tr. Penguin Classics, Oxford World's Classics]

3. E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Sandman (1816)
Based on the mythical character who kindly puts children to sleep by sprinkling magical sand onto their eyes. Hoffmann turned this on its head by making the Sandman into a sinister character. According to Nathanael's (the protagonist) nurse, he throws sand in the eyes of children who will not go to sleep, so that the eyes fall out and can be collected by the Sandman. The protagonist of the story grows to associate this nightmarish creature with the sinister figure of his father's alchemist associate Coppelius, who may be responsible for the sudden death of the father. Later in the story Coppelius reappears in the guise of Coppola, an Italian trader in lenses. He has a collaborator called Spallanzini, with whom he has built the lifelike automaton Olimpia - the doll is passed off as Spallanzini's daughter and Nathanael falls in love with her - with a terrible result. [tr. Penguin Classics]

4. Theodor Storm, The Rider on the White Horse (1888)
The life story of an ambitious and intelligent young dyke master, who wants to make various improvements to his dyke, not only for safety but also to win new land. The backward villagers, however, obstruct his efforts and in this unenlightened universe, a great man pays with his life for his pride and creativity - a very pessimistic conclusion, were it not that his achievement - the new dike - survives his death. The dyke master, in the meantime, has in death merged into the legend of a rider on a haunted white horse, galloping along the dyke through night and fog. [tr. New York Review Books]

5. Theodor Fontane, Effi Briest (1896)
The novel of an impossible marriage that ends in failure: 17-year old Effi Briest is paired by her parents with 38-year old Baron Geert von Instetten, who of all things had been the unsuccessful suitor of the mother! This is all the more wrong as Effi is not only still a child, but also has a childish character. When her stiff, strict and humorless husband is away, Effi has a fling with a Major who is visiting the desolate coastal town. She herself forgets about this short infatuation, but when her husband six years laters find her letters to the Major, he kicks his wife out of the house and kills the Major in a duel! As a "fallen woman," Effi even looses her child to her husband, and her parents avoid her for the social stain attached to her. In the end, German society with its petrified moral concepts, will crush her life. [tr. Penguin Classics]

6. Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks (1901)
The saga of four generations of a merchants' family from Lübeck (based on Mann's own family history), which inevitably declines as younger generations are more interested in art than in business. The exploration of decadence in the novel reflects the influence of Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation. The Buddenbrooks of successive generations experience a gradual decline of their finances and family ideals, finding happiness increasingly elusive as values change and old hierarchies are challenged by Germany's rapid industrialization. Germany's most enduringly popular classical novel, an intimate portrait of 19th-century German bourgeois life. [tr. Vintage International]

7. Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf (1927)
Combining autobiographical and psychoanalytic elements, the novel was named after the lonesome wolf of the steppes and it reflects a spiritual crisis of the author through the portrayal of the protagonist's split between his humanity and his wolf-like aggression. As a journalist, Harry Haller is critical about developments in Germany during the interbellum, but he is also a wolf of the steppes who hates human sentiment. Via various magic-realistic events Harry realizes that he is not a being with only two sides, black and white, but that he, like all human beings, combines hundreds of persons and characters in himself. [tr. Penguin Modern Classics]

8. Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929)
The story of a murderer, Franz Biberkopf, who is drawn into the underworld after his release from prison. Biderkopf has to deal with misery, lack of opportunities, crime and the imminent Nazism typical for Germany during the 1920s. When his criminal mentor murders the prostitute whom Biberkopf has been relying on, he realizes that he will be unable to extricate himself from his environment. Berlin Alexanderplatz is known for its Modernist use of montage, being told from multiple points of view, and using sound effects, newspaper articles, songs and speeches to propel the plot forward. Was included among the top ten German novels in the poll mentioned above. Also made into a great television series by German director Reiner Werner Fassbinder. [tr. Kindle edition via Amazon, no print available]

9. Anna Seghers, The Seventh Cross (1939)
The novel is set in 1936 and describes the escape of seven prisoners from a concentration camp. It was soon translated and inspired a Hollywood film in 1944. The Seventh Cross was one of the very few depictions of Nazi concentration camps, in either literature or the cinema, available during the war itself. [tr. Verba Mundi Books]

10. Günter Grass, The Tin Drum (1959)
The novel is narrated by Oskar Matzerath, who is born in 1924 in Dantzig. Although his brain is already completely developed at birth, through sheer force of will he stops growing from his third year, which enables him to observe the world from the perspective of a child, without having to participate in it (or take responsibility). This maniacal drumming midget can also shatter glass with his voice and drum grownups into a trance. When the war breaks out Oskar pretends to be insane, so that he is not responsible for the terrible things that happen. The novel is strongly political in nature, but there are also elements of magic realism. Initially considered as blasphemous and pornographic, the bawdy, earthly but also serious novel is now a solid part of the canon and considered as one of the top ten German novels. [tr. Mariner Books]

11. Christa Wolf, The Quest for Christa T. (1968)
When Christa T. dies, her grieving friend tries to prevent her from disappearing into oblivion by recreating the life of this very individualistic woman based on the letters and diaries she has left behind. The narrator's / author's way of searching for who Christa T. was, turns also into a way of thinking about herself. [tr. Farrar, Straus and Giroux]

12. Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries - from the Life of Gesine Cresspahl (1970-83)
Only the first volume of this large novel was ever translated and you are lucky if you can still find it. In this magnum opus Johnson tells via diary entries about the present life of a German single mother in Manhattan, Gesine Cresspahl, who has fled from East Germany, intermingled with her memories about her childhood during the Weimar Rebublic, Nazism and the beginning of the Cold War. [tr. Mariner Books]

13. Heinrich Böll, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1974)
From a literary point of view this is not Böll's greatest novel, but it is his most famous, also thanks to the film by Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta. The story is told as a documentary, a confidential report to the reader on the basis of sources, about the panicked political climate over Red Army Faction terrorism in the 1970s, fanned by the tabloid press. The main character, Katharina Blum, is an innocent housekeeper whose life is ruined by an invasive tabloid reporter who depicts her as a Communist, an atheist and a whore, and a police investigation when the man with whom she has just fallen in love turns out to be wanted by the police as a terrorist suspect. A strong condemnation of the misrepresentation of facts which has stolen the honor of Katharina Blum (something happening daily in our "postfact" present).  [tr. Penguin Classics]

14. Peter Weiss, The Aesthetics of Resistance (1975-81)
So far only volume 1 has been published in English of this huge 3-volume novel. It is a historical novel that dramatizes anti-fascist resistance from the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s to the end of WWII. The protagonists are young working-class students who seek ways to express their hatred for the Nazi regime. They meet in museums and galleries, and in their discussions they explore the affinity between political resistance and art, the connection at the heart of Weiss's novel. The novel includes extended meditations on paintings, sculpture, and literature. [tr. Duke Univ Pr]

15. W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants (1992)
The Emigrants consists of four short biographical narratives and forms the record of the narrator's research into the memories, traumas and feelings of foreignness of four "displaced persons;" it is at the same time a post-modern fictional investigation into the relationship between memory and history. Unavoidably, that history is the impact of WWII and the Holocaust on Germans, especially those of Jewish heritage. It is a sign of Sebalds' mastery that the word "Holocaust" is never mentioned in the book, but that we feel its ominous present on almost every page. [tr. Vintage Classics]

The best Swiss novels are:

1. Jeremias Gotthelf, The Black Spider (1842)
Gotthelf's best known work, an allegorical tale about a monster spider that devastates a Swiss valley community - first as the result of a pact with the devil born out of need, and a second time due to the moral decay that releases the monster from its prison again. The story is a parable of good and evil, in which evil is painted in glaring colors - both evil in the heart of human beings and evil rampant in society. It is also a vision of cosmic horror in the style of Lovecraft, or, as Thomas Mann interpreted it, as a sort of foretelling of the horrors of Nazism. [tr. New York Review Books]

2. Gottfried Keller, Green Henry (1855 / 1879)
Green Henry is one of the most important "novels of self-cultivation" in the German language, the life of Heinrich Lee from childhood through his first romantic encounters, his fledgling attempts at becoming a painter in Munich, and his eventual installation as a chancery clerk. The story gets its name from the color that Heinrich liked to wear. Unfortunately, there is no modern English translation of this book. [tr. Overlook Books]

3. Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten (1909)
The narrator, Jakob von Gunten, is a young man who runs away from home and decides to spend the rest of his life serving others. To this end, he enrolls at the Benjamenta Institute, a school for servants, but once there, he receives very little education, except learning humility. Walser based the novel on his own experiences: after arriving in Berlin in 1905 he attended a school for servants and later worked as a butler. Jakob von Gunten has something of Dostoevsky's Underground Man, but he is also like Barnabas and Jeremias, Surveyor K.'s demonically obstructive assistants in The Castle by Franz Kafka (who very much liked Walser's writings). [tr. New York Review Books]

4. Max Frisch, I'm Not Stiller (1954)
A novel about the question of identity. The narrator, travelling on an American passport with the name White, is arrested on arrival in Switzerland and accused of being the missing Swiss sculptor "Stiller." He persistently denies, but visiting friends and acquaintances also identify him as Stiller - even Stiller's wife! Later the reader will discover that White and Stiller are in fact one and the same person. [tr. Mariner Books]


[This post incorporates some phrases from Wikipedia about the various authors and novels. All images also from Wikipedia.]