Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 12, 2017

German Literature, a Very Short Introduction (2012), by Nicholas Boyle

I started reading German Literature, a Very Short Introduction during my recent reading of Bernard Schlink’s The Woman on the Stairs, but unlike the other VSIs I’ve read,  I struggled with it a bit even though it’s a very short book of only 171 pages.  Although there are thirteen German language Nobel Laureates and Germany today hosts the world’s largest book trade fair, the Frankfurt Book Fair, German Lit was largely unfamiliar territory to me.  19th century German classics weren’t on my radar when I first began to read the classics, and to this day the only 19th century German novelist I’ve read is Goethe.  I read quite a few of the well-known 20th century German language novelists at university, and I’ve reviewed a fair few on this blog, (notably Hans Fallada and Thomas Mann) but in reading this VSI I was on a learning journey.  I wanted to make sense of why I didn’t know the names of German classics.  I wanted a reading list.

What worked best for me was the introductory chapter called ‘The Bourgeois and the Official: a historical overview’ and the last one ‘Traumas and Memories’.  In between there is

  • The laying of the foundations (to 1781)
  • The age of idealism (1781-1832) and
  • The age of materialism (1832-1914)

I’ll be honest, as every reviewer should be: I read these three chapters dutifully, but I didn’t find them very interesting.  Apart from Goethe, I didn’t find anything that made me want to embark on a German reading journey from those eras.

However, the VSI did explain why, in the author’s opinion, German Lit excels in poetry but not so much in the novel.  (Wikipedia is frustratingly vague about 19th century German Lit when the novel came into its own so I can’t tell whether this is a common opinion or not).  It seems somehow counterintuitive, since the printing press was invented in Germany and you’d think that led to mass literacy and thence to the novel, but ironically it was the Reformation that was to blame.  When the power to transmit faith was transferred from an Emperor (i.e. the Pope of the Holy Roman Empire) to self-sufficient princes (because of Luther), that led to the rise of the clergy who were not just independent of a central ruler (i.e. the Pope) they were also cut off from each other.  Literature at this time was mostly academic (and in Latin) or it was trivial, to entertain the middle classes without giving rise to any social or political intent.

As the 18th and 19th centuries rolled around and the middle classes in Britain, France, Holland and Switzerland got frisky and achieved some political reforms, Germany stagnated politically and economically because power was concentrated in absolute rulers, (princes until Napoleon, and an all-powerful bureaucracy after that).   And that meant there was no market for a realistic novel like the English novel written for its self-confident and largely self-governing capitalist middle class.  It was not until the Second German Empire was founded in 1871 (i.e. the unification via Bismarck which we learned about at school) that a revived bourgeoisie took on the establishment of the officials and romanticism was born.

All this is complicated and confusing, and there is in this VSI much more about Germany’s history, religion and politics than there is about books that you or I might want to read.  This is true too about the last chapter ‘Trauma and Memories’ which is about Germany’s tumultuous 20th century.  Trying to make sense of literature in this period seems an impossible task,  but the preoccupation with philosophy, and the problem of left/right politics makes this chapter difficult too.

Michael Orthofer’s The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is much more useful here.  Where Boyle takes over 100 pages to get to the 20th century, Orthofer starts there with this simple statement:

French and Russian fiction dominated nineteenth-century Continental European literature, and German fiction came into its own at the beginning of the twentieth century. (p.84)

Ah.  That suggests that there’s not much fiction to pursue in German Lit of the 19th century, right?  Over four pages, Orthofer then goes on to name the champions of the 20th century.  He lists Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, and names The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil and The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch (neither of whom get a mention in the VSI) as among the peaks of twentieth-century fiction. He also suggests Robert Walser and Alfred Döblin.  (Yes, I know, they’re all men.  He does mention Gert Hofman’s fine, restrained novels…)

And while Orthofer, in a book about contemporary world fiction, is not trying to offer a comprehensive analysis of German Lit, he summarises the essential problem clearly:

Few of the best German writers stayed or survived in Germany after the rise of Nazism and through World War II.  With the country then split into West and East Germany, its citizens having to come to terms with its recent terrible history and vast numbers of writers dead or dispersed abroad, German literature was slow in re-establishing itself after the war.  (p.85)

He then goes on to devote two pages to the Nobel laureates Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass; a whole page about Arno Schmidt (whose massive 1300-page Bottom’s Dream is currently being read and eloquently reviewed by Tony at Messenger’s Booker); three pages about authors from the GDR (including Uwe Johnson and Christa Wolf) and four pages of suggested authors from the Reunification era, amongst whom I’ve read W.G. Sebald, Herta Müller, Bernhard Schlink and Daniel Kehlmann, as well as others that I have yet to read like Jenny Erpenbeck and Gerhard Köpf.

OTOH, 20 pages into the VSI chapter about 20th-century literature, Boyle explains the reason why German literature was slow in re-establishing itself after the war.  In a book called The Inability to Mourn (1967) psychologists Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich argued that Germany’s collective reaction to the trauma of 1945, the ‘zero hour’ in German history when the past was lost, the present was a ruin and the future was a blank was because

there had been no reaction: Germany had frozen emotionally, had deliberately forgotten both its huge affective investment in the Third Reich and the terrible human price paid by itself and others to get rid of that delusion, had shrugged off its old identity and identified instead with the victors (whether America in the West or Russia in the East) and had thrown itself into the mindless labour of reconstruction.  (p.143)

Boyle argues that this analysis has since been very influential and that ‘coming to terms with the past’ has become a major task for contemporary literature, but he also thinks that …

…there was a good deal more to mourn than unacknowledged Nazism, repressed memories of Nazi crimes, the horrors of civilian bombardment, the misery of military defeat, or the uncomfortable fact that in the four years before the foundation of the two post-war German states in 1949 the prevailing mood was not joy or relief but sullen resentment both of the Allies and the German emigrants.  There was the further complication that the past calling out to be reassessed did not begin in 1933, it was potentially as old as Germany itself, while the present, for all the talk of reconstruction, had no historical precedents. (p.143)

(The emigrants he’s referring to are those who fled from the east into the west to escape the Soviets.  The allusion to a problematical pre-1933 past only makes sense if you’ve read, understood and internalised the whole VSI and its analysis of German identity since the Middle Ages).

Boyle goes on to say that the world powers that had divided Germany for their own realpolitik reasons, did nothing to encourage assessment of the past or the present.  So it wasn’t until after 1990 that German writers were released from this imposed and misleading confrontation between East and West and were free to address their own history.

KrusoWell, I am not sure that I am now any better equipped to respond to German contemporary literature – and I didn’t end up with a reading list of classics to pursue, but I think it’s partly because of the style of this VSI.  This series is meant to be a bridge between academic study and a general interest in a topic, but this one strays too close to the academic IMO.  Within chapters it’s not always chronological, and it ranges widely across so many different areas that it’s hard to get a grasp of anything.  It’s not as helpful as the other VSIs I’ve read so far and definitely not as easy to read.

BTW I am about to read the winner of the 2014 German Book Prize, Kruso (published here in Australia by Scribe) which will be the first book I’ve read from the former GDR.   This is the blurb:

The lyrical, bestselling 2014 German Book Prize winner. It is 1989, and a young literature student named Ed, fleeing unspeakable tragedy, travels to the Baltic island of Hiddensee. Long shrouded in myth, the island is a notorious destination for hippies, idealists, and those at odds with the East German state. On the island, Ed stumbles upon the Klausner, Hiddensee’s most popular restaurant, and ends up washing dishes there, despite his lack of papers. Although he is keen to remain on the sidelines, Ed feels drawn towards the charismatic Kruso, unofficial leader of the seasonal workers. Everyone dances to Kruso’s tune. He is on a mission – but to what end, and at what cost? Ed finds himself drawn ever deeper into the island’s rituals, and ever more in need of Kruso’s acceptance and affection. As the wave of history washes over the German Democratic Republic, the friends’ grip on reality loosens and life on the island will never be the same.

Sounds interesting, doesn’t it!

PS There’s a good (and fair) review of this VSI from Rob at Goodreads which is worth reading.

Author: Nicholas Boyle
Title: German Literature, a very short introduction
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2012
ISBN: 9780199206599
Review copy courtesy of OUP.

Available from Fishpond: German Literature: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)



  1. Just want to thank you for your reviews which inevitably send me racing off to Readings ( or scouring op shop shelves !) to read for myself the gems you’ve introduced.
    I have read a lot of German literature mostly Stefan Zweig, Thomas Mann and more contemporary writers such as Schlink and others in my efforts to maintain my second language German. I’ll now read Boyle to get an overview of how these writers fit in the bigger historical scheme. Thanks!


    • Hello Catherine, thanks for your comment:)
      I know how important it is to keep up that second language: I haven’t done it with Indonesian even though I used to be able to read books in that language, and I’m determined not to lose my French. I am lucky that Emma from her Book Around the Corner blog helps me with recommendations that are suitable for my level of proficiency.
      Even though this VSI is a bit too academic for my taste, in general I’m finding the series great for putting world lit into context:)


  2. I had a German flatmate for a while in my uni days and he insisted I read some Thomas Mann. None of it stuck. I’ve read a lot of the brothers Grimm – not novels I suppose – and Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. For the past month I have had Goethe’s ‘Elective Affinities’ out of the library, which includes a very interesting essay about the German novel, but I haven’t had time to finish it and I’m afraid it will have to go back.


    • Well, I really like Thomas Mann and I’m looking forward to reading Death In Venice. But tell you what, I might never have picked up one of his books if I’d read Boyle first. He doesn’t make him sound fascinating at all.
      Goethe, yes. I’ve only read The Sorrows (which Goethe later was embarrassed about) and I’m going to redress this shortfall in my reading in due course…


  3. There is 19th-C German-language lit, but it tends to be shorter, with a lot of decent stories. Once we get towards the end of the century, there’s Theodor Storm (lots of stories with some longer pieces) and Theodor Fontane, the first real German novelist with longer books that would fit very nicely into Victorian literature.


    • Ah yes, Fontane gets a mention…Boyle suggests something called Comedies of Errors (1888) and Frau Jenny Treibel. Have you read (or even better, reviewed) those ones?


  4. Yes, although I don’t think ‘Comedies of Errors’ is a title I’ve heard before – I suspect he’s referring to ‘Irrungen, Wirrungen’:

    And ‘Frau Jenny Treibel’:

    Of course, his masterpiece was ‘Effi Briest’. I did three reviews on this for a GLM event, but they do give away pretty much everything…

    There are a couple of others there somewhere, too ;)


    • Funny you should mention the translation (yes, CoE=IW). One of the reviewers at Goodreads took him to task for rendering Sturm and Drang as Storm and Stress. I’ll have a quick look at your review but not read them properly in case I decide to read one of them later on…


  5. There’s definitely a Penguin edition of ‘Effi Briest’ as that’s what many of the readalong participants were working from.


  6. The Stechlin is listed in 1001 Books but a paperback edition of that is nearly $50.00, and it’s not available for the Kindle…


  7. I’m unlikely to read this book BUT found the outline of why there was more poetry/ lack of novels fascinating. I certainly loved studying the history of this time when I was at school.
    Of the authors you’ve mentioned, I think my favourite is Zweig.


    • Me too, I hadn’t realised that the Reformation had had that sort of impact on literature. I had always just assumed it was more or less the same as in Britain…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Lisa, I follow your reading journey with interest, but must confess it is in a haphazard way, life and work getting in the way. This post is a great example of what I love about your blog. I haven’t read much German lit, although I went through a massive Herman Hesse phase in my younger days. My few years of German and French in high school if not quite wasted certainly did not unearth a gift for languages, but they did plant the seed of an interest in the literature of other cultures. You give me renewed enthusiasm for retirement, which must happen in the next few years, when I can embark on some exciting reading journeys of my own. Thanks.


    • Hello Marita,. thank you so much for your comment, and how nice it is that we share an interest in the literature of other cultures. I hope your retirement when it comes is everything you hope it will be:)


  9. There don’t seem to be many 19thC German language novels but they excelled with short stories and novellas: I especially like the work by E.T.A. Hoffmann, Theodor Storm, Adalbert Stifter. I’m reading quite a lot of Schnitzler’s work at the moment though his work spans the end of 19thC and early 20thC. It is strange that whilst the rest of Europe concentrated on massive novels German authors concentrated on shorter works.


    • I wonder if you could say the same thing about books now? It might just be that the translated books that have come my way from Europe are short-ish novellas (about 200 pages) whereas US books are big and baggy. British books have become long too, or so it seems to me.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, possibly, although it may be that it’s cheaper to translate the shorter ones. For nearly twenty years now books and films seem to have become longer. Some books justify the length but many don’t.


        • Not just cheaper, but also quicker for a publisher to get the book to the reader. Remember how they had to issue 1Q84 in three volumes, with different translators working on it?

          Liked by 1 person

  10. […] and one of the blurbers compares the novel to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, but alas, despite my efforts to improve my knowledge of German literature, these allusions were lost on […]


  11. […] German Literature, a Very Short Introduction, by Nicholas Boyle […]


  12. […] literature he goes into raptures about how many eminent authors there are.  If I hadn’t read German Literature, a Very Short Introduction, I might have thought that this was just French hubris, but it’s true that there’s only […]


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