There are some books you just can’t put down. They are the titles we depend on and that stay with us for the rest of our lives. DW presents 10 German classics recommended by the avid readers in the culture department.
Ricarda Otte (Editor)
Thomas Mann: “Buddenbrooks” (1901)
Not many people are lucky enough to share a birthplace with a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. But I come from Lübeck – just like Thomas Mann. The Hanseatic city, in which his first book “Buddenbrooks” is set, is still impressive and charming and, for me, the epitome of Nordic class. Behind the beautiful facades, Thomas Mann sets the scene for the tale of a merchant family whose downfall is partly self-inflicted and partly the fault of outsiders. Reading the many hundreds of pages filled me with a tender shudder. I recognized the streets, schools and churches. But how fatal a chain of wrong decisions – in affairs of both business and the heart – can really be! Tragic and disturbing, it’s also a highly entertaining read.
Aygül Cizmecioglu (Reporter)
Wolfram von Eschenbach: “Parzival” (ca. 1200)
Our favorite books are like comfort blankets. They give us a feeling of familiarity. I’ve been fighting with “Parzival” for about 20 years. My first encounter with the book was in a muggy seminar room at university. It’s a Middle High German verse novel of more than 800 pages – at the time, more of an obligation than fun. But one evening, after copious amounts of red wine, my roommates and I dove into this giant adventure. It is about courageous knights, courtly Amazons and broken heroes full of guilt. Nothing in this book follows the usual formula. There’s too much of everything – anger, narrative, questions. You get lost in a labyrinth of such ingenuity that you’ll never want to find your way out.
Rainer Traube (Head of Arts.21)
Theodor Fontane: “Jenny Treibel” (1892)
I was a student in the Black Forest when Helmut Schmidt was governing in Bonn and Barry White was playing on the radio. It was at this time, in the 1970s, that I discovered Fontane’s societal novel. My first acquaintance with faraway Berlin was through “Jenny Treibel.” By marrying a paint producer, Treibel turns away from a life of ease to become Mrs. “Councilor of Commerce.” It is the year 1888. The German capital is bursting with hope for the future as well as the Treibel upper-class snobbery. And it’s in this setting that games of social standing are played through children. With affectionate irony, Fontane, Prussia’s great chronicler, led me through the world of false-sentimentality that defined the time. It’s Jane Austen in Prussia blue.
Louise Osborne (English translator)
Hans Fallada: “Alone in Berlin” (1947)
This book was one of the first novels I ever read by a German author. It caught my attention due to its connection with Berlin, the city that I had just recently moved to. But it was also because of my fascination with the true story behind the book. It tells the tale of a working class couple, who lose their son in the war and begin a silent act of defiance against the Nazis. Author Hans Fallada beautifully captures the fear and doubt the Third Reich triggered in people. In the book, he also follows the stories of the couple’s denounced neighbors and party-loyal colleagues. It gave me another perspective on the Second World War – one that is not restricted to what is right or wrong. I liked his imperfect unsung heroes.
Sabine Peschel (Online editor)
Friedrich Schlegel: “Lucinde” (1799)
It feels good to hold this slim golden book with the Art Deco-style cover. When I have it in my hand, my heart beats a little faster and feels younger. It reminds me of the force of feeling that is echoed through “the fury of his love and senses.” Julius’ wistful reflections on Lucinde and the essence of women touch me as much today as they did during my studies in Tübingen. The letters, aphorisms and inner monologues of this passionate main character speak of love and loss, of longing and tranquility, creativity and beauty. The changing forms correspond with Schlegel’s early romantic concept of the ideal novel. It is stylistically ornate, but tremendously modern for 1799.
Ulrike Sommer (Reporter)
Erich Kästner: “The Flying Classroom” (1933)
His name was Matz. He was always hungry and he was so imposing that the slender Uli could hide behind him. He was the big brother I always wanted – the one who could protect me in a fight and who was driven by courage. As a child, there was no other book that I could so identify with and where I felt taken seriously as in “The Flying Classroom.” “Most people put their childhood away as if it was an old hat. Only those who grow up and still remain children are real human beings,” wrote Kästner. And you can feel this conviction on every page. It’s a novel about friendship and civil courage. It was published in 1933 – the year in which the Nazis burned Kästner’s books.
Rolf Rische (Culture department head)
Walter Kempowski: “Tadellöser & Wolff” (1971)
It took a bit of searching to find this book in my basement, and yet after decades its substance is still present. It portrays the youth of Kempowski in Rostock between 1938 and 1945: a “normal” family;naivety toward the Nazis; anxiety in light of the burning synagogues; problems in the Hitler youth. The father has to join the German army, while a Danish friend is interrogated by the Gestapo. It’s a political book from an apolitical perspective. I read it when I was 16. It was one of nine books belonging to the “German Chronicles” series – a work that is huge and entertaining. To this day, it still impresses me with its gentle irony, indirect speech, and passive constructions. It doesn’t sound like it’s fun to read, but it works regardless. It’s German history that is fascinating for a 16-year-old with a penchant for Suzi Quatro. Revolutionary!
Andrea Horakh (Reporter)
Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm: “Fairytale – Hans in Luck” (1812-1858)
It’s early evening. And it’s warm with two of us, my daughter Tessa and I, under her small comforter. It’s time for a story before bed – fairytale time. Our classic: Hans in Luck. Age-old and wise. Not a story of robbery, homicide or abandoned children, but the tale of a man who sets out on a journey and encounters luck. After seven years of hard work, Hans receives a lump of gold in payment. He exchanges it for a horse. Then, the lame horse for a cow. The cow, which is unable to produce milk, for a pig. The pig for a goose. The goose for a heavy grindstone. Each exchange is a scam. Each exchange is a loss. Every time you want to shout, “Don’t do it!” In the end, he makes it home, his hands empty, and cries out, “There is no man under the sun so fortunate as I!” Such is luck. Tessa sleeps.
Sabine Kieselbach (Editor)
Alfred Döblin: “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1929)
In 1987, I moved as a literature student to West Berlin. The Berlin Wall would fall two years later. But at that time, the city was grey and broken. When an American friend visited me, he really wanted to go to Alexanderplatz in the East. He didn’t know Döblin’s novel, but loved Rainer W. Fassbinder’s mini-series. Of course, I had already read the book, which was published in 1929. It was then – and is still today – unbelievably modern. Perhaps the only novel where the main character is the city itself. It’s expressive in form and language, highly political in analysis. For me, it is still the best Berlin novel.
Manuela Feria Pérez (Spanish producer)
Max Frisch: “Montauk” (1975)
The blue spine was unimposing, waiting patiently on the shelf, unread… for years. It all started in the Friedenau district of Berlin, where host parents gift a strangely-titled book to a young student. At first glance, it seems like an uninteresting story: the love and life balance of an aging man. The blue book survives a lot – a relocation to Madrid and then back to Berlin. But after more than 20 years, it finally gets a shot – and it hits the target. It’s a wonderful, melancholic story – a confession, that doesn’t let you go.