Essential German Literature

It has always been our goal to share our passion for literature all around the world. We want to be able to explore the literary world in many genres and have a particular focus on books that were not originally written in English. When one of our amazing Patreons, Miriam, suggested collaborating on a list of essential German literature we jumped at the chance. For this list we decided to focus on books originally written in German, and we know there are many great choices so this is a very abridged version. Perhaps there will be future lists and posts exploring German literature in the future.

 
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The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

If emo was a literary genre it would be the Romantic Movement, and if you want a good example of that, check out Johann Wolfgang von Goethe semi-autobiographical novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. This epistolary novel is said to be one of the influences of the Romantics and follows a collection of letters written by Werther to his friend Wilhelm. These letters are an intimate account of his attraction towards the beautiful Lotte; a young woman he meets in the village of Wahlheim. Despite knowing that she is already engaged to a man 11 years her senior, Werther falls for her and attempts to develop a friendship between the two in an effort to get closer to Lotte. However we have to consider the idea that his joy and sorrow is not just unrequited love but of a much deeper issue.

 
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The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

The Reader tells the story of the teenage years of Michael Berg while recovering from hepatitis and his passionate affair with a mysterious woman twice his age. Divided into three parts; the summer of love, the trial and imprisonment; The Reader explores three different scenarios as well as the notion of keeping secrets. At the start of the book Hannah comes across as a Good Samaritan trying to help Michael who was throwing up in the street. Later he pursues her and she gets an impression that he is old enough to be out of school; he does not correct her, thinking the papers he leaves behind was enough for her to know his true age but we later finds out she would never have looked at them. When she finds out, she throws him out and it is not until much later in the book we discover just how important education is to her. Hannah is his first love, he is too young to fully understand the kind of relationship they are having, while Hannah remains guarded and tries to protect both her public and private shames.

 
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The Trial by Franz Kafka

It is true, that we probably could have picked any novel by Kafka but The Trial is the one that sticks out the most. Kafka appears to like to write philosophical novels; in “The Metamorphosis” he explored the idea of human identity and social acceptance. With The Trial, I get the feeling maybe this is a look at religion and the idea that life is just a big trial. Or maybe this is just an existential novel. Or maybe this is just poking fun at the bureaucratic nightmare that is Kafka’s life. No matter how you interpret this novel, rereading this unfinished book might bring you something new, and I tend to love when literature does that.

 
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Perfume by Patrick Süskind

At birth Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was tossed aside into a pile of fish guts in the slums of eighteenth-century Paris. His mother believed he would be a still born, just like all the others and quickly got rid of him to continue working. From birth Jean-Baptiste was a little different; born without a scent but grows into a man with an absolute sense of smell. He quickly found work as a perfumer, learning the trade. He wanted to capture the scents of the world, but more importantly the one that intoxicated him; the scent of a beautiful young virgin woman. I recently re-read Perfume, because I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about this novel. In the first reading the novel and I came to the conclusion that scent worked as a metaphor for lust in this book. A lust that Jean-Baptiste had towards young virgins; which is so typical and boring but I was interested in the way Süskind used smell to explore this idea of lust. While this still rung true for me the second time around, I also began to look at smell as a representation for class; the higher the social standing the better you smell.

 
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Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Not to brag, but I first read Siddhartha while visiting India, which has left me with a surreal connection to this classic novel. Hermann Hesse’s novel is one of spiritual self-discovery and it follows a man named Siddhartha during the time of Gautama Buddha. While immersing himself in Indian philosophy, this novel follows this one man’s journey to achieve enlightenment and the reality behind this quest. Siddhartha is actually made up of two Sanskrit words, siddha (one who is accomplished) and artha (meaning, sense, goal, purpose or essence).

 
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Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

Effi is a literary character who does not need to shy away from any comparison with the big ones in international classics. Theodor Fontane’s heroine is matched up with a man not only twice her age, but also the complete opposite of her character-wise. This marriage forces Effi into isolation and into the arms of a liaison with the passionate Crampas. The affair will haunt Effi for much longer and with greater consequences than she might have thought in the first place.

Theodor Fontane’s writing reads like it was written in the 21th century rather than in the 1800 and his criticism of the close-minded hypocrisy of the middle-class appears timeless. The reader is captivated from the start as more and more tragedies, smaller and bigger, appear in the lives of all characters involved and manages to make you feel for the unlikeliest characters without being sentimental.

 
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The Lost Honour Of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll

Another piece that has not lost any of its timeliness and is in today’s atmosphere of spreading fake news and the damage that comes with that more current than ever before. Heinrich Böll's haunting novel tells the story about a woman associated with a suspected criminal and therefore being terrorized by the media.

Heinrich Böll made it very clear in his author’s note that he does not shy away to draw comparison to well-established newspapers and yet the book itself is written in a very sober and dry way. Only at a second look, the cleverness behind Böll’s writing and the hints he spreads to where he stands in this case are revealed to the reader.

A true masterpiece starting off with an unconventional beginning The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum shows how far media will go to get the headlines going and what humans are capable of when they realize that they have lost the most precious thing, personal integrity.

This spin of violence makes us question our own morals in a completely new way.

 
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Mephisto by Klaus Mann

A former Communist actor hungers for fame and is willing to sell his soul in Klaus Mann’s spin on the classic tale of Faust. Hendrik Höfgen’s performance as Mephistopheles in Faust brings him the attention he always wanted, giving him the opportunity to aim for head of the State Theatre alongside the enormous rewards of wealth, popularity and a position in the high classes of Berlin.

As the moral consequences of betraying his loved ones slowly creep up on him, Höfgen’s dream of fame turn into a series of nightmares. Clearly inspired by Gustaf Gründgens, a German actor, who ironically played the role of Mephistopheles in an adaption of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, Hendrik Höfgen is a character you will not forget.

 
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Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

A Jewish merchant, a Muslim sultan, and a young Christian knight form the main cast of yet another timeless tale about religious tolerance and the relation between the three big religions. Written in the era of the Enlightenment, this drama is highly philosophical in its quest to find the answer to which religion is the right one and discover that there might not be just one right answer for everything. In his play Lessing does not simply preach religious tolerance but shows ways to act through his characters. If you desperately search for flawed characters that learn their lessons over time, Nathan the Wise is the perfect choice.

 
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Woyzeck by Georg Büchner

This fragmented drama is considered the first real modern play.  The soldier Franz Woyzeck tries to financially support his girlfriend Marie and his illegitimate child by working as a servant for his captain. In order to secure an additional income from his meager pay, he puts himself on a pea diet suggested by a ruthless doctor for experimental purposes. Both the Captain and the doctor not only exploit Woyzeck physically and psychologically, they humiliate him in public as well. After he finds out that Marie secretly begins an affair with a drum player, he starts to hear voices and his fall into madness is inevitable.  Through Woyzeck, Büchner explores the ideas of social status and desocialization as well as the destruction of the privacy through social determinations and the concept of fatalism.