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Seven must-read German books written by women

Goethe, Schiller, Kafka, and many other famous names in the German literary cannon are men. Yet some of the most influential books written in German, whether contemporary or classic, are written by women.

Seven must-read German books written by women
Judith Kerr, a celebrated German-born author, died earlier this year. Photo: DPA

Sophie von la Roche (Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim)

Who was the first financially independent professional writer in Germany? You guessed it. It was not Goethe or Remarque, but in fact a woman: Sophie von la Roche. 

Her 1771 novel, Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim (History of Lady Sophia Sternheim) recounts through a series of letters the experiences of an upper class woman on the search for love and happiness in enlightenment German society. Her first novel, which is her most successful, is considered a founding text for the German female literary tradition. 

READ ALSO: 10 German books you have to read before you die

The novel tackles questions on what the key to female happiness should be, and whether this is achievable in the male-dominated German courtly society. On one level, the text seems to teach woman how to live a moral life, with protagonist Sophie from Sternheim setting an idealized example. 

Yet on a deeper level, the text offers an insight that teaches woman how to navigate a phallocentric society, highlighting the inevitable difficulties women face as a result of their unequal position, even if they do everything right in terms of moral codes and expectations. 

Despite being written almost 250 years ago, La Roche’s novel is still relevant for modern woman. The feminist issues she highlights, such as society’s default position of believing a male account over a female’s, are eerily relevant to cases in contemporary society such as the Kavanaugh hearings.

Annette von Drüste Holstoff (Die Judenbuche) 

Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, once the face of the 20 Deutsche Mark note, is often credited for paving the way for women to be taken more seriously in Germany’s literary circles.

Her 1842 novella Die Judenbuche, is one of the earliest murder mysteries, based on a real life 18th century report that documents a series of murders that took place in the Westphalian mountains. The text contains implications and red herrings, all the classic murder mystery features, yet gives no definite answer as to what happened. 

The murder victims are a forest ranger and a Jewish man, Aaron. Droste-Hülshoff cleverly plays with stereotypes in her depiction of the Jewish community, with Aaron being a loan shark, in order to highlight society’s existential anxiety surrounding Jews. The stereotyping is done by villagers, who themselves are unsympathetic, characterized as rowdy and showing little regard for the law.

Given how German history unfolded over the next 100 years, Die Judenbuche is on some level a haunting read, which may appear anti-Semitic. However, the plot is intended to instead highlight the bigotry and anarchy in a pre-unification micro state society, as well as the consequences  of anti-Semitism.

Irmgard Keun (Nach Mitternacht), 1937

According to literary critic Matthew Fishburn, as a general rule-of-thumb, if a book was on the burn-list in Nazi Germany, it’s probably a pretty good book. However, when we think of books that Nazis threw onto the fire, our thoughts usually turn to male authors such as Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann and Eric Maria Remarque.

Irmgard Keun is a female author who was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1936 so that she could continue writing in her infamous sexually and politically frank manner. After Germany invaded the Netherlands, she retuned from exile there to Cologne in 1940. To survive, she faked her own death and lived undercover until the end of the war.

The first novel she wrote in exile, Nach Mitternacht, was published in Amsterdam in 1937. She tells the story of Sanna, a young woman who attempts to create a fantasy world so that she doesn’t have to engage with the madness going on around her, with her friends disappearing and her brother’s writing being banned.

The novel captures the obliviousness of the average citizen as Germany is plunged into war, as well as the conflict at heart, as Sanna’s naivety is violently stripped away. Nach Mitternacht is particularly haunting, as in 1937, neither Keun nor her protagonist could know how much darker the Nazi regime would get.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Unscheinbares Äußeres, wahnsinnig guter Inhalt! Irmgard Keun wie immer brillant ???

A post shared by Anastasia Schadt (@la_anastasia__) on Apr 7, 2019 at 9:52am PDT

Judith Kerr (Als Hitler das rosa Kaninchen stahl)

Judith Kerr was born in 1923 in Berlin, the daughter of Alfred Kerr, an important theatre critic of the Weimar era. Judith’s father, a Jew, would openly criticize Adolf Hitler. 

In 1933, the family heard a rumour that the Nazis planned to confiscate their passports and arrest Alfred, should they come to power, so Alfred immediately fled to Prague. Judith, her mother and brother fled Berlin soon after, meeting up with Alfred in Switzerland.  

They left on the morning of the election which Hitler would ultimately win. They later learned the following morning that the Nazis had come to their home to arrest them. 

Before settling in Britain in 1936, the Kerr family lived in Switzerland and Paris. Judith tells her story in the semi-autobiographical book for older children “Als Hitler das rosa Kaninchen stahl” (when Hitler stole pink rabbit), which offers a child’s-eye view of World War II.

The text is internationally celebrated and has become part of both German and British school curriculums, as it teaches the effects of war on an individual and familial level, rather than on political terms.

Emine Sevgi Özdamar (Mutterszunge)

The face of Germany has changed over the last 65 years, and so have the styles and backgrounds of its female authors. Emine Sevgi Özdamar is recognized as being at the forefront of the emerging genre “German Turkish literature”.

Born in Turkey, Özdamar arrived in Germany in 1965 as a Gastarbeiterin (guest worker) when she was only 18-years-old. She did not speak a word of German when she arrived and learned the language as an adult. Beginning working life as a cleaning lady in a factory, she’s gone on to become an actress, playwright, director and prize-winning German author.

She published her debut work Mutterzunge (Mother Tongue) in 1990, a collection of short semi-autobiographical stories that explore the identity of a Turkish woman living in Germany, an unfamiliar, often hostile culture, and learning a tongue-twisting language. The text’s key theme is the connection between language and identity.

Özdamar expresses the feeling experienced by many migrants of being caught between two worlds, with both cultures eventually feeling foreign. She loses her mother tongue Turkish, for it to be replaced by fluent yet flawed German. She creates a unique writing style through literal translations of Turkish expressions and combining “Kanak-Sprak” (German-Turkish sociolect) with German philosophical and literary quotations.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Turkish?UW-Madison (@turkishuwmadison) on Oct 16, 2019 at 1:04pm PDT

Yoko Tawada (Wolkenkarte)

As foreigners living in Germany, we’ve all experienced the sheer confusion of being asked whether we have a “Paybackkarte”, “Kundenkarte” or “DeutschlandCard” in the supermarket, and having no idea what the cashier is talking about. 

Yoko Tawada, a Berlin-based Japanese author, has captured this confusion as the essence of feeling foreign. In her short story “Wolkenkarte” (“cloud card”, a Swiss supermarket loyalty card) a supermarket loyalty card serves as a metaphorical ID which shows that you belong to an area. Across the short story, she discusses other ways of showing that you belong to an area, such as using a specific regional word for “ladybird” or not needing to internally translate questions before finding the answer.

As a prize-winning writer who has lived and worked in Japan, Germany, the USA and Switzerland, this sensation of not-belonging is all too familiar to Tawada. Growing up in Japan, Tawada studied in Germany and Switzerland before eventually settling in Berlin. 

She publishes her work bilingually in German and Japanese, with her writing often highlighting the strangeness of one language when seen from the perspective of someone who speaks another. She is known for creating neologisms in German as she draws to attention the need for translation in everyday life.

If reading German literature is something new to you, or you do not enjoy reading longer texts, Wolkenkarte is a short and accessible short story, which is certainly a good place to start. 

Olga Grjasnowa (Gott ist nicht schüchtern)

Over recent years, Germany has become known to be particularly welcoming to refugees, which has given rise to a new wave of literature written by or about refugees. 

An emerging talent is Olga Grjasnowa. Born into a Russian speaking Jewish family in Azerbaijan, she came to Germany as a refugee with her family aged 11. She is married to Ayham Majid Agha, a Syrian actor who arrived in Germany in 2013.

Grjasnowa’s novel, Gott ist nicht schüchtern (God is not shy, but City of Jasmine is the English title), tells the story of three Syrian refugees and their life-threatening journey across Europe. Hammoudi, a once Paris-based surgeon, Amal, a budding actress and Youssef, a young director all led unique lives in Syria. However, in Germany, they are perceived as nothing but refugees.

Grjasnowa developed her characters from a number of individual stories that were told to her by refugees. Her husband would help with translation and recount what he remembered about the places in Syria she mentioned in the book, to aid her research. 

The novel emphasizes the inhumanity of war alongside the individual humanity of each refugee. Grjasnowa tells Taz this is her most personal novel yet, as it echoes the stories her grandma would tell her about fleeing from the Nazis.

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FRANKFURT

How Frankfurt is holding the world’s largest book fair in a pandemic

The Frankfurt book fair, the world's largest, is going ahead this week even after a spike in coronavirus infections turned the German city into a high-risk area.

How Frankfurt is holding the world's largest book fair in a pandemic
An interview being conducted remotely at the opening of this year's Frankfurt book fair on Wednesday. Photo: DPA

With authors signing books behind plexiglass, audiences wearing masks and industry events moved online, this year's edition is unlike any other.

The rapidly worsening outbreak, in a country that has so far coped relatively well with the pandemic, forced organisers to rewrite their plans several times.

Just 48 hours before Wednesday's kickoff, fair director Jürgen Boos and his team decided to ban audiences from attending readings and interviews in a concert hall that had been due to host 450 people at a time.

READ ALSO: 10 German books you have to read before you die

“We had to react right away,” Boos told AFP, after Frankfurt was coloured red on the coronavirus map.

It was a huge blow to a fair that last year drew 300,000 visitors and has already been drastically scaled back.

The on-stage author talks at the now eerily empty Festhalle arena are still taking place however and are being live-streamed.

Also empty is the adjacent conference centre, normally a hive of activity where booklovers could rub shoulders with top publishing executives and writers like Dan Brown and Cecelia Ahern.

'Safe'

With many international visitors unable or unwilling to fly in because of the virus this year, organisers have built digital platforms for publishers and agents to discuss trends, sniff out the next bestsellers and haggle over translation rights.

Literary happenings and political talks have also shifted online and can be followed by anyone with an internet connection.

But there are still ways to experience the “Buchmesse” in person.

Hotels, museums, bars and bookshops across Frankfurt are hosting dozens of readings and discussions until Sunday to bring the fair to life, welcoming audiences of up to 50 people.

Guests have to mask up, follow social distancing guidelines and share their contact details so they can be notified if someone at the event later tests positive.

“Everything has to be completely safe in terms of health precautions,” said Boos. “But we must be able to have these personal encounters.”

At Walden cafe on Wednesday evening, retired teacher Christiane Decker-Eisel, 67, queued patiently for German novelist Bov Bjerg, seated behind a large plexiglass screen, to sign her book.

“I'm interested in his work and really wanted to be here,” she told AFP. “I feel protected with my FFP2 mask on.”


Social distancing at the opening of this year's book fair. Photo: DPA

'Chaos'

Being forced to switch to a mainly digital fair has its upsides, Boos said, allowing for larger audiences and attracting speakers who might never have come to Frankfurt.

More than 4,400 exhibitors from over 100 countries have registered to take part virtually.

For members of the public, this week's live-stream highlights include interviews with Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong, US whistleblower Edward Snowden and legendary author Margaret Atwood of “The Handmaid's Tale” fame, whose native Canada postponed its role as guest of honour at this year's fair to 2021.

But Boos said nothing could replace the physical fair with its “creativity, chance encounters and a little bit of chaos”.

Volker Bouffier, the premier of Frankfurt's Hesse state, said at the opening press conference that it was “brave” of organisers not to cancel the 2020 edition, “which would have been easier”.

But cancelling the high-profile fair, which dates back to the Middle Ages, was never really an option.

READ ALSO: 'We must prevent uncontrolled Covid-19 increase,' says Merkel as rules tightened

Boos said there was a need for the industry to get together after other book fairs, including in London and Bologna, were scrapped because of the virus.

Surveys in Europe suggest reading has increased during the Covid-19 lockdowns, particularly among children and young people, and book sales are up in several countries.

“When the bookshops closed, we realised how important books are,” Boos said.

By Michelle Fitzpatrick

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