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8 German novels to read if you can’t travel this summer

8 German novels to read if you can’t travel this summer
People reading on the banks of the Landwehrkanal in Berlin in May. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Annette Riedl
After a year and a half of travel restrictions, Covid anxieties and lockdowns, many of us are missing the freedoms of unobstructed travel. But if you can't move around this summer, these books will satisfy your Wanderlust and improve your German.

die juristische Unschärfe einer Ehe (The legal haziness of a marriage) – Olga Grjasnowa 

At its heart a book about love and identity, this novel follows Leyla, an injured ex-ballet dancer from post-Soviet Azerbaijan, and her husband Altay, a doctor. They move together from Moscow to Berlin to pursue a libertine lifestyle away from their parents. Their marriage is one of physical and emotional intimacy, although both partners are gay and have wedded solely to appease their families whilst pursuing extramarital queer relationships. When an artist from New York called Jonoun falls in love with Leyla, the marriage is turned upside down and each of the love triangle’s relationships is revealed as fragile, vulnerable and insecure. 

Leyla, feeling trapped in the patterns of disappointed love which afflicted her own parents and determined to change her life for the better, decides to travel. She heads to Baku, quickly gets arrested and is joined by Altay and Jonoun. Some of the most idyllic and moving passages of the book ensue in a beautiful dreamscape of travel across the Caucasus, through a makeshift topographical timeline of Leyla’s life. These extracts, infused with artistry and a keen sense of nostalgia, are undercut by a sharp social critique of the vast inequalities across the region. 

Although the long, scenic passages of travel and self-discovery might provoke a fair degree of envy in the Covid-age reader, burying yourself in this book is the perfect remedy to cabin fever, and will transport you across a moving physical and emotional landscape. 

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Becks letzter Sommer (Beck’s Last Summer) – Benedict Wells

This book, similarly to Grjasnowa’s, is a tale of stasis and revelation, identity and change, culminating in a physical journey which parallels the characters’ self-growth. Set in the 1990s, it features Robert Beck, a 37-year-old music teacher who discovers a musical prodigy in the form of a mysterious 17-year-old Lithuanian boy called Rauli Kantas. Living vicariously through the talent of his young protégé, Becks becomes acutely aware of the failures in his life: his deficit of creative genius, his failure to form enduring relationships, and his lack of fulfilment in his career. 

When Beck realises the extent of the problems his best friend Charlie is having with substance abuse and mental health, he agrees to go on a road trip to Istanbul to meet Charlie’s family. Rauli comes along for the surreal and ultimately life-changing journey, and the three bond in a haphazard patchwork of Bob Dylan songs, drugs and memories of love.

If you’re looking to lose yourself in a literary journey, this complex and interesting tragicomic portrayal of mid-life, love, fraternity, ego and art on the move through Hungary, Romania and Turkey will undoubtedly absorb you and keep you guessing. 

Get stuck in. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Frank Rumpenhorst

Wo Europa anfängt (Where Europe begins) – Yoko Tawada

Yoko Tawada is a prizewinning, critically acclaimed Japanese writer who writes in both Japanese and German. Her writing often centres on the themes of liminality, alterity and language, as well as transitions and unities between genders, cultures and identities. Her protagonists are often dynamic, defined by their travel between different locations and communities. 

The first-person subject of Wo Europa anfängt is a reflection of the author herself, recounting semi-autobiographically her first journey to Europe from Japan via the Trans-Siberian railway. Throughout the journey, a sense of the impermanence and instability of nationality, a giddy suspension of reality and tropes of nonbelonging, identity anxieties and transgenerationality yield ultimately to an overriding impression of eternal transit. Journeys transcend space, time, form and even narrative. 

Tawada’s complex, ambiguous and polyphonic story is bound to immerse you for far longer than the time it takes to read it, and will encourage you to broaden your definition of travel and voyage. If you enjoy this story, you might also have a look at some of her other works such as Nur da wo du bist da ist nichts (Only where you are there is nothing), Opium für David (Opium for David) and Das nackte Auge (The naked eye).

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

In den Wäldern des menschlichen Herzens (In the Forests of the Human Heart) – Antje Rávic Strubel

This is a thought-provoking and multifaceted episodic novel which looks at desire, identity crisis, sexuality, gender and environmental decline. Sexuality and gender are portrayed as flexible and mysterious, just like the alien wilderness which surrounds several of the characters as they negotiate relationships and heartbreak. Strubel has often been praised for the cast of believable, well-characterised queer, transgender and non-binary characters that occupy many of her novels, and this novel is no exception, featuring two trans characters in different stages of transition with sensitivity, perception and understanding. 

This novel takes place across a panorama of different locations, exploring relationships, individuals and desires with an equally broad and far-reaching lens. Its treatment of genre is also flexible, spanning a wide range of different styles which never fail to keep the reader’s attention. This results in a sense of travel – of being in a number of different places and narratives all at once – and will certainly satisfy your sense of Wanderlust

Das Leben ist eine Karawanserei hat zwei Türen aus einer kam ich rein aus der anderen ging ich raus (Life is a Caravanserai: Has Two Doors I Came in One I Went Out the Other) – Emine Sevgi Özdamar

This stunning book is compulsory reading at any time of the year. Autobiographically inspired, the novel follows its protagonist’s childhood and teenage years in Turkey, where her family is perpetually on the move between Malatya, Yenişehir, Bursa, Ankara and Istanbul due to her father’s financial instability. The book ends with the protagonist departing to Germany in 1965 to start a new and independent life. Her second novel, Die Brücke vom Goldenen Horn (The Golden Horn Bridge) picks up where Karawanserei left off, with a nineteen-year-old narrator arriving in Berlin. The novel is a literary revelation, combining myth and dreamscape with a sharp political edge, and is a joy to read. It also won Emine Sevgi Özdamar the Ingeborg Bachmann prize in 1991, skyrocketing her to literary fame. 

If you’re looking for a challenging and revelatory read which will undoubtedly leave you buzzing, Das Leben ist eine Karawanserei might be the perfect pick for your summer reading list. 

Sommerhaus, später (Summerhouse, later) – Judith Hermann

This is Judith Hermann’s debut volume of short fiction, consisting of nine stories set in a range of different contexts and locations. One is set in New York, another on a tropical island, another in Russia, and many riff on the notion of the journey as a process of unanchoring and uprooting, something which can have either positive or negative import. Hermann’s writing is atmospheric, dreamlike and occasionally whimsical, but stays firmly expressive throughout. Presenting a kaleidoscopic view of post-Wall German youth, the stories compellingly explore the themes of happiness, purposelessness, stasis and identity.

The stories are not necessarily an easy read, but are compulsively interesting and stylistically addictive. The volume is an unforgettable summer read which transports you around the world whilst making space for still, quiet reflection. 

Travel to New York with Judith Hermann’s Sommerhaus, später (Summerhouse, later). Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AP | Mary Altaffer

Tschick (English translations can be found under ‘Why We Took the Car’) – Wolfgang Herrndorf 

If you’re looking for some lighter reading, Tschick might be your best bet. A coming-of-age novel written for a teenage audience, it spotlights the 14-year-old Maik Klingenberg, a lovelorn and lonely outsider with an alcoholic mother, his new Russian classmate Andrej Tschichatschow (the eponymous ‘Tschick’) who appears to have no family or friends at all, and the mysterious, homeless but wily Isa Schmidt, with whom Maik finds himself infatuated. When Tschick appears outside Maik’s door one summer with a stolen car, the two head on a transformative adventure to visit the former’s grandfather in Walachia, meeting a number of eccentric and allegorically characterised figures on their way. 

Despite its criminal under-characterisation of its female characters and tendency to play into cliche, the book is a relaxing and evocative read which effectively conjures up the sensations of youthful travel, dreams and flights of fancy. It was also adapted into film in 2016, and makes for a fun and mood-lifting watch.

Sommernovelle (Summer Novella) – Christiane Neudecker

Sommernovelle is another young adult fiction novel which perfectly captures the headiness and abandon of two teenagers’ first holiday away from their families. In the book, the 15-year-old Panda and her best friend Lotte from the south of Germany decide to volunteer at a bird sanctuary on the island of Sylt in northern Germany. They are fiercely dedicated to doing good and connecting with the natural environment. Their trip is derailed by first experiences with love and sex and the apathetic, unaccommodating adults around them, but these fast-paced lessons of life are complemented by some beautiful nature writing and a sensitive eye to the very real struggles of teenagehood. 

If you’re looking for a light, nostalgic book about the joys and struggles of travel and self-discovery coupled with a cosy coming-of-age narrative, this might be the book for you to dive into this summer.

People reading on the banks of the Landwehrkanal in Berlin in May. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Annette Riedl


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