12 great German works to mark Reformation Day
Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to a church door 497 years ago today. Now Eileen Battersby nails her German colours to the mast
The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
Mephisto by Klaus Mann
It is Halloween, but it is also Reformation Day in Germany. Exactly 497 years ago Martin Luther strode up to the castle church in Wittenberg and nailed his 95 Theses to the door. He had written them in Latin but they were quickly translated into German and widely circulated thanks to the emergence of a clever new invention known as the printing press. For all the rhetoric of the sermon, the printed word was to make its presence felt.
In honour of Reformation Day, as if I needed any excuse, here is an entirely subjective and personal top 12 of German books which admittedly has little to do with the Reformation but celebrate German writing by German-born writers.
1. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
Before taking up his first real job, Hans Castrop sets off from Hamburg to visit his cousin who is recovering at a Swiss sanatorium. He intends to stay for three weeks which turn into seven years. While there he discovers life, death and love in a novel which is also concerned with the nature of time and much else.
2. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Possibly the most moving anti-war novel of all time follows a group of young German students as they abandon their school books and encounter the horror of a conflict no one understands.
3. A Small Circus by Hans Fallada
In this dialogue-driven masterpiece, first published in 1931 and very true to its time, Fallada looks at corruption in a German provincial town through the petty intrigues of a dying newspaper and the town hall. Meanwhile the farmers are about to go on strike and in the wider world the Weimar Republic is about to be erased by National Socialism.
4. Austerlitz by WG Sebald
A man looks back over 50 years to his wartime childhood and begins to piece together his past. Possibly the most heartfelt work from one of world literature’s most singular visionaries, by the time of its publication in 2001 Sebald was already revered as the author of The Rings of Saturn and had inspired his country to look at its grieving soul.
5. The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass
Oskar Matzerath, having decided not to grow, takes to drumming as a way of detaching himself from his family and the events unfolding around him. Both monster and tragic hero, he is the witness to Germany’s story as filtered through Grass’s comic vision.
6. The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse
Raised as part of an elite devoted to the life of the intellect, Joseph Knecht aspires to master the Glass Bead Game. Once he does he will become Magister Lundi. Set in the future, the narrative explores the balance between asethetics and science; music and maths. Rich in symbolism, the glass bead game is about the quest for perfection and Knecht could as easily have stepped from the pages of Ibsen.
7. Mephisto by Klaus Mann
Demented actor Hendrik Hofgen is possessed by fame. As the Nazis begin to rise, he forsakes his wife and mistress as well as his Communist past. In performing the role of Mephistopheles he also consolidates his part in the Nazi power-play then developing off-stage. Mann, the second child of Thomas, satirised his one-time brother-in-law actor Gustaf Gründgens who had been favoured by Hermann Göring. The Nazi was besotted by the actor’s portrayal of evil and appointed him director of the State Theatre.
8. Death in Rome by Wolfgang Koeppen
Music, war, guilt, racism, religion, romance, mythology and, as always, history are summoned in this astute and courageous narrative about what happens when the various members of a German family meet in Rome and sons begin to question their fathers about the part they played in their country’s past.
9. The German Lesson by Siegfried Lenz
Sons and fathers, duty and love collide in Lenz’s calm, laconic masterwork about a boy who, when told to write an essay about duty, describes how his policeman father ordered a family friend, an artist based on the Expressionist Emil Nolde, to stop painting.
10. Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin
Franz Biberkopf, Everyman writ large, walks free after four years in Tegel Prison and immediately feels imprisoned by freedom. Told through a rhythmic, continuous present tense as if by a chanting chorus – think Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides – the tone is knowing because the outcome is inevitable. A seedy, wounded and ruthless Berlin comes to life in this brilliantly choreographed morality play.
11. The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll
The doomed heroine risks her very being for a lover who, instead of merely robbing a bank, is a deserter and a thief. A reporter is on his trail and Katharina takes action. An extraordinary study of how violence evolves by Germany’s 1972 Nobel Literature laureate.
12. The Collected Writings of the Brothers Grimm
At the heart of so many stories is the menace and magic, the moral viewpoint and precise lucidity that may be traced directly back to something that was discovered through narratives passed down by word of mouth and recorded by these pioneering folklorists who identified the inherent and cyclical genius of the oral tradition.