Sunday, November 19, 2006

German Literature Canon

German literature is my second favourite national literature. (I naturally love my mother-tongue (it's Hindi btw), but the first prize has to go to the Russians.) I like the seriousness with which they go about doing things as compared to their anglo-american counterparts who, I think, generally aim a little too low. I am of course not talking of any individual authors but just a general trend an impression. Reading most of these anglo-american writers, it feels that they just went to the same creative writing school. And I hate the creative writing type prose -- poor clones of Flaubert, Chekhov or Nabokov.

I haven't read much of German literature, but I came across this which looks like a very useful resource. The entire German literature canon in a set of five carton boxes! The site is in German but you can check the names of the authors and books in each section. Only the novel section looked a little familiar to me. I have read The Sorrows of Young Werther and Elective Affinities and love them both. I have also read The Trial and The Tin Drum and struggled with The Magic Mountain too for a long time. After a lot of effort I reached around in the middle, around 300 pages, only then I realized that it is pointless to read the book unless you are an expert in nineteenth century German philosophy. Reading it just as a realistic story about life in a sanatorium is just too much. Death in Venice is not there, which I have read. I struggled with Alfred Doblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz which I bought earlier this year after reading Susan Sontag's rave about the fifteen hour TV film adaptation of the novel by Fassbinder. I read somewhere that the film is being restored and will come out on DVD soon. The book looked too difficult in the beginning for me. I am also currently in the middle of The Radetzky March, which is comparatively easy and quite interesting to read. My latest favourite Thomas Bernhard is also there with his novel Woodcutters which I have not yet read.

Also the critic who has compiled the canon, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, seems like an interesting figure. This article says that there are people in Germany who have never heard of Goethe, Nietzsche or Thomas Mann but are familiar with him. Also a novelist who got a bad review from him wrote a book called "Death of a Critic" which was denounced as an anti-semitic work (Reich Ranicki is a holocaust survivor.) There is also a very funny interview of him here.


When he groans as if he had to physically remove a sit-in striker from his office, when he runs his hand over his head as though looking for some hair, when he seems to be wishing you to outer space or looks like he's falling asleep, hoping you'll finally leave him in peace, you mustn't take it personally. Those who know Reich-Ranicki will tell you so. And they'll also recommend the following (no less difficult to accomplish): don't bore the old guy!

18 comments:

Cheshire Cat said...

Interesting that Jelinek is excluded. I wonder if that's an indication she doesn't have much of a critical reputation.

Met some old friends in the "Novellas" section (what does "erzählungen" translate to, exactly?) but what I really hope to do is make some new ones.

Alok said...

thats "stories" I think.

I don't see peter handke either. Jelinek herself had said that handke should have got the nobel.

May be they are too young for the canon.

Alok said...

okay, google translates it to "narration" which is i think same as storytelling.

Cheshire Cat said...

Handke is present in the "Narratives" section, but Jelinek is not.

Handke, by the way, is a genius. I used to be obsessed with him; to preserve my sanity, I have withdrawn somewhat :) His fiction is powerful, but his early plays and poetry are something else entirely - they have an otherworldly character. However, his repugnant political views mean he'll never get the Nobel.

Alok said...

I just saw his name and I was typing this comment.

He looks really cool. I had never seen his picture before!

Haven't read anything by him, he is on the list. I never understood why he had to get himself into that Milosevic controversy...

Cheshire Cat said...

He is someone who merits a place at or near the top of the list. He takes dictation from the gods (of an alien planet...).

Plus he's served really well by his translator, Ralph Mannheim. I remember reading somewhere that Mannheim's translations of him tend to surpass the originals... Alas, I am incompetent to judge.

Alok said...

Wow!! Now I have to get some Handke! :)

My library has got "My Year in the No-Man's-Bay", "The Left-handed Woman", "Once again for Thucidydes" and two collection of his plays. And surprisingly a few critical studies too! I read somewhere that Repetition was his best work. My library hasn't got it.

Cheshire Cat said...

I haven't read any of those novels, but "The Left-Handed Woman" looks the most promising. And the plays, of course...

jyothsnay said...

I agree with you on the whole flavour around Russian literature -it is simple, It is natural. It is honest.It's a softly spoken magic spell....
“‘Come, come to me in the meadow,
Where I am awaiting thee;
Come, come to me in the meadow,
Where I’m shedding tears for thee...
Alas! thou’rt coming to the meadow,
But too late, dear love, for me!’”
guess, who? Ivan Turgenev
Of course, I love Bernhard too...you are the one who influenced me to read this great writer

anurag said...

I always wanted a canon for world literature, as thorough but much smaller ! Hope someone is working on it. I too want to know what was worth reading.

Th interview is really hilarious. 'Check your recording device'...LOL

Alok said...

check this out. there are links at the end.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_canon

it is best to have a "personal" canon, these official canons are boring and are sure to drive people away from literature. but still its a useful guide and reference.

merlot said...

Alas, German Literature...I've only read some of Kafka, Goethe and Hesse (I thought Hesse's Siddhartha would make the list).

On the Anglo issue, maybe it's the whole culture of turning books into movies business that is causing the disappearance of real 'craftmanship' (for the 21st century, at least). Although I always have it in my mind that English writers tend to care more about the story telling rather than style itself.

Don't really know how that idea came into my head :(

Alok said...

turning books into movies is just one aspect. the whole publishing industry is so commercialised, specially in the US, that you can't have a new voice, unless the publishers find some lazy and easy way to sell your work to consumers. when books are treated like any other products sold in the market, homogenity is the inevitable result.

also I think continental europe has a stronger philosophical tradition and they don't hesitate to tackle the so-called "big questions" in their books. that might be another reason. these anglo-americans in comparison look shallow, and concerned with trifles.

Vidya said...

Ah The Magic Mountain..There are few things in life that remain constant and I can say that the book will remain on top of my favorite list for quite some time.

Why continental Europe has a stronger philosophical..This is very interesting and provokes this incoherent train of thoughts.It was not as if Britain lacks philosophers but somehow the romantic tradition, the sensibilities of the Victorian era , the strong trade and colonial trade impetus seems to have ushered in a "looking outward" mindset.Kipling-like experiences, the excitement of colonizing, cultural joins (William Jones) and civilizing savages seemed to have been the general trend.

Even a few writers like Henry James and James Joyce were quite influenced by Russian and Greek.Another thought on this..When you consider Indian literary traditions, there seems to be a lot of intense and introspective literature in Bengali and Malayalam (which warrants a question - Left-Right-Revolutions and their impact on literature)

Alok said...

I wasn't exactly talking of introspective literature but a literature less connected with "life" and the one which has more to do with abstract ideas and even style.

I think it has more to do with "pragmatism" that is I think the distinguishing characteristic of British/Anglo-american philosophy. A novel like Magic Mountain for example, which is so self-consciously concerned with big ideas can never be written if one writes from a pragmatic, "capturing a slice of life" mindset... pragmatic people are distrustful of ideas. It is also no wonder that violent utopian ideologies like communism and nazism arose in germany and russia. it definitely has some connection to the national literature that these two countries produced.

scarecrow said...

ur posts just make me realise how less i have read..and it just happens every time..
glad i stumbled on this blog..

Alok said...

:) I have read all these books in the last three four years only! I think most of these things make sense only after a period of your life, the point is don't hurry, read only if you want to :)

javieth said...

I love the literature because i think reflects many aspects of our lives. But i love most the simplicity with witch things are explained is what catch my attention. The literature for me is very impressive like the effect what i feel when i buy viagra