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!