Werther’s second spring

by Sieglinde Geisel

Heroes (Issue II/2018)


How is native German literature perceived by the rest of the world? Given the long history of the national canon of authorial works, answering this question must be a Herculean task. Still, Sandra Richter, currently a professor of modern German literature at the University of Stuttgart who will become director of the German literary archive in Marbach in 2019, was not deterred. She spent almost 20 years on this major project.

This history of literature is not only about the interconnectedness of the works, it is also about the result of a network of research – you can see that in the credits and thank-yous at the end of the book. And literature expert Sandra Richter outlines the process of adaption and translation of German works, at the same time as she interprets it.

“What do we learn when we find out that, according to the numbers, August Friedrich Ferdinand von Kotzebue was one of the best read authors around 1800?” she asks. From Richter’s questions, we learn that the historical impact of certain works did not necessarily equate with sales success: As German author Heiner Müller once said, one shouldn’t confuse success and impact. 

Richter’s book, A World History of German Literature (in German, Eine Weltgeschichte der Deutschsprachigen Literatur), begins in the Middle Ages, when the earliest printing presses first allowed books to travel in noteworthy numbers. 

Among the earliest exports were Sebastian Brant’s Narrenschiff (or Ship of Fools in English) and Till Eulenspiegel (the book was named after the protagonist); travelling theatre groups played an important role spreading word of these.

Then we move to the Romantic movement and the Enlightenment, during which German works became even more international. Some of the German writing started international careers that have lasted to this day. Richter proceeds chronologically - but there are some works that have spanned all the epochs in this history of German prose.

The first worldwide German success story came in the form of an epistolary novel. In The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle saw a novel that represented a whole era; the French military leader Napoleon apparently always carried a copy in his travelling, battlefield library. And half of Europe ended up with various reproductions and interpretations of Werther’s tale, some of them even featuring females in the main role. In England alone there were 28 poems, six novels and one drama. But Werther fandom also brought Werther-like anxieties. 

“Werther plays with the fire in readers’ hearts, in that he describes forbidden feelings and their consequences.” If what German writer and editor Hans Magnus Enzensberger says is true, then it follows that, along with those feelings, the general attitudes towards life were also exported. According to Richter, the Werther book was particularly important because above all it identified a change in societies which were just discovering a new, modern phenomenon: individualism.

There have been up to 40 translations in Japan and in China, it is seen as a bible of revolution, and remains one of the most read German books in that country. “Werther can be seen as a grand palimpsest, an emotional and aesthetic awakening: As a text that has been written over so many times, and is so imbued with layers of perception and appropriation, that only the outline of the original shows through.”

While Werther was popular during a period of upheaval, Richter theorises that one of Goethe’s next works, Faust, then held a mirror up to the societies that had already modernised themselves. Thanks to themes of heaven, hell and damnation, Faust was particularly resonant for readers in monotheistic regions.

French Romantic-era artist Eugène Delacroix was so inspired by the drama he created a series of lithographs. Nineteenth-century English Romantics were described as having “Faust fever” and Faust’s story was described “as a kind of divine comedy for a new age”. In America, Faust was a cult figure for the transcendentalists, who played a central role in getting German literature to make a trans-Atlantic crossing. Many read Kant and Schelling in the original German: The writer Margaret Fuller had taught German to the likes of Emerson, Thoreau and Alcott.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke was already a cosmopolitan: He travelled to Egypt, Italy and Sweden, wrote in French and had a great interest in Russian literature. His Duino Elegies were only translated later but his lyricism has found a permanent place in the international arts.

In Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow the characters know German phrases out of Rilke, such as Alpdrücken (nightmares) or Kadavergehorsam (the conformity of a corpse). In this way, Pynchon interprets Rilke’s poems critically, adding another layer of interpretation to verses which – against the background of the Second World War – already offered ideological dynamite. Part of one of the letters in Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet found an unlikely place in the Whoopi Goldberg comedy, Sister Act 2. Musical star Lady Gaga has a tattoo on her underarm featuring a slightly altered part of advice given to the young poet, about his desire to write. It is written on her skin in German and when translated into English, reads as follows:

In the deepest hour of the night, Confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write. And look deep into your heart where it spreads its roots, the answer, and ask yourself, must I write?

In popular culture today, Rilke is shorthand “for a sworn relationship with the arts and for the intention to spread that [artistic] conviction far and wide,” Richter concludes.

However for another German author, Heinrich Heine – who’s often described as “the Parisian from Dusseldorf” - international reactions have been more diverse. Opinions diverge on the political Heine and the lyrical Heine. In Catholic Spain, in the 19th century, his Book of Songs was seen as an attempt to “reconcile romantic ideals with reality”. Meanwhile in Portugal, this was far too sweet a description; there, Heine was a representative of Satan, setting the world order on its head with his dreadful irony.

But these are just some of the highlights of Richter’s book. The full substance her history cannot be annotated here.

Up until the Second World War, German literature that found success on an international platform tended to be masculine: The one woman who achieved recognition in this field was the Frenchwoman, Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein, most often known simply as Madame de Staël, and her 1813 book, De l’Allemagne (or About Germany). Her controversial book played an important role in the dissemination of German culture in Europe. 

Interestingly it is not just the female authors of earlier eras who missed out on international recognition. There are also some important male writers who went unnoticed but who most certainly belong in the German canon: People like Heinrich von Kleist, Friedrich Hölderlin and Georg Büchner hardly attracted any notice on the world stage while female authors, who one would have thought were far more distant from the genre, got plenty of attention. That includes the likes of Vicky Baum, whose novel People at a Hotel, was a success in the 1930s. In English it was re-named Grand Hotel and made into a Hollywood film; Baum herself also lived in California during the war.

Another of the female authors forgotten today is the Jewish communist, Klara Blum, alias Zhu Bailan. While in the Soviet Union she fell in love with a Chinese journalist who disappeared into the gulag. Searching for her beloved, Blum wound up in China after the Second World War and her German-language works were published in the former East Germany.

During the Third Reich and the Nazi regime, everything changed for German literature. Writing could really only happen outside of the country and Germany itself became something of a literary no man’s land. A tremendously informative chapter is dedicated to the writing of exiles. And this genre didn’t end in 1945 with the war. It concluded sometime in the 1960s,  because it took time for the exiles to return home.

For example, Paul Celan continued to live in Paris after the war with his illustrator wife, Gisèle Celan-Lestrange; she illustrated many of his poems. Nelly Sach’s work was only published in Germany after a decade of isolation and Elias Canetti wrote much while outside Germany.

After the war ended, the literature of East and West Germany developed in completely different circumstances. However in regard to the export of German literature, Richter demonstrates surprising parallels. East German publisher Aufbau-Verlag looked to the classics as it licensed editions to other socialist neighbours – and so did the West German house, Suhrkamp Verlag, when it moved into the US market. Contemporary literature only got a push after the classics. In this, the East Germans went even further and pursued a different strategy for east and west: Authors like Christa Wolf, Reiner Kunze and Heiner Müller were only sold in the west.

In 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the conditions for German authors changed fundamentally yet again. In the 1990s, literature that was not what you’d describe as “strictly German” became far more important. Just as German literature had emigrated out of the country during the Third Reich, now international authors came in, thanks to immigration.

Brief portraits of Emine Sevgi Özdamar and Feridun Zaimoglu represent the new self-assured German-Turkish literature that shook the foundations of the national genre while Yoko Tawada and Iliya Troyanov demonstrated further aspects of the country’s new multi-cultural side. But while authors from southern Europe often used an ironic or playful tone, German writing coming out of the east regularly portrayed the east as “a place of horror”.

A detailed portrait of the Romanian-born, German author Herta Müller shows this clearly: For her, Romania was what Austria was for disgruntled humanist, Thomas Bernhard: “An object of hatred and source for negative inspiration”. 

Richter’s World History of German literature is a plea for globalisation, written in the name of national literature: Could there be a finer paradox? While reading one hears the different authors’ voices mingle and one begins to realise what they have in common and how they inspired each other. Richter herself concedes that such a huge venture can only ever be “a patchwork of case studies” that cannot claim to be complete.

The book contains countless, compact monographs which means that, despite Richter’s comfortable and jargon-free style, it can be hard to get a comprehensive handle on this monumental work.  At the same time, because it is so dense and so widespread, with so many books and author biographies described, it is of immense value to students of literature.

In fact, a lot of the research that was undertaken would be virtually impossible to replicate easily, whether you’re a learned professor or an undergraduate. Even just the information on how German works were received in different countries would only be something for specialists to research, considering all the different languages required to truly study the topics.

Anyone who wants to understand the international impact of certain works and authors on international literary movements will find what they seek here. The 486-page text is concluded by another 241 pages of appendix. The latter points to further books and references and offers further rich pickings for researchers.

Viewed as a whole, the book shows how a national literature changes as it appropriates from, and is appropriated by, other cultures and culture. “Texts sparkle like diamonds of different colours, depending on what kind of light is shining upon them.” In the last chapter, Richter brings her conclusion together, making 20 salient points.

International recognition almost always seems to come before domestic acknowledgment and often it is the author’s characters that become most popular (more than the author, characters like Goethe’s Werther or the fictional Native American hero, Winnetou, in the books of Karl May.

The paths to global dissemination are particularly interesting. The southern hemisphere often seems cut off, or is reliant on the northern hemisphere first recognising a title, Richter suggests. Given that, the so-called western canon could rightly be renamed the northern canon. When German literature is read beyond central Europe, it is often because it reflects a turning point in culture.

At the end Richter makes another surprising announcement: It is no longer North America that consumes the largest number of German translations, it is China. In the field of classical music, “dead Germans” may well dominate, but Germany literati tend to be bit players on the global stage, at least in comparison to the giants of French or Anglo-Saxon literature.

If German literature is to be seen as more than just peripheral, to be viewed as a whole world of content, then Richter’s book shows just how rich this world would be, at its greatest moments. 

Eine Weltgeschichte der Deutschsprachigen Literatur. By Sandra Richter. Bertelsmann, Munich, 2017.



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