Posts Tagged ‘Nicholas Boyle’

I love the VSIs (Very Short Introductions) published by OUP and I have a number of them. I got this one on German Literature last year. I thought I will start this year’s German Literature Month with this book. I finished reading it today. Here is what I think of it.

Nicholas Boyle’s introduction gives an overview of German literature from the beginning to the start of the twenty-first century. However the focus of the book is the past 250 years. As I am a layman with respect to German literature and only know about the books of a few of my favourite German authors, and as I am not a scholar or a literary critic or an expert in any way, I don’t think I am well-informed enough to review this book. However I will share my mostly random thoughts on the book here and the things that I learnt from the book.


(1)   The book discusses the definition of ‘German Literature’ in the introduction. Boyle decides to go with the Germany as defined by today’s political borders. This means that literature of Austria and Switzerland are not covered. It also means that Kafka is out. And so is Pascal Mercier, who one of my favourites. And so is Arthur Schnitzler. It is sad. Luckily Hermann Hesse, another of my favourites, survives this definition as he was a German writer who emigrated to Switzerland. I would have preferred a broader definition of German literature – as anything written in German, irrespective of where the author lived or what passport he / she had. I can, however, see the author’s perspective. Because literature is not just about books and authors. It is also about a country, its language, people, culture, religion, politics, history, philosophy. As Boyle says in the introduction :


Literature is not just texts, because texts are not just texts. Texts are always turned, and turn their readers, to something other than texts and readers, something the texts are about. An introduction, even a very short introduction, to a national literature cannot be just an introduction to texts, it is also an introduction to a nation. To ask what German literature is like is to ask what – from a literary point of view – Germany is like.


(2)   The book was not an easy read. It started out innocently enough, but for a layman like me, I had to plough through a significant part of the book. Because it was filled with intellectual discussions of different literary eras and it even went into the realms of philosophy when it discussed Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. But I am glad I persevered with it as it was rewarding in the end.

(3)   Mechthild von Magdeburg is mentioned in the book. I remember seeing a book of hers in the bookshop once. Being from the 13th century, she must have been one of the first women writers and so one of the pioneers. I would like to read more about her.

(4)   I have always thought that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s ‘Faust’ was inspired by Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’. Because I read somewhere that von Goethe read Marlowe’s play and liked it very much and he went on to compose his own version of it. This book describes what actually happened, and needless to say, the version of the story I believed in was wrong. This is what actually happened. ‘History of Dr John Faust’ was originally published anonymously in Frankfurt in 1587. Boyle further says : “By a quirk of literary fate, travelling English actors soon brought to Germany a dramatic version of the life of Dr Faust which Christopher Marlowe had prepared on the basis of the original chap-book, or its English translation, and which, in popularized and decreasingly recognizable adaptations for amateur productions or puppet plays, diffused the story through the whole of the non-literate German-speaking world.” So the Faust legend was essentially German in origin.

(5)   Boyle says that Johann Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen’s ‘Adventures of the German Simplicissimus’ has one of Europe’s first tales of shipwreck on a desert island. This book published between 1668 and 1671 pre-dates ‘Robinson Crusoe’, published in 1719, by nearly fifty years. Interesting!

(6)   Friedrich Gottlied Klopstock (1724-1803) wrote short poems on love, friendship, nature and the pleasures of ice-skating 🙂 I totally want to read that!

(7)   “The term ‘aesthetics’ itself entered academic currency in 1750 as an invention of the Prussian disciple of Wolff, Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten.”

(8)   Sturm und Drang means ‘Storm and Stress’ (period between the 1760s and the 1770s which is important in German literature)

(9)   “Goethe was exceptional among 18th-century German writers, and not just in his abilities : at least as a young man, he had no need to write for money, or even to work at all. He was a true bourgeois, a member of the upper middle class of the Imperial Free City of Frankfurt. His mother was the daughter of the town clerk, his father lived on his capital, and he studied law – first at Leipzig and then at Strasbourg – more in order to occupy than to advance himself.” – The book goes on to describe other later German writers who lived similarly – they wrote not to make a living, but because they wanted to write. I don’t know why no one attempts to emulate this lifestyle today – even those who can afford to. The bourgeois lifestyle is not that bad 🙂

(10)                       Gotz von Berlichingen was one of the first consciously ‘historical’ works of imaginative literature and it was an important model for Walter Scott, who translated it.” – Wow! So Walter Scott is not really the father of the modern historical novel!

(11)                       Friedrich Schlegel first gave currency to the term ‘romantic’ as a description of post-classical literature generally, and particularly of literature that lent itself to being understood in terms of the new idealist philosophy, as an expression or exploration of subjectivity. If any one person can be said to have founded ‘Romanticism’, it is he.”

(12)                       Friedrich Hölderlin finally succumbed to schizophrenia in 1806 but by then he had had the ‘one summer…and one autumn for ripe son’ that he asked the fates to grant him.”

(13)                       Elective Affinities…structured around one of the supreme examples o the device of the unreliable narrator…” – I want to read this now! Sad though, that this line has spoiled the surprise for me.

(14)                       Some of my favourites whose works I have enjoyed – Heinrich von Kleist, E.T.A.Hoffmann, Eduard Mörike, Theodor Fontane and Theodor Storm (‘Immensee’ is one of my alltime favourites)  – are all mentioned in the book.

(15)                       Annette von Droste-Hülshoff is the first modern German woman writer mentioned in the book. I read her book ‘The Jew’s Beech’ last year and liked it. I remember just two more modern German women writers / poets mentioned in the book later – Else Lasker-Schüler and Christa Wolf. I want to read Christa Wolf’s ‘Patterns of Childhood’.

(16)                       “With none of the theological and ethical subtlety, or literary sensitivity, of his elder brother, Georg, Ludwig Büchner, the Richard Dawkins of his day, asserted the eternity of matter, the development of life out of inorganic particles, and of human beings out of lower animals, and the unscientific redundancy of an such hypotheses as God or immortality”. Ludwig Büchner said this in 1855, four years before Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’ was published. This kind of view – materialistic and atheistic – seems to have been prevalent during that time, even if within a particular section of the population, and was not necessarily propounded by Darwin for the first time.

(17)                       ‘Power protecting interiority’‘interiority protected by power’ : an inner world of art and culture could flourish provided the authoritarian, and ultimately military, structure that protected it was not questioned’ – first described by Thomas Mann, this seems to be followed in modified form by authoritarian governments today – free economy, so everyone can get rich, but no questioning the government and trying to protest against it. I don’t know whether these guys have read Thomas Mann.

(18)                       “All that was truly German – Thomas Mann said – was ‘culture, soul, freedom, art, and not civilization, society, the right to vote, and literature’, ‘Civilization’ was an Anglo-French superficiality, the illusion entertained by left-wing intellectuals generally, and Heinrich Mann in particular, that the life of the mind amounted to the political agitation and social ‘engagement’ of journalists who thought the point of writing was to change the world. Germany, by contrast, knew that ‘Art’ was a deeper affair than literary chatter, and that true freedom was not a matter of parliaments and free presses but of personal, moral, duty.” –    I am taking this passage totally out of context and so please don’t judge me because of the way I have interpreted it, but it is difficult not to agree with Thomas Mann here. Would love to know what you think about it.

(19)                       “Once the American Dawes Plan of 1924 and a huge associated loan had stabilized the German economy…” – I didn’t know that there was a Marshall Plan equivalent between the wars to help Germany economically. Interesting!

(20)                       There was a mention of Edith Cavell in the book. I haven’t heard of her and so went to Wikipedia to read more about her. This is what it said : “Edith Cavell was a British nurse and patriot. She is celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers from all sides without distinction and in helping some 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium during World War I, for which she was arrested. She was subsequently court-martialled, found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Despite international pressure for mercy, she was shot by a German firing squad. Her execution received worldwide condemnation and extensive press coverage. She is well known for her statement that “patriotism is not enough.” Her strong Anglican beliefs propelled her to help all those who needed it, both German and Allied soldiers. She was quoted as saying, “I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved”. So inspiring and so sad.

(21)                       This is what the book says about Hermann Hesse‘an author who had previously specialized either in monuments of self-pity or sugary (and not always well-written) stories…Hermann Hesse did not deny his origins but he supped German life with a long spoon…’ – Why do my favourite authors always get the short shrift?

(22)                       There is no mention of Patrick Süskind, Bernhard Schlink (I don’t know how important Schlink is in the German literary canon), Herta Müller and Hans Fallada in the book – Seriously, Mr.Boyle?

(23)                       The last chapter of the book which covers German literature post-1945, covers mostly literature which is related to the Second world war, the holocaust, the guilt and the like. I know for a fact that the German literature of this era is quite diverse and rich covering any and every topic under the sun and some of these are experimental works which rival those of other languages. None of these finds a mention in this chapter.  Seriously, Mr.Boyle?


I found Nicholas Boyle’s book quite interesting and instructive. I learnt a lot of things from it, as you can see above (I hope you enjoyed reading this non-traditional review / post). The book has led to a ‘Wishlist’ which looks like it is going to topple anytime. If you would like to explore German literature of the past two centuries, this is a wonderful place to start.


Have you read Boyle’s book? What do you think about it?

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