German Literature Recommendations – 20 German Novels You Must Read

I’m planning on writing a few posts with recommendations  for Lizzy and my upcoming German Literature Month in November. While I will give my personal recommendations in another post, I chose to follow one of the most famous German critics for the classics and modern classics.

The notorious German critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki (also called Literaturpapst aka Pope of Literature), who, for decades, made writers – praise from him would invariably lead to sales, a negative comment could ruin a career – edited a few years ago the so-called Canon of German Literature. While I don’t always agree with the foreign books he chooses to praise, I trust his judgement on German literature. Especially classics. His “Kanon der deutschen Literatur” has five parts. The first consists of 20 novels, the others are dedicated to short stories, poems, plays and essays.

As I suppose most people who will join us in November will go for novels, I chose to present Reich-Ranicki’s list of novels. There are a few I haven’t read but I got all of them and have at least read the initial pages. I think it’s a good choice and it is great that you can find German, Austrian and Swiss authors on it. I indicated whether or not the book is available in English or out of print (OOP).

  1. Johann Wolfgang Goethe: The Sorrows of Young Werther aka Die Leiden des jungen Werther (1774) Germany
  2. Johann Wolfgang Goethe: Elective Affinities aka Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809) Germany
  3. E. T. A. Hoffmann: The Devil’s Elixirs aka Die Elixiere des Teufels (1815/16) Germany
  4. Gottfried Keller: Green Henry aka  Der grüne Heinrich (1854/55) Switzerland
  5. Theodor Fontane: Frau Jenny Treibel (1892) Germany. Seems not available in English.
  6. Theodor Fontane: Effi Briest (1894/95) Germany
  7. Thomas Mann: Buddenbrooks (1901) Germany
  8. Heinrich Mann: The Blue Angel aka Professor Unrat (1905) Germany, OOP
  9. Hermann Hesse: The Prodigy aka Unterm Rad (1906) Germany
  10. Robert Musil: The Confusions of Young Törless aka Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless (1906) Austria
  11. Franz Kafka: The Trial aka Der Prozess (1914/15) Germany – Prague
  12. Thomas Mann: The Magic Mountain aka Der Zauberberg (1924) Germany
  13. Alfred Döblin: Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) Germany
  14. Joseph Roth: The Radetzky March aka Radetzkymarsch (1932) Austria
  15. Anna Seghers: The Seventh Cross aka Das siebte Kreuz (1942) Germany
  16. Heimito von Doderer: The Strudlhof Steps (The link included the translation of the first 79 pages)  aka Die Strudlhofstiege (1951) Austria. Seems not available.
  17. Wolfgang Koeppen: Pigeons on the Grass aka Tauben im Gras (1951) Germany
  18. Günter Grass: The Tin Drum aka Die Blechtrommel (1959) Germany
  19. Max Frisch: Montauk (1975) Switzerland. OOP
  20. Thomas Bernhard: Woodcutters aka Holzfällen (1984) Austria

Obviously there are authors and novels missing that I and others consider to be great, maybe in some cases greater than those included but you have to start somewhere. I think that Swiss author Robert Walser should have been mentioned. Many of my favourite authors have mostly written novellas and short stories and are therefore not included in this list. Some of them are Eduard von Keyserling, Theodor Storm, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Heinrich von Kleist, The Brothers Grimm and Arthur Schnitzler.

Be it as it may, the above mentioned list is a great starting point. The books vary a lot in style, length and themes.

My favourites are Effi Briest, The Elective AffinitiesThe Radetzky March and The Confusions of Young Törless. When it comes to Thomas Mann I liked everything but the book that impressed me the most was his Doctor Faustus, his most ambitious novel. Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull aka The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man is the most entertaining. I read a lot of Hesse. Personally I think Narziss und Goldmund aka Narcissus and Goldmund to be his best.

Did you read any of them? Which ones did you like?