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?

76 thoughts on “German Literature Recommendations – 20 German Novels You Must Read

  1. I LOVE Felix Krull. However, when I sent it to someone for a reading event he hated it, possibly because it does not translate well; my fellow blogger actually called it drivel!

    My favourite on your list, or rather MRR’s list, would be The prodigy. I think that was excellent. Btw, I also know the book by another English title which comes closer to the German “Beneath the wheel”.

    Berlin Alexanderplatz was a school read for us and I found it incredibly boring.

    • I’m so glad to find someone else who likes Felix Krull as much as I did. I think Felix Krull is not known well enough. At least not outside of German speaking countries. Maybe it was the translation or because it’s not finished? I would have loved to go on reading it. I think The Prodigy is the newer title. Beneath the Wheel is better, I agree.
      Berlin Alexanderplatz isn’t an ideal school read. Many of the titles on the list were school reads for me. Frau Jenny Treibel and Die Leiden des jungen Werther and Radetzkymarch. I’m glad I liked them anyway. Although, that’s not true, I was not keen on Frau Jenny Treibel at the time.

      • With Felix Krull it was mostly the tangents that he went off on. I agree, that when it ended (rather abruptly and in the middle of the story) I would have loved to read on and on.
        I read a few more on the list but none of them I would like to re-read again for the German lit month.

        • German Literature is such a vast field, by picking only 20 titles he didn’t cover all that much, there is no need to re-read. But I’l looking forward to re-read Effi Briest.

  2. I considered Berlin Alexanderplatz (have a copy here) but thought it was too long for this project. I also considered The Confusions of Young Torless (both made into films so I was tempted).

    Loved Effi Briest & The Tin Drum. Yes I’ve seen those films too.

    • The Confusions of Young Törless is quite short. I liked The Tin Drum as well. The book and the movie but I preferred the book. I never watched Effi Briest. As much as I like Fassbinder, I didn’t picture Effi to look like Hanna Schygulla although I think she is a fantastic actress. I really think you would like Felix Krull. I saw Berlin Alexanderplatz in parts. It’s a mini-series, no?

  3. I haven’t read much German Literature but I’ve read a lot of Kafka, some Mann but not Doctor Faustus which I’d like to try to read for November and I’ve read Siddartha by Hermann Hesse . I want to read Effi Briest and The Radetzky March.
    Thank you for posting this list!

    • You are welcome. I’m glad it’s useful. Doctor Faustus is stunning. It’s about such a lot. Music, Nazism, Artists, the legend of Faust… Radetzkymarch and Effi Briest are fantastic. He has also written a book about Doctor Faustus where he explains that it is to a large extent about the war.
      I liked Siddharta a lot. All three novels that he considered to be a sort of trilogy, Demian, Siddharta and Steppenwolf. The Prodigy is quite wonderful as well. I need to re-read some of his books. Many critics consider the Glass Bead Game to be the best.

  4. Ah, good old Marcel 🙂 It’s amazing that one man has the energy to do all that, and even more amazing that he can get everyone to trust his judgement!

    It’s true that a lot of good stuff in German is too short to appear on that list – a lot of my favourites so far have been novellas.

    I’m currently reading ‘Die Elixiere des Teufels’ (not for the German Literature Month, but for another event!), and I have a few of the others on the list at home too. My favourite of those I’ve read so far would probably be ‘Buddenbrooks’, a nice monster of a novel 🙂

    • After I read his autobiography I started to like him much better. And it was nice to see that heapplied what he was preaching.
      The section on novellas and short stories contains 180 titles. Bit too long to share and hard to find the English titles but the list is excellent.
      I didn’t like how he destroyed some writers’ career with one short mean sentence.
      Doctor Faustus is even more of a monster but Buddenbrooks is due for a re-read. I’ve read Die Elixiere des Teufels a long time ago, I got a nice edition of Hoffmann’s collected works in old German typeset from my grandmother. Hard to read until you get into it.

  5. Thanks for the recommendations. I’ve only read 1 & 11. You know I’ve aleady made my choices for November. I’ve added the Urs Widmer you reviewed.

    I’ll make a link under the Germany section of my EU Book Tour.

  6. Wonderful list, Caroline! I love ‘Narcissus and Goldmund’ too – it is so beautiful! I read ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ a few years back and I liked it for Goethe’s beautiful prose, though the story was sad. I have two books of Thomas Mann in my collection – ‘Death in Venice’ and ‘The Magic Mountain’ – but I haven’t read either of them. I am hoping to read ‘Death in Venice’ during German Literature Month. I didn’t know that Thomas Mann wrote ‘Doctor Faustus’! That is really interesting! It will be interesting to read his book and compare it with Goethe’s ‘Faust’ and Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’. I tried reading Günter Grass’ ‘The Tin Drum’ many years back but gave it up after a while. Maybe I should try reading it again. One interesting thing I noticed in Marcel Reich-Ranicki’s list is that there is not a single woman novelist. Is there a reason for that?

    Thanks for the suggestions, Caroline! I am adding all these books to my ‘TBR’ list.

    • Thanks, Vishy. Yes, the women… I did notice. There are some in the novellas and poems sections but there really aren’t all that many who wrote novels before the 2oth century. It isn’t entirely his fault.
      I was planning on doing a post on female writers for this reason many, all too many, have not bee translated.
      The comparisons with goethe’s and marlowe’s Faust are important, and it’s another layer in an altready complex project. You can’t go wrong with either Zauberberg or Death in Venice. I enjoyed The Tin Drum but I know people who couldn’t finish it.
      I love Narcissus and Goldmund and also have a very old edition in Gothic script from my grandmother.
      Werther is incredibly sad but beautiful as well.

        • Sophie von la Roche is the only novelist and I wanted to read her for November. 18th century.
          The others are no novelists. I have a novel on the life of Lena Christ. There are a lot in the 20th and 21st century but not for the 19th…

            • Of course – how unperceptive was that – as we would say in German “Ich sah den Wald vor lauter Bäumen nicht mehr” – and I like “Das siebte Kreuz” and her stories. I was looking for books by Christa Wolf in English but many of those I like seem not translated or out of print. Hard to say. “Kein Ort. Nirgends” for example or “Kassandra”. “Kein Ort. Nirgends” describes an imaginary meeting of the two famous German suicides Karoline von Günderrode and Heinrich von Kleist. Or “Der geteilte Himmel”. Not well written but interesting.
              I consider Ingeborg Bachmann to be one of the best and she is a great poet, short story writer and noevlist.
              But there are a lot Vanderbeke, Gruenter, Rinser, Kaschnitz, Aichinger all as good as Wolf. …
              But you must admit – one woman isn’t a lot. There are really not many females novelists in the 19th or before. There is Johanna Spyri, the Swiss author of “Heidi” … Of course he would choose Anna Seghers… Anything related to WWII – Holocaust always got his attention.

              • I’m just poking around at Amazon, but Cassandra is in print, as is Kein Ort. Nirgends, which has been titled No Place on Earth.

                I agree – there are few significant German-language female writers until – I don’t know when. Sometime in the 20th century. Novelists or otherwise. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff in the 19th century, and then do I have to go as far back as Hildegard von Bingen?

                And as you note, the lack of English translations of the more recent writers is disgraceful. Maybe the success of Jenny Erpenbeck will get a publisher’s attention.

                • I seem to be doing this wrong, my amazon searches. Thanks for looking. I will recommend Kein Ort. Nirgends. It opens up three doors at the same time Günderrode and Kleist and Wolf.
                  I have no idea why the more recent writers are not translated. And those who are aren’t necessarily the better ones.
                  You who are so lucky with your searches… One of my favourite writers is Eduard von Keyserling 19th. He is similar to Fontane. It looks as if only one of his books had been translated but is out of print. “Wellen” is such a great book.

      • Looking forward to reading your post on German women writers, Caroline. I enjoyed reading the conversation in the comments section on German women writers – so many new discoveries for me and so many new additions to my ‘TBR’ list 🙂

        It is wonderful that you have an edition of ‘Narcissus and Goldmund’ in Gothic script, gifted by your grandmother. That is really a wonderful treasure. If possible, do post a picture of it, sometime, on your blog. It will be nice to see it.

        • Thanks, Vishy, I already started to compile names. I just found an anthology with 30 short stories of German women writers of the 20th century. I will read it but already introduce some before. An event like this is risky. The TBR piles always grow.
          I will try and post a picture of the Hesse. I got a nice one of the E.T.A. Hoffmann but it needs a close up or you can’t see the script.

  7. I’m surprised not to see any Kleist on the list. Or any Heinrich Boll, but I guess there are always people left off. I’ve read something by the majority of authors on that list, but very rarely the book mentioned! I still have my copy of Narziss und Goldmund awaiting me. I really do want to read it! Just could use a few more hours in the day right now…

    • You are right, Kleist needs to be included but strictly speaking he isn’t a novelist. He is included in the section containing the short stories and the novellas. Not everyone considers Böll to be great. He, like Zweig, is considered to be too sentimental, in Germany. They are both emotional writers. The same was the case for Fallada until he has been discovered in the English-speaking world. Now some of his books are reissued and rediscovered and show a gritty side.
      Oh yes, a few more hours would be so nice.

  8. These are the books on the list that I have already read:
    “Die Leiden des jungen Werther”, “Der Prozess”, “Der Zauberberg”, “Die Blechtrommel” and “Holzfällen” – all of them in Norwegian translation.
    They are all fantastic books! Incomparable. But I guess, if I was to choose one, it would be “Der Zauberberg”.
    I also read Hermann Hesse’s “Demian” some years ago, very strange,very interesting.

    • I haven’t read Holzfällen yet but the other are al so good. Out of those you have read I would also choose Zauberberg. I think you would like Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless and Effi Briest a lot, also Radetzkymarsch, I’m sure. I think Norwegian should be closer to German than English.
      Demian and Steppenwolf are both strange, quite dark as well. At least Steppenwolf.

      • Yes, German and Norwegian are more similar languages. I do understand basic German, but not yet enough to have a full appreciation of a literary work.
        Thank you for your suggestions!
        I just received Ingeborg Bachmann’s “Simultan”. Have you read it? Maybe I’ll also choose her book for my German Literature Month …

        • In the post on women writers I’m planning on doing there I will especially mention Ingeborg Bachmann. For me she is truly one of the greatest as a poet, novelist and short story writer. He poems are among the most powerful I know. I’m not sure about “Simultan” but it is possible I read a lot of her work. It would be wonderful if you could review her.

  9. Hi Sigrun, I’ve read Simultan, it’s good, though quite depressing. The most popular of the 5 stories is 3 Wege zum See, which ties up very nicely with The Radetzsky March by Roth (No.14 above). It was actually the first Bachmann book I had read (having been scared off Malina!), although I do love her poetry.

    • Thanks for your comment, I hope Sigrun sees it. I’m very interested by what you write about Simultan and that one story is close to Roth. I read many of her stories but I don’t think I read that collection. I like her poems poems and Malina a lot. I’m not sure whether Simultan is part of the Todesartenzyklus.

  10. Thank you Katie. My English version of “Simultan” is actually called “Three Paths to the Lake”. I imagine it can be depressing, maybe it’s best read in small portions, like a story a week …?

  11. I Like this list. I’ve read 8 out of 20. It would be easy to add twenty more. Both Bernhard and Musil wrote other books that could make the list. Ingeborg Bachmann, Stefan Zweig, Vicki Baum (Grand Hotel), and Irmgard Keun. ‘Alone in Berlin’ by Hans Fallada surely qualifies.

    • I absolutely agree with you. I’m a huge Ingeborg Bachmann and Imgrad Keun fan, btw. I’ll be writing about both of them during our German Literature Month. Stefan Zweig, of course as well. I have never read Vicki Baum although I always want to.
      Wouldn’t you like to join?

    • Thanks very much for sharing the links.
      I can not include them in the German Literature Month (or I would end up being flooded by people’s older posts) but they may give people new ideas.
      It would be nice if you could join but if it isn’t feasible… I understand.

  12. I started the Tin Drum as a teenager, but didn’t finish it. That means I’ve read I think 0.5 out of 20. Must try harder.

    That said, I have at least read a few of these authors. Not many though. Thanks for this Caroline. I’ve printed it off and will be looking at it in a lot more detail.

    • You are welcome, Max, I think it is a valuable list. I couldn’t think of any book that isn’t good but some of the authors have written more than one excellent book.
      The Tin Drum is not very accessible, I was a bit older when I read it but then I just devoured it. And so much better than the movie.
      I would love to read Die Strudelhofstiege but it’s so long.

  13. Thanks for the great list. The most intriguing title to me is “Green Henry.” As far as my favorite German writers, so far they are Heinrich von Kleist and E. T. A. Hoffmann, particularly “The Marquise of O–” (Kleist) and “Collected Tales” (Hoffmann). The early investigation of the marquise’s odd psychological ellision of reality is very gripping, and the Electra-esque picture of her sitting on her father’s lap pre-dates Freud.

    • You’re welcome. I’m a huge E.t:A. Hoffmann fan, Kleist is hard to read in the oroginal German, the translations make him smoother but his topics are very interesting. It’s a pity that there are a lot of great writers who are not translated though.

  14. I’ve read Buddenbrooks; The Trial; The Magic Mountain; The Radetsky March and The Tin Drum. It would be hard to choose a favourite. They are all great. The only one I’ve read recently is The Radetsky March which I reviewed last year. I’ve been planning to reread The Magic Mountain for some time but it’s quite a daunting undertaking.
    I’ve really enjoyed the Heinrich Böll books I’ve read and am surprised he hasn’t made the list. W.G. Sebald is also a favourite of mine.
    I may add this to my collection of lists – there’s lots here to explore.

    • Reich Ranicki doesn’t like Böll. He finds him too sentimental and maybe too Catholic? He is one of my favourite authors and I think it’s not justified but critics are wrong too.
      I wanted to read either Berlin Alexanderplatz or another bigger novle this year but I have not enough time.
      Still the list is great, a perfect starting point.

  15. Pingback: German Literature Recommendations II – 89 Novella and Short Story Writers You Should Read « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  16. As a starting point, that’s an excellent list. With the exception of “Jenny Treibel” I have read all these books and there wasn’t one that wasn’t worth it.

    However, I like Hoffmann’s “Murr” more than the “Devil’s Elixirs”, I would have chosen “Der Untertan” by Heinrich Mann which I treasure even more than “The Blue Angel”, “Stiller” is in my opinion the Max Frisch novel that is even more important than “Montauk”, “Extinction” is the masterpiece which you should read first when you want to discover Thomas Bernhard, and my favorite novel of Anna Seghers is “Transit”. This is all a matter of taste I admit and I don’t want to diminish MRRs list.

    My only real complaint about the list is that some authors MRR obviously hated personally are missing: Elias Canetti’s “Auto-da-fe” definitely belongs here. It is also a pity that Robert Walser is missing as well as Hermann Broch (“The Sleepwalkers”). The strange and beautiful novels of Hans Henny Jahnn are also missing. And there is almost no contemporary literature. I would have chosen at least two or three contemporary novels, such as Herta Mueller’s “The Hunger Angel”, or “The Collector of the Worlds” by Ilija Trojanow (to name just a few examples). I wouldn’t have expected to find Joerg Fauser’s “Rohstoff” on the list, but it happens to be my favorite German novel of the last decades. W.G. Sebald should also be on the list and Clemens Meyer and and and…but I know these are far too many for such a short list!

    In general I would like to say that you do an excellent job with your blog. Keep up with the good work!

    If you would like to have a look at my own (new) blog:

    • Hi and thanks for visiting.
      Lists are always debatable. Many favourites or even better works are missing. He did another much longer list in which he included short stories and novellas and a few of the authors you like – Walser for example – are on that list.
      But I’m grateful for your additions, I always like to have a look at what others recommend. I have read fauser but not Rohstoff. I’ll try to remedy that. And I’ve still not read Clemens Meyer.
      Thanks for the kind words. I’ll visist as soon as possible.

  17. your mentioned that you would make a separate blog post with German short stories. I can’t seem to find it on your blog. Could you send me the link? My son’s second language is German and I’m looking for something appropriate for a teenager to read and write a synopsis of in German. if you have a specific recommendation for me I’d appreciate that as well. Thanks

    • Hi Anna, I’m not sure I wanted to do that (or maybe I did in a comment) but I certainly mentioned that Reich-Ranicki made another list.
      The thing is – it’s very hard to find short story titles in English. But it seems your son has to read it in German, right?
      Here is the comple list in German.

  18. I have decided to read The Black Swan by Thomas Mann, and The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (which I was so impressed with I ordered a copy for my mother for Christmas) and Stephan Zweig’s Letter From An Unknown Woman. But, I do want to read Buddenbrooks from your list, and The Magic Mountain. Perhaps we could extend into December? 😉

    • Now you are giving me ideas! I haven’t read Bonhoeffer.
      The Buddenbrooks are longish. The Magic Mountain even more so. I wanted to read it this year.
      Yes, one could easily extend ito December. I think Lizzy always does. 🙂

  19. What an extremely useful list. Something to bookmark and come back to next time I’m wondering what to read next. I used to read Bonhoeffer years ago, but I only know him as a theologian not a novelist! The Cost of Discipleship is his most well-known work and is born out of his experience living as a Christian pastor in Nazi Germany.

  20. P.S. No Robert Walser in your list? Ah, but then we all have our favourites don’t we and I don’t expect anyone else to share mine

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