Initiating German Literature Month or 14 German Women Writers You Shouldn’t Miss

Welcome to German Literature Month or Herzlich Willkommen zum Monat der deutschsprachigen Literatur 

I thought it might be a good idea to start German Literature Month with a post that I had promised to write on some of the most important women writers of German language. German literature is often perceived as being dominated by men.

As you know the first week of German Literature Month is dedicated to German literature. The second will be focussing on crime novels, the third on Austrian and Swiss writers, week number four is Kleist and/or classics week and during the last days of the event you can do as you please. Maybe those who don’t know what to read yet, will find something in the list below.

I’m reading an excellent anthology right now which is called Wenn die Worte fliegen  (When words take flight). The book is out of print but cheap used copies can be ordered. It’s a compilation of 30 German women writers and poets. Some of them have written books I like a lot. I was quite excited and thought it would be great to pick 20 of them and introduce their writing but when I started looking them up, I saw that it was pointless. Not even 50% of them have been translated. Maybe some of you would have been interested anyway, especially those who read German, but for the others it’s a bit pointless. The book focuses mainly on writers of the 20th century and that is no coincidence. There are not a lot of women writers before that.

Finally I decided to introduce 11 writers who have been translated into English – with the exception of Lena Christ and Brigitte Reimann – and to add three earlier authors.

When I was reading the compilation I found it interesting to see how the topic’s change. I think you can find four main currents. Before WWII – war literature – post-war and finally post-wall literature. We shouldn’t forget that until 1989, there were not three countries producing literature written in German, but four. The literature and authors of the Former Democratic Republic of Germany (ex DDR) are quite unique. Their choice of themes is different from the West, they are often far more political and they didn’t have the same freedom of expression. Their books circle around topics that are important for them, like living in a communist state. Their characters question their country and it’s politics, many books describe people who are tempted to leave or who leave.

Sophie von La Roche’s (Germany 1730 – 1807) Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim. Von einer Freundin derselben aus Original-Papieren und andern zuverläßigen Quellen gezogen (1771)  aka The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim: Extracted by a Woman Friend of the Same is the first German novel by a woman and as such foundational. It was very successful and widely read, although, it seems, very often misunderstood. Von La Roche, who was the grandmother of Bettina and Clemens Brentano, always had an educational aim when she wrote. He writing belongs to the Enlightenment and Sentimentalist (Empfindsamkeit) movement, a precursor of romanticism.

Annette von Droste-Hülshoff ‘s (Germany 1797 – 1848) Die Judenbuche  – The Jew’s Beech (1842) is very mysterious, eerie and highly readable. It is an early crime story and has also a very Gothic feel. Droste-Hülshoff however marks the transition between romanticism and realism. When I read this book I was surprised how well-written and truly suspenseful it is. Here is an online version The Jew’s Beech.

Johanna Spyri (Switzerland 1827 – 1901). Her most famous work Heidi (1880) is also one of the most famous Swiss novels and one of the most famous children’s books. It’s the tale of the little orphan girl Heidi who has to live with her cold and distant grandfather, high in the Swiss mountains. This is a tear-jerker that has also been made into movies and TV series. It’s still widely read to children in Switzerland and Germany. I might not have included it, if it hadn’t been so difficult to find another Swiss author who has been translated. For those who read German I would like to recommend the novels of Eveline Hasler. In each one of them she explores the life of a famous woman. Her style is noteworthy and the stories are thought-provoking. Here are links to German books. Anna Göldin. Letzte Hexe, Die Wachsflügelfrau. Geschichte der Emily Kempin-Spyri.

Lena Christ (Germany 1981-1920). Lena Christ was a successful writer but is best known for her autobiographical novel Erinnerungen einer Überflüssigen (Memoir of a superfluous woman). Her books have not been translated but I found this interesting analysis of her work and the works  of authors like Asta Scheib that are based on her life: The Passion of Lena Christ. Lena Christ’s story is famous because it is so tragic. It’s the story of a toxic mother-daughter relationship that ultimately seems to have killed the daughter. Lena Christ committed suicide in 1920. Reading her book is very painful. It’s the story of a sensitive and emotional girl who was crushed by a mean domineering mother.

Anna Seghers (Germany – German Democratic Republic 1900- 1983) This is one of Germany’s most accomplished writers. Her writing during and after the war circles around Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Seghers was Jewish and fled from Germany. She lived in the Caribbean for a while. Later she settled in the DDR and wrote novels with a distinct socialist theme. Her most famous book Das siebte Kreuz aka The Seventh Cross is a must-read. One of the best books on Nazi Germany. Her short-stories are outstanding as well.

Irmgard Keun (Germany 1905 – 1982). Irmgard Keun’s novels are as interesting as her life. She entered the literary scene early with The Artificial Silk Girl that was a huge success (not her first novel but her biggest success). When the Nazi’s came to power her books were banned and she fled from Germany. After Midnight captures the mood of pre-war Germany like no other. Prone to drinking and self-delusion she often spent long stretches in psychiatric hospitals. The last twenty years of her life she didn’t write anymore and just vegetated in a home. I love the voices of her heroines who capture the pre-war atmosphere and uncover the most terrible things with utter naiveté.

Marlen Haushofer (Austria 1920-1970) has written a few novels but the one that really stands out is The Wall. I have read this book a long time ago but it is still haunting me. This is such a powerful story and I would like to recommend it to all of you who haven’t read it yet. It’s been called dystopian or feminist ecological and whatever not. All wrong. This is an absolutely uncanny look into the frailty of human existence. The protagonist wakes up one morning to find herself totally isolated from any other human being and separated from the rest of the world by an invisible wall. She struggles hard to survive. She isn’t completely alone, she has her animals, one of them a dog. It’s fascinating to see how resourceful she is and after a while her life seems almost normal until the day she senses someone else’s presence…

Ingeborg Bachmann (Austria 1926 – 1973). Bachmann is one of the most interesting German writers. There is nothing she couldn’t write marvellously well. Poems, short stories, a novel. They all contain a rare and savage beauty, something raw and refined at the same time. Her only novel Malina aka Malina (German), which is part of the Todeasartenzyklus (The Cycle of Manners of Death), contains a very uncanny element. I’m not going to reveal it but if you read it and read her biography you will see what I mean. Her books circle around death and different ways of dying. It’s eerie to know that she died a particularly strange death. She was smoking in her bed in Rome and because of the high amount of pain killers she took, she burned alive without realizing it.

Brigitte Reimann (German Democratic Republic 1933 – 1973). If I had studied German literature and had to choose a research topic it would have been her. If I had studied psychology, I would have chosen her as well. Reimann was an amazing woman. She wrote a few novels that are highly engaging, although flawed. I know of no ex DDR writer who was so much in favour of her country and still managed to analyze it in-depth, to show the difficulties, the contradictions. On the other hand she was an excessive woman and an addict like no other. She had probably more lovers than any other writer ever, was married at least four times. She drank excessively and smoked too much. She was only 40 when she died of cancer. What makes her so fascinating is that she kept a diary and reading it is mind-boggling. This was such an intelligent and intellectual woman, yet she didn’t get how unfree she was, unfree through the state she lived in and through her way of life. Her life has been made into an interesting TV movie starring beautiful Martina Gedeck Hunger auf Leben (not sub-titled).

Christa Wolf (German Democratic Republic – Germany 1929 –  ). She doesn’t need a lot of introducing as she is probably one of the best know German women writers. Her oeuvre is interesting and captivating. Some of the early books are easily readable and so are her short stories. Some are complex and almost experimental. I couldn’t recommend one single book as she has written so many and in so many different styles that I would need to know someone to know which one to pick. I personally like No Place on Earth aka Kein Ort. Nirgends that explores the tragic lives of Karoline von Günderrode and Heinrich von Kleist but I would also recommend her Cassandra aka Kassandra which stunned me and her more famous ones A Model Childhood aka Kindheitsmuster and The Quest for Christa T. aka Nachdenken über Christa T.

Monika Maron (German Democratic Republic – Germany 1941 – ) Like Christa Wolf, Monika Maron was born in the former German Democratic Republic and many of the novels she wrote circle around themes related to her home country. Flugasche aka Flight of Ashes is one of the most famous ones and tells the story of a journalist uncovering the environmental pollution stemming from a coal-fired power pant. I like Maron’s later novels a lot. They all explore the inner lives of women and are very subtle and engaging. However they are not translated with the exception of Pavel’s Letters that I haven’t read yet.

Elfriede Jelinek (Austria 1946 – ) Nobel Prize winner.  The Piano Teacher aka Die Klavierspielerin is an unpleasant book. It’s fantastic but I didn’t like it. The story of the piano teacher whose dominant and dysfunctional mother crushes her and turns her into a being torn between masochism and sadism and who tries frantically to repress her own sexuality, is hard to take.

Herta Müller (Romanian born German 1953 – ) Nobel Prize winner. Being awarded the Nobel Prize seems to help you getting published. Most of Herta Müller’s books are available in English. I’m puzzled about the English titles.  The Land of Green Plums  aka Herztier (Heartanimal) The Appointment – Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet (I would have preferred not to meet myself today), The Passport aka Der Mensch ist ein grosser Fasan auf der Welt (Man is a large pheasant in the world). Herta Müller was born in Romania and her novels all explore life under a communist regime. She wrote novels, poems and essays that all deal with the aftermath of terror, violence and cruelty.

Judith Herrmann (Germany 1970 – ). If you would like to read a contemporary author who has so far refrained from writing about WWII or history in general but prefers to explore her characters interior lives and how they are rooted in our contemporary society, then you should read Judith Hermann. I’ve hardly been as impressed by a collection of short stories as by her Summerhouse, later. She has since written another collection Nothing but Ghosts and a novel Alice. This is contemporary German writing at its best. Poignant and poetical.

I could add a lot of other names. Especially in the last few years there have been a lot of new voices, some of them great. Lizzy will focus more on newer books and will also review the one or the other younger author, like Alina Bronsky.

Please, don’t forget to leave a comment with a link, should you have written a post and also hop over to Lizzy who starts German Literature Month with The Magic Mountain of German Literature.

All the posts will be compiled in the German Literature Month November 2011 Participants – Links – Giveaways Page

55 thoughts on “Initiating German Literature Month or 14 German Women Writers You Shouldn’t Miss

  1. I remember the four years of my German degree during which I read not a single women author. That’s right – not one. (Times have changed now ….) Your post will help me fill in the blanks.

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  4. This is a great post. Thanks to the German Literature Month I’ve already got a small stack of books by German authors that I’ve begun to read and enjoy – but the authors are all men. So a list of worthwhile women writers is very welcome. Much inspiration here!
    But first, I’m off to begin “Effi Briest” for the readalong.

    • Thanks Eibhlin. I hope you will find and enjoy many more. In recent years there are a lot of great new women writers (Karen Duve, Julia Franck, Alina Bronsky, Inka Parei, Terezia Mora) but people hardly know the older ones. Since Lizzy will review more new books, i thought it might be good to tell about the older ones.
      I’m almost finsihed with re-reading Effi Bries. It’s such a wonderful book.

    • Thansk Litlove. i think someone said jokingly not long ago that it started to turn into a German Literature Year.
      I hope you will find a few books that tempt and interest you.

  5. I have been meaning to read Christa Wolf for so long – especially Cassandra, which has been highly recommended to me. This month would be the perfect excuse to finally get to it! I’m on a book buying ban, but I can find it (or another one of her books) via the library soon I’m certainly join in.

  6. I read a couple by Lena Christ for my German Lit. Month (plus the, in my opinion, slightly-overrated ‘Die Judenbuche’), but that’s pretty much it for female writers. I’ve long wanted to read something by Christa Wolf, and Herta Müller also sounds interesting.

    Sigh, too many books…

    • I’ll have to have a look at your Lena Christ reviews.
      I don’t think The Jews’s Beech is overrarted. i think it’s a great book and interesting for various reasons. the theme of the Jews made me feel slightly unfomfortable and so did a story in my anthology by Ricarda Huch called Das Judengrab. Very uncanny to read that with hindsight.

  7. Thanks for taking the time to write this. I have the Sophie von La Roche and Keun’s After Midnight. Tried one Herta Muller and couldn’t finish it. I’m going to look at Reimann, Hermann and Wolf closely.

    • You are welcome Guy. Herta Müller is not for me either. She and Jelinek are too cruel for my taste. Reimann and Lena Christ have not been translated yet. I included them because I hope they will be one day. Maybe I will have to do it…
      Judith Hermann is great.
      Here are a few other contemporaray authors you might like
      Terezia Mora. Alina Bronsky and Karen Duve.
      I think Lizzy will review some of them. I opted for the older ones as I thought they shouldn’t be forgotten.
      Monika Maron’s DDR books are very good. Impressive.

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    • Hello Peggy, thank you so much for the kind words and for promoting German Literature Month.
      Just let me know if you should make up your mind and participate, I’ll add your link.

  9. Wonderful post, Caroline! Thanks for introducing us to some wonderful German women writers. I liked very much the fact that you have introduced so many German Democratic Republic writers to us. I want to explore some of them. I will add ‘The Jew’s Beech’ and ‘The Wall’ to my ‘TBR’ list. I will also bookmark this page and come back for more, later. I also want to read Judith Hermann. She sounds so wonderful from your description. I watched the movie version of ‘The Piano Teacher’ sometime back and it was pretty tough to watch. I can imagine how the book will be. I remember going on a ‘Heidi trek’ when I visited Switzerland many years back – we were taken to Heidi’s grandfather’s winter home on the foothills of the mountain and his summer home in the mountains and it was wonderful to be there. The guide told us that Heidi’s story is based on that of a real girl who lived there. The trekking trail was so beautiful and the location of the summer home in the middle of a meadow was wonderful. I think that meadow was the most beautiful place in the world, for me 🙂

    I have started German literature month in earnest, by reading short stories by German masters. I have finished nine stories till now and loved most of them.

    Happy German Literature Month! Happy Reading!

    • Thanks so much Vishy. I’m glad you are enjoying what you read so far.
      I like the literature of the former German Democratic Republic because they don’t shy away from “big themes”. How to life right, how much power should the state have, what is morally acceptable, eclogy…. and many more. There was huge so-called Ostalgie / (probably best translated as Eastalgia) wave in Germany, many from the former Republic thinking back in a fond way. they felt sheltered and secure. That is looked at in those books as well.
      Judith Hermann was one of my biggest discoveries.
      I’m looking forward to your reviews.
      I’m not too fond of mountains when I’m in a valley because it’s so dark but up there on the alpine pastures it’s very beautiful, I agree.
      I was very impressed by Heidi as a little girl.

  10. Thanks so much for this.

    The next I’m reading is The Passport by Herta Müller. (Well, in French, the title is the same as in German, Man Is a Large Pheasant in the World) Fortunately it’s short, it’s not a good sign at all that neither Guy or you enjoy her books. We’ll see.

  11. What a great post!
    Thank you for linking to “The Passion of Lena Christ”.
    I have read the “Wall” – its fantastic, and I would love to read it again. I have read some Bachman, and will read more this month. I have also read the Herrmann-books, and prefer “Summerhouse, later” to the other.
    Last year I read and reviewed a fantastic book on Jelinek by a Norwegian author called Elisabeth Halvorsen, her biography on Jelinek is funny, sharp and inventive – but unfortunately not translated.

    ps: We do actually still read Johanna Spyri’s “Heidi” for our kids in Norway.

    • Thank you, Sigrun.
      I thought there might be others who would like to read the Passion of Lena Christ. I started reading it and found it very interesting. I alos got the book by Asta Scheib. Maybe her books are available in Norwegina. Brigitte Reimann, maybe.
      I need to re-eard The Wall, it’s such an impressive book.
      The Jelinke biography sounds intriguing. Too bad it’s not available in translation. Heidi is read in Norway too? It’s a nice story, although I think it made me very sad as a child.

        • The German book market is big and diverse. I’m amazed about all the translations and the German writers as well. I started learning Swedish this year made nice progress and then I was put on a huge project at work and have no more energy to learn in the mornings.
          I have this fixation to read Scandinavian books in the original language.

  12. wow…your knowledge in authors is amazing. I don’t know that many authors in my life. Thank you for sharing them.

    It’s november, I better print my book from you this week. Can’t read long story using computer

  13. Hello Caroline, thank you for reminding me about my post on Dark Matter by Juli Zeh today. I was actually considering reading a classic German literature book but I think I may pick one from your selection above as I have a particular interesting in reading literature by women and I have to confess I only knew of Herta Müller. Wonderful post!

    • Hi Sakura, thanks, I’m glad you like the post. I hope you will find something you will like.I hope you didn’t mind my comment… I thought it would be a missed opportunity and I think it’ s a great book from what I read. I did add your link on the page.

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  15. This is a wonderful list–almost all the authors are new to me. I actually read The Piano Teacher years ago, but now I am convinced it probably went straight over my head! I not so long ago bought Christa Wolf’s The Quest for Christa T. And serendipitously I pulled one of Ingeborg Bachmann’s books from the library’s shelves this week when I was in the German lit section looking for the Böll book. It is still on my desk at work, but I think it was a memoir. We have Malina but only the German edition. I am sure my reading will be all over the place this month, but I hope to read a book from (almost anyway) each category, but probably will finish them all towards the end of the month. I’d love to try Herta Muller–do you think she is awfully challenging? Or maybe I am unnecessarily intimidated by certain authors.

    • Emma hated Herta Müller. And another reviewer stated that she didn’t like it but was glad she read it. I started stories and .. No, she isn’t challenging but soo depressing.
      I would urge you to read The Wall. It’s fantastic. And of course Annette von Droste Hülshoff. Bachmann is challenging. Her short stories less but Malina is and so is most of Christa Wolf. But certainly not too challenging for you.
      The Wall is what i would choose for you and everything by Judith Hermann.

  16. The only writing I’m aware of on this list is Herta Muller, which is seriously remiss of me 7 something i need to look into, thanks for this place to start. You’re probably aware of this but if not here is Belletrista –
    a not-for-profit, bimonthly web magazine which seeks both to encourage cross-cultural understanding through international literature written by women and to increase the visibility of that literature.

    got this from Rise’s site.

    • Thank you so much, Parrish, I wasn’t aware of Belletrista, I’ll have to have a look.
      Maybe even contribute? Who knows. I think here is some serious promoting needed as I went over my shelves with some of my favourite women writers and they were all not even translated.
      I hope you will find some book/authors you will like. I could imagine you might like Christa Wolf and Ingeborg Bachmann. Some people think they are not accessible as their writing is poetical prose. Bachmann’s poems are fantastic.

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  18. Pingback: Review: After Midnight – Irmgard Keun « A Common Reader

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  21. Well, I just discovered you all and like to become part of your literary conquest.
    I live in the USA,. I’m a reader of all kinds of books. I read in German and finally with more understanding English. Ich moechte gerner buecher geschrieben by German women lesen. I left Germany in 1964 and felt like I was cut off off the German literature from than on. I started reading everything in the American literature, even went to a college Widener College in Pennsylvania. But german literature was hard to get here at that time.
    What do you all suggest I read first?
    Herzliche Gruesse

    • Hallo Hildegard. It depends on what you like, there is a lot of wonderful fiction by German authors available at the moment.
      Julia Franck might be a good starting point and Judith Herrman,
      If you read German, there really are not limits.
      I like Monika Maron a lot and Keto von Waberer, Birgit Vanderbeke and Undine Gruenter.
      There is also some great German crime. Charlotte Link, Nele Neuhaus, Petra Hammesfahr, Ingrid Noll.
      I hope you will find a lot of great books.

  22. Pingback: German Women Writers – A Few More Suggestions | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  23. Pingback: German Literature Month – Summerhouse, Later by Judith Hermann (Translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo) | Vishy's Blog

  24. Brilliant post! I’ve book-marked it for future reference as I realised that the only German women writers I’ve read or even could name have been children’s authors I’ve read to my children. Time to change that I feel. I may not manage it for this month, but I shall make it my mission to have rectified the situation for next year!

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