Not mentioning the war…

The photo you see to the left is a little souvenir from my time in Germany, now (unbelievably) over a decade ago, and this little pennant is serving as an introduction to the next in my series of posts on my reading interests and influences. More on the pennant later…

I was introduced to German (by which I mean literature written in German, not just books from Germany) when studying the language for A-Level. We had a small class (only five people – there were six, but one girl did the test lessons at the end of the fifth year and promptly chickened out), which allowed us to discuss the books we were studying in more depth (and which even led to our finishing our A-Level revision at our teacher’s house over tea and chicken soup!). The first book we read, ‘Der Richter und sein Henker’ by the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt, was a marvellous literary crime novel and is still one of my favourite books today. Along with this novel, we read Hans Fallada’s ‘Kleiner Mann, was nun?’, Max Frisch’s play ‘Andorra’ and Brecht’s ‘Mutter Courage’, and, for me, it was a revelation that it was possible to read novels in a foreign language (albeit very slowly and with the aid of a dictionary) and enjoy them.

I read some more works in an ill-fated (and ill-advised) attempt to get into Oxford, but the next lot of reading came when I started my Bachelor’s degree at Leeds University. The first year was fairly easy (Leeds had been wonderful enough to choose most of my previous books for the first-year set-text list), so it wasn’t until the second year that I got into some new works. As well as diving further into Dürrenmatt with ‘Der Verdacht’, ‘Das Versprechen’ and his famous play ‘Der Besuch der Alten Dame’, I was also introduced to Kafka in the form of ‘Die Verwandlung’ (‘The Metamorphosis’).

On finally moving to Germany, firstly during my third year, for what was loosely described as ‘study’ (but can more truthfully be described as drinking, sleeping and playing football with the Dutch boys down the corridor), and later for work (although at that early stage, my ‘work’ consisted mainly of my giving German businessmen something to read and then getting them to chat about it in pairs), I discovered that it’s difficult to keep up a good reading regime when you don’t actually earn very much money (and have no idea where the local library is). It is to this situation that I owe the pleasure of possessing a small collection of cheap German chick-lit and a translated Agatha Christie omnibus. Ouch.

Now I work at a big university with a lovely little second-hand book shop, and it is here that I discovered my next big German author, Heinrich Böll. The Nobel prize committee did discover him in 1972, but (to be fair) I wasn’t alive then. Better late than never…

If you have been waiting patiently for me to tell you why I like German books, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed; I really can’t say. Part of my reason for reading them stems from not wanting to lose the language proficiency I had built up to a reasonably high level by the time I left in 1999 while another reason is to see life from a different perspective. Damn, didn’t want to mention it… You see, a lot of my reading has been from the twentieth century, and anyone with a passing interest in history (or just the Earth in general) will know that this period lends itself to certain themes in German lit. Whether it’s the futility of war portrayed in Remarque’s ‘Im Westen nichts neues’ (‘All Quiet on the Western Front’), the attraction of the Nazis to a struggling family man in ‘Kleiner Mann was nun?’, the difficulties of surviving the war at home in Böll’s ‘Gruppenbild mit Dame’ or the absurdity of Nazi sympathisers being able to transform themselves into solid, democratic citizens in post-war times (‘Ansichten eines Clowns’, ‘Billard um halbzehn’): it’s difficult not to mention the war…

Still, enough of that for now. Give a German book a go and you won’t regret it (and if you do, don’t blame me). Oh, you want to hear about the pennant; I’d almost forgotten about that. You see, one of my other passions is football, and I spent two seasons playing for the fourth team of my local club, making some good friends along the way. When it was finally time for me to move on and leave Germany for good, I packed up my things and walked down to the train station to get the NRW-Express to Düsseldorf airport. When I got to the platform, I found four of my team-mates who had come along to say goodbye, and one of them presented me with this pennant from our football club as a final present (in addition to the parties and barbecues we’d had as formal farewells). It now hangs just to the side of where I am writing this post as a reminder of the times I had back in Germany; perhaps as a reminder as to why I continue to read German books.

4 thoughts on “Not mentioning the war…

  1. Great associations with and memories of a place often heighten the enjoyment of books set there. I love Kafka but thought he was Czech?

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  2. Kafka was indeed Czech, but many Western parts of the country were German-speaking at the time, and many families (including his) spoke mainly German. The first time I visited Prague, in 1996, my German was much more useful than English; sadly, by my second visit in 2005, the reverse was true…

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  3. I love this post; I've been considering reading some German literature lately but have been having some trouble finding the right book, I think. I don't want anything too challenging to start off with, since I'll be attempting this on my own. I will soon be completely finished with my German courses at University and I've already spent six months there, "studying", as you so aptly put it ;)My fear now is that I will start losing the skills of the language quickly, once I'm no longer immersed in the culture and language as I have been for the last few years.Thanks so much for this post; thinking of my time in Germany brings back so many wonderful memories.Jillian

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  4. No worries 🙂 A few words of advice…1) You can read books, but it's easier to start with newspapers and magazines. Try http://www.bild.de (although simplistic and, at times, smutty by some standards) or good old 'Spiegel', the current affairs magazine at http://www.spiegel.de.2) If you have an i-Pod, you can subscribe to German news; a great way to keep up your listening skills! Either go to the i-Tunes store and subscribe to ZDF/ARD for free, or (if you have a different mp3 player) go directly to http://www.ard.de or http://www.zdf.de and follow the prompts.3) You don't have to read classic lit. to begin with – as mentioned in my post, chick lit. is also good for language skills…4) … but the best way to keep up your skills (and improve your vocabulary) is by watching German soaps! I swear this is how my German got from average to good 🙂 Search for 'Gute Zeiten, Schlechte Zeiten', 'Marienhof' or 'Unter Uns' on the internet to see if you can download it for free anywhere!

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