Sunday, January 13, 2013

German Book 1

Nicholas Boyle - German Literature: A Very Short Introduction (2008)

It would have been nice if my first post about a German book had been about, well, a German book.  This one is by a British author, from a British press, with British spelling, using British pagination - it's turtles all the way down.  But when starting my project I had forgotten about this book and it seems appropriate.  The library also had another not-very-short introduction (well they're calling it a "companion") to German lit so that will be included too unless it gets too dull.

The Very Short Introduction series sounds awful, like little compressed textbooks mainly useful as cribs, though in fact they're usually quite imaginative and worth reading even for topics you might know.  There are a few that take the quick overview approach but more commonly the books really are introductions (or even essays) that don't attempt to touch on every key point.  The one on classics for instance takes a Greek temple and uses that to bring up various approaches to classics; similarly the one on Russian literature uses Pushkin for its different topics.  

Boyle's book on German literature is more of an overview though a somewhat odd one.  It opens with a chapter that runs quickly through German history though this version is one of large abstract forces and barely mentions dates, people or even political events.  It's a kind of hazy tussle among towns, universities and churches that for all I know may be the best way to approach the literature - for the rest I suppose the quick overview is on Wikipedia.  This chapter does underline that "German" is an even more amorphous designation that I had realized so even though Boyle more or less excludes Austrian and Swiss writers I won't, as long as they wrote in German.

Then the chapters on literature proper, going chronologically for the most part.  As fits the opening these writers are either working out hidden tectonic frictions or pursuing grand themes.  There's not much formal exploration or technical issues in Boyle's approach (then again this is a very short intro).  At times it's not entirely clear what Boyle thinks these writers are trying to resolve but for the most part his approach is direct and readable, at least given what he's trying to do.  One result is that he doesn't give much of the "flavor" of particular writes so they tend to blur together but as far as I can tell he touches on the main names and movements.  Missing of course are any popular writers such as Patrick Suskind or Edgar Wallace who were great successes in the English-speaking world, though not having read either I have no idea if they're even worth inclusion.  He's also not just relaying received wisdom - for instance dismissing Brecht's theoretical writings in an abrupt sneering aside.  In the end, even though I know little about German literature I'm not sure I learned much from the book.  Decades of travelling around the book world means I can locate the mountains, rivers and landmarks - it's actually climbing or swimming that's the point.