Deutschland über us.
Every time I visit a German-speaking country, I am invariably asked how many German relatives I have. When I explain that alas, my last name is an Ellis Island fabrication and I hail from Russian Jews, my interlocutor wonders why I speak their language on purpose. Then, without fail, some form of this conversation happens:
ME: I have a lifelong love of German literature.
GERMAN (confused): Why?
ME: German literature is good.
GERMAN: What, like Goethe?
ME: Also Kafka.
GERMAN (annoyed): HE wasn’t German.
I get it. A non-German proclaiming to “love German literature” because of the Austrian-born Czechoslovak Jew who also happens to be the most popular German-language author of all time is, to Germans, like a tourist in America who professes to “love American food” but means pizza. It’s somehow both the biggest cliché possible and culturally impure.
The Germans are right, of course (their preferred state of affairs). There is infinitely more to their literary tradition than Kafka — who himself was so indebted to Heinrich von Kleist, an actual German, and Robert Walser, a Swiss, that it’s impossible to understand him without them, FWIW. (Michael Kohlhaas and Jakob von Gunten. You’re welcome.)
To my credit, once I entered graduate school and realized that one can’t pass one’s PhD comprehensive “breadth” exams by having read the same passage of The Trial wearing four different outfits, I did, once upon a time, have an excellent command of everything from the Niebelungenlied to Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge” and beyond, a.k.a. The German Canon. (This did not, however, stop me from mistaking Schiller’s skull for Goethe’s in the first edition of my own damn book — but, as Kafka once wrote, the shame of that will outlive me, so let’s not dwell on it.)
Yes, for a small country, the Germans have created an impressively disproportionate amount of literary greats. And Germans are also an unapologetically bookish people: according to this 2015 survey by Allensbach Media Market Analysis, damn near half of them read a book a week — as opposed to the (at least) 20 percent of American entering college freshmen who have not read a full book in their entire lives. (Good news, Republicans — can’t fill their heads with Commie nonsense if they don’t read!!!!)
However. You’ll be relieved to know that when it comes to what actual Germans are actually purchasing and reading right this second—the actual content of their actual vacation totes, tomes to be perused as they strip down to their leathery butts and bake au naturel on the nearest FKK-Strand, which is German for “regular beach” — is not Schiller’s Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen, but rather the banal mixture of highbrow and low that we dumbasses over here also like to read when we’re not busy emailing Russians.
The German equivalent of the New York Times Bestseller List is the Spiegel Bestseller List. Let’s take a look, shall we?
Die Geschichte der Bienen (The History of Bees), Maja Lunde. This translated Norwegian novel set in 19th-century England is the Nummer Eins Spiegel Bestseller this week in the category “Belletristik” (BELL-uh-TRISS-tik), which is the Teutonic version of the hoity-toity French word for “fiction.” (It’s always awesome when the Germanic goes Latinate.) Its protagonist, William, is a Samenhändler (SAH-mun-HEND-lur), an excellent word that technically means “seedsman,” a profession that I am pretty sure is endemic to 19th-century England, but that also, thanks to the double meaning of Samen, also literally means “semen merchant.” (Also a book I’d read.) It looks good, but, in the immortal words of every German ever, “NOT A GERMAN AUTHOR.”
In fact, there is not a German-originated book to be found on the Spiegel fiction bestseller list until number 13, Sebastian Fitzek’s Das Packet (The Packet), a “Psychothriller” which enters the list well below various and sundry German translations of American YA fantasy, Italian mystery, and a Danish thriller called SELFIES.
Over in Sachbücher (SOCK-buuuuusher, or “thing books,” aka nonfiction), underneath the number-one German translation of Age of Anger comes possibly the Germanest book ever to German. Wunder wirken Wunder (VOON-dur wirr-kun VOON-dur) has various workable English translations, from the ultra-literal Miracles Work Miracles to the equally tautological Wonder Works Wonders, thanks to the multiple meanings of the word Wunder and the fact that, like many German words ending in -er, the singular and the plural are the same. But the truth lies somewhere in the middle; I’d probably translate it as Wonder Works Miracles. Or maybe Miracles Work Wonders. Anyway, it’s by German medical doctor and definite not-crackpot Eckart von Hirschhausen (ECK-hart fone HEERSH-house-un), the Germanest name ever to exist, about a topic that I would choose if I wanted to write WHAT IT MEANS TO BE GERMAN: THE BOOK.
Ahem: “Science has taken the magic out of medicine, but not out of us as people…What is healing magic, and how do you differentiate it from dangerous hooey?” When you get hurt or sick, a German’s first recourse is to tell you to take a brisk walk in the woods, so it only makes sense that their number-two bestselling “thing book” this week is about magicking yourself well. (Number three, by the way, is Heilen mit der Kraft der Natur, or “Healing with the Power of Nature.” QED.)
However, my personal pick for this year’s Sommerschmöker (ZOME-ur-SCHMOOOK-ur, the amazing German word for “beach book” that literally means “summer schlock”) is the Spiegel’s number-nine Sachbuch, Keine Zeit für Arschlöcher! (KINE-uh TSITE fooooer ORSH-loooch-ur), or No Time for Assholes!, a memoir by Horst Lichter, the “most beloved TV chef in Germany.” “This book belongs in your beach bag!” commands German Amazon, and I must agree based on mustache alone.
For Germans who like to read boring, humorless important things on the beach, the Spiegel list also boasts biographies of both Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. Notably, however, there is nary a single book containing the T word anywhere in the Spiegel top 20. Not as “author,” not as explicit subject — blessedly, blessedly nowhere.
Yes, while Germans seemingly can’t get enough of the Sexmonster-in-Chief on their news pages, when it comes to the reading they may or may not use to shield their special parts from the sun as they enjoy the latest Summer Schlock, this week, at least, they seem to have no time for assholes. (Because they’re too busy healing with magic.)