Category Archives: German Literature

German at Oxford: Learning more than the language

In past weeks we have heard from two of the inaugural Lidl prize winners for German, Anna and Cecilia. Today we hear from a third winner. Rachel studies German and History at Merton College. Here she tells us what it’s like to study German at Oxford and how the linguistic and literary sides of the degree intertwine...

A common misconception about studying languages both at school and university is that its sole function is to learn the language in question. Although this may be the case at GCSE, A level students will soon discover that culture, identity, politics and history come hand in hand with any linguistic studies. These themes become far more prominent at degree level, and I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that languages at university is an incredibly exciting and varied area which encapsulates all humanities subjects.

Although the importance of multilingualism in business and diplomacy is often (and rightly) emphasised in the promotion of language learning, studying German at Oxford has so far taught me that a language degree offers even more than these highly employable skills. As a joint schools student studying History alongside German I have always seen the main focus of my degree as culture; the combination of linguistic and historical awareness is what gives us the greatest understanding of societal and national identities. Oxford’s emphasis on literature as a way of accessing foreign culture is incredibly powerful, as it not only explores the use and intricacies of the language, but also addresses the country’s history and art. This became particularly evident to me during our term of studying German poetry, which explores history and philosophy through methods whose effects would be completely lost in translation. The depth of literary study at Oxford can be daunting given the limited experience A level offers in this area, but the support given through lectures and tutorials means that even the most impenetrable novels can be discussed and appreciated as gateways to foreign language and culture.

The most important thing my first year has taught me is that languages at Oxford does not demand heavy pre-reading and prior knowledge; I had only read two German books before and had never even considered being able to read any pre-twentieth century literature! Understanding of the language and methods comes with time, but is made easier by enthusiasm and an open mind to the history and ideas which it is trying to share.

The Lidl Prizes: Discovering Germany

This post was written by Cecilia, who is studying German sole at Wadham College. Earlier this summer Cecilia was named one of the first recipients of our new Lidl Prizes: awards that have been generously donated by Lidl to promote and celebrate the study of German language and culture. In this post, Cecilia tells us how she used her prize to fund a trip to Gemany.

I was really grateful to win the Lidl prize for academic achievement in German sole this summer; it enabled me to experience Germany in a whole new way. With my prize money, I visited friends in Detmold, in the north of Germany, and Eisenach, a town in the former GDR. I then took a train to Munich, where I stayed with a friend I’d met at Oxford, and even visited Austria for the first time, venturing to Salzburg. I was fascinated by the way in which the language and culture differs across German speaking countries.

My first stop was Detmold, where I spent a few days staying with a teacher who had visited my school while I was doing my A-levels. I was really interested in the way in which my Gastfamilie did their bit for the environment. Just by accompanying them on their weekly shop, I got to see Detmold’s Bio-Supermarkt and a shop that used no plastic whatsoever! Whilst I am yet to come across such shops where I live in Hull, I am determined to follow Germany’s good influence and reduce my own plastic use.

I then took the train to Eisenach, where I stayed with a girl whom I know through a mutual friend. Far from the green smoothies and kale I had been eating in Detmold, I was able to try much more traditional food, with the Grandad even teaching me how to make Rinderroulade and Thüringer Klöße. I also enjoyed going to school with my Gastschwester, who is studying for her Abitur. I even learnt about Effi Briest, a text which I loved studying in first year, sharing ideas with students in German about this iconic read! But most interesting of all in my time in Eisenach was having the opportunity to hear about life in the GDR. Practically knowing Das Leben der Anderen off by heart from my A-level studies, I was keen to hear my Gastfamilie’s first-hand accounts of the system. I was particularly surprised by my Gastschwester’s remark that she sometimes wished the wall still stood today.

Different again was my time in Munich. I spent the week staying with my friend from university, who is doing a tech internship there. I really enjoyed being part of a flat share; it made me look forward to my year abroad where I’ll be living with German speakers who are my age! It was really interesting to chat with these students and young professionals about everything from relationships and their volunteering to European politics. The Bavarian countryside was really beautiful and completely different to anything I had seen before in Germany. Reading Schiller by Lake Starnberg was definitely a highlight of my trip. I even got the chance to make a fleeting visit to Salzburg, which made me realise I’d love to get to know Austria better.

Why Marx is relevant in the 21st century

This post was written by Kate Osment, a first-year student in German at St Anne’s College. Kate tells us a little more about studying German at Oxford and why Marx is still relevant today.

One of my favourite things about studying German at Oxford is the philosophy module in Hilary and Trinity (Easter and summer) terms. Over the course of eight weeks, we dissect the writings of famous German-speaking philosophers like Kant, Nietzsche, Freud (yes, he came up with more than the Oedipus complex), and of course Marx and Engels, looking at their arguments and the rhetorical devices they make them with. It’s challenging and fascinating generally, but out of these thinkers, the one who’s intrigued me most is Marx. Revered and reviled in similar measure, he’s worth reading because of the massive impact his ideas had on international 20th-century politics as well as the fact (which I think gets overlooked too often) that he’s just such a good writer!

Much of modern distaste for Marxism comes from a misunderstanding of what it actually is, so I’ll take the time here to say that Soviet Russia was Marxist in name only. Although a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ is widely seen as a Marxist goal, Marx believed this was only a step on the way to the perfect society, in which there’d be no social class distinctions – hence no class conflict – and no state. He thought there’d be no need for one, as he saw governance and law as an expression of the morality of the ruling bourgeoisie, forcibly imposed on the majority. The proletariat would – could – not rule in this way, because they’re the vast majority, so their interests are those of humanity collectively.

Marx

Marx argued that communism wasn’t just desirable, it was bound to happen. This stems from his theory of historical materialism, which Engels called his friend’s greatest ‘scientific discovery’. The argument is that all developments in human culture are driven by development of the forces of production. ‘The hand mill gives you society with the feudal lord, the steam mill society with the industrial capitalist.’ Capitalism only replaced feudalism because technological development made feudal society, with its guilds and protectionism, untenable. Communism would likewise replace capitalism because ever-more frequent crises of over-production would eventually drive profit down to nothing. Human history’s a story of class conflict caused by this evolution of productive forces, Marx believed, and because capitalism needs this evolution, the bourgeoisie will bring about their own destruction.

Of course, over-production doesn’t seem to lead to capitalist profits falling, and an accurate description of historical materialism is as a philosophical, not scientific, theory. But an end to bourgeois rule must’ve seemed possible in the 1840s when Marx and Engels wrote Das kommunistische Manifest, the same decade as Vormärz (the German workers’ revolution of 1848). And a world in which ‘the free development of each is a condition for the free development of all’ would certainly be preferable to one where six-year-olds work with dangerous machinery for 11 hours a day. Plus, the only thing that’s changed about that state of affairs is that it doesn’t happen in Western Europe any more. Anti-capitalist critiques remain necessary.

(If you’re interested in reading more about Marxism, I’d recommend Marx: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Singer, Why Read Marx Today? By Jonathan Wolff, and All That Is Solid Melts Into Air by Marshall Berman. And Naomi Klein’s No Logo is an invaluable critique of capitalism at the turn of the millennium.)

German Classic Prize – ‘Der Sandmann’

Earlier this month, the Oxford German Network launched their third annual ‘German Classic Prize’. This is an essay competition for sixth formers (those going from Year 12 into Year 13 over the summer), which is designed to explore and celebrate a different ‘classic’ German text each year.

This year, the prize focuses on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s ‘Der Sandmann’ (1816) – one of the most captivating short stories in German literature and a masterpiece of Gothic fiction. Hoffmann’s eerie and mysterious tale centres on a young, impressionable student called Nathanael, who becomes convinced that he is pursued by a shadowy figure called Coppelius. Filled with Doppelgänger, mechanical dolls, alchemistic experiments, inexplicable fires, uncanny optical toys, and misaddressed letters, ‘Der Sandmann’ explores the power of the imagination as it erupts into a dark obsession.

The Oxford German Network is offering free study packs to Year 12/ Lower Sixth students who wish to take part. You can find more details about this here – be sure to request a study pack by midday on 10 June 2019.

In connection with this prize, the Oxford German Network has also produced a fantastic video podcast series about the text. One of these videos forms part of a special tie-in with our Virtual Book Club.

The episode below is a discussion between doctoral student, Karolina, and three undergraduates about an extract from Hoffmann’s short story. The full story is available here, and the extract under discussion begins ‘Seltsamer und wunderlicher’ and runs until ‘nicht anzufangen.’

German at Oxford – the view from the ground

This week we’re highlighting a number of videos that offer glimpses of German at Oxford. German is one of our bigger languages and is currently offered at twenty-three colleges (although not all colleges will offer German in combination with every other language or subject). For a list of which colleges offer the different language and subject combinations, see here.

First, we hear from Prof. Almut Suerbaum, Fellow in Tutor in German at Somerville College. Prof. Suerbaum teaches a range of topics as part of the undergraduate degree. These include: German language; German literature, specialising in medieval culture; religious writing, medieval drama and prose narrative, gender, and theory of translation.

Next, we can hear from two students: Martha studied German and History, also at Somerville College, and graduated last year; Nyasha studies German at St John’s College.


We’re very grateful to Somerville and St John’s for putting these videos together, and we hope they have given you an insight into German at Oxford and perhaps whet your appetite for more!

 

calling all germanists: come and meet us…

Happy New Year from Adventures on the Bookshelf! To kick off the blog in 2019, we’re diving in at the deep end and bringing you news of our German open day. If you’re thinking about applying to study German as an undergraduate at Oxford, this is an excellent opportunity to meet some of the tutors, try out a couple of academic taster sessions which will give you a flavour of what it’s like to study German, and take a look around Oxford. See below for the full details and programme. If you would like to attend, please book a place via our website.

What? The 2019 German Open Day, designed to showcase the Oxford German course and answer any questions you might have.

Who? If you study German at school and would like to continue it at university, this is your chance to see what degree-level German is like, and how we go about teaching it. But equally, even if you do not already study German but think it could be something you’d like to pick up at university, this event is a chance for you to ask any questions about studying German from scratch, and see whether it’s for you. In short, all budding Germanists are welcome, regardless of whether you have already studied German in the past.

Where? The event will start and finish at the Taylor Institution on St Giles, and the middle portion of the day will be spent at Worcester College.

When? Saturday 23 February 2019, 10:30am – 3pm

How? Book a place by registering on our website and signing up for the event.

Here’s the programme…

Keep your eyes peeled for our other open days coming up later in the term.

Bringing Kafka’s Castle to Life

To celebrate publication of the new critical edition of Franz Kafka’s final, unfinished novel Das Schloss (The Castle), Carolin Duttlinger and Barry Murnane from the Oxford Kafka Research Centre hosted a day of activities with sixth-form students, two student workshops on editing and adapting Kafka, and a podium discussion to discuss the legacy of the novel. The day-long event brought together specialists from Oxford, Roland Reuß and Peter Staengle, and award-winning playwright Ed Harris, who recently adapted the novel for BBC Radio 4. In this blog post Barry Murnane, Associate Professor in German at St John’s College, introduces Kafka’s novel.

Playwright Ed Harris with the students on the study day

Das Schloss is not exactly the most obvious introduction to Kafka’s works. Written over a period of about seven months in 1922 while Kafka’s health was deteriorating (he had been diagnosed with what was probably tuberculosis several years earlier), Das Schloss is a rambling narrative that tells us how a protagonist known only as K arrives in a snow-covered landscape dominated by a castle and has to find his place in the local community:

“It was late evening when K arrived. The village lay deep in snow. There was nothing to be seen of the Castle Mount, mist and darkness surrounded it, and not the faintest glimmer of light showed where the great castle lay. K. stood on the wooden bridge leading from the road to the village for a long time, looking up at what seemed to be a void.” (Franz Kafka, The Castle, transl. Anthea Bell. Oxford: OUP, 2009, p5)

Calling himself a “Landvermesser”, or “surveyor”, K finds himself in the middle of a society that is apparently dominated by a gigantic bureaucracy and he becomes involved in constant conversations with the locals trying to understand how this bureaucracy works.

Kafka in Spindelmühle, the winter resort where he began writing Das Schloss

For one reason or another, K never seems to ‘arrive’, however, and ends up constantly walking and talking in circles. On the one hand, he seems blameless because the castle authorities are not exactly forthcoming with any information. On the other hand, K appears at least partly responsible for his failure in that he treats the locals as little more than stepping stones on his way to the castle, including a potential lover called Frieda. It’s unclear how the novel would have ended: Kafka’s friend and first editor, Max Brod, says that Kafka told him on his deathbed how the novel was meant to finish with K being ‘accepted’ into the Castle and its community, but it seems a long way to go before K. would be accepted anywhere, never mind by the Castle authorities. Instead, we see a novel project trailing off into a “scheinbare Leere”, the seeming void, that K looks into at the start of the novel.

Thanks to the new critical edition of Das Schloss edited by Peter Staengle and Roland Reuß and published by the Stroemfeld-Verlag we now get a real sense of how Kafka actually wrote. Their edition reproduces the exact manuscript alongside an easy-to-read transcription, warts and all. The new edition is ground-breaking, but it puts an emphasis on scholars to make the overload of information it provides accessible. There is no easily consumable narrative of K against the Castle: we see passages where K is a less than positive hero figure, stubbornly refusing to actually listen to what people are telling him and treating women with little respect. One interesting thing is that the material of the manuscript itself shows no real sign of a struggle as Kafka begins to run out of steam with the project: the ductus of his handwriting remains smooth, flowing, perhaps even more so than at the start.

It is astonishing how relevant Kafka’s discussions of bureaucracy and social life in The Castle still are. With Oxford German Studies looking to build up to the centenary of Kafka’s death in 2024, the new edition of the novel is an ideal opportunity to discuss Kafka’s legacy and importance today.

Virtual Book Club: German episode

The Virtual Book Club returns once more, this time with an episode focussing on German. The German episode features a discussion about a short story by Franz Kafka, ‘Der Kaufmann’ [The Tradesman]. Here, Joanna Raisbeck leads the discussion with undergraduates Hannah and Colleen, as they consider the questions: what is the tradesman worried about?; what does he think about in the lift?; and why do you think he has these thoughts in the lift?

If you would like to receive a copy of the text, which will be provided in both the original German and an English translation, or if you would like future Virtual Book Club updates, please email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk

Announcing the 2018 German Classic Prize!

Budding Germanists out there might be interested in delving into a ‘German Classic’: Friedrich Schiller’s Maria Stuart. For the second year, the Oxford German Network is running an essay competition for Sixth-Formers who have studied German at GCSE level (you do not need to be studying German at A Level or equivalent). There are prizes of £500, £300, and £100 to be won. The deadline for submissions is noon on Wednesday 12 September 2018. More information is available here or read on to find out more…

The Prize celebrates a classic text of German literature, with resources to make it accessible whether or not you have experience of German literature. This year, the prize focuses on Friedrich Schiller’s play Maria Stuart, a fascinating historical drama about how Elizabeth I came to have Mary, Queen of Scots executed. The great centrepiece of the play is a gripping confrontation between Elisabeth and Maria – in fact, it never happened but it makes for electrifying drama.

You will find a rich array of material including podcasts and YouTube links on Maria Stuart: http://www.ogn.ox.ac.uk/content/german-classics-prize. Candidates may also request a special reader with extracts from secondary literature on the work (see contact details on the website).

The task: Write a 2000 to 3000-word essay in English, independently and unsupervised, over the summer holidays between Lower and Upper Sixth/ between Years 12 and 13.

The prize, and funding of the accompanying resources, have been generously donated by Jonathan Gaisman, QC, a highly distinguished commercial barrister who was introduced to German literature at school and still finds German literature and culture the most intellectually rewarding part of his life. He would like to give young people the opportunity to be inspired as he was when he first encountered German literature.

Students willing to have a go at undertaking this challenge have the possibility of winning a glittering cash prize worth £500, £300 or £100. All participants will get a certificate of participation.

The prize is aimed at German learners in the UK. It does not assume that participants will be taking English beyond GCSE or that they have a prior interest in literature. The rationale for asking Modern Languages students to write an essay in English is to give an opportunity for UK learners to engage with a linguistically and intellectually challenging German work in the linguistic medium they are most comfortable with. While participants may want to use a translation to support their understanding, we recommend reading the work in the original to get the most out of it and take advantage of the opportunity it offers for expanding German competence. All quotations must be in German.

Friedrich Schiller by Ludovike Simanowiz

As with all the Oxford German Olympiad competitions, we aim to create a level playing field for students from different backgrounds, schools, and levels of linguistic competence. The submission form must be signed by the participant’s teacher, who is also asked to submit the essay online. All sixth-formers in UK schools with a GCSE or equivalent UK qualification in German are entitled to take part, including students who are not taking a German A-level or equivalent qualification. Native and near-native speakers of German are not excluded but are required to declare their linguistic status on the submission form. Our prime criterion is the quality of intellectual and imaginative engagement with the work evident in the essay while taking account of prior opportunity.

Any questions should be addressed to the German Classic Prize Coordinator: Joanna Raisbeck, joanna.raisbeck@some.ox.ac.uk.

Viel Glück!

An Introduction to Effi Briest

This post was written by Katie Wilson, a first-year student of French and German at Oriel College. Katie gives us a glimpse of one of the texts studied in the first year of the German course at Oxford, and makes the case for Effi Briest as an early feminist novel.

Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest is the first text we study in Hilary Term (in Oxford, this is the term that runs from January to March) of the first year, and the first German novel we study during the degree. The text is about seventeen year old Effi, who is forced by her parents into an arranged marriage with an older man: Baron Geert von Innstetten. Becoming quickly entrapped in her inevitably unhappy marriage, Effi seeks to fight against boredom and depression in her marital home in any way that she can. We read the novel following the study of four German plays in Michaelmas Term (the term that runs from October to December). As interesting as they are, the plays are primarily focused on male characters, and all written by male authors. There are female characters in only some of the plays, and they’re not the heroines that female students want to read about.

Theodor Fontane (1819-1898), portrait by Carl Breitbach

The novels for Hilary Term don’t look much more promising on the surface. There’s still no female authors, and we’re treated to a round of soldiers, a magician and an ungeheuren Ungeziefer (the ‘monstrous bug’ of Kafka’s metamorphosis)*. Fontane’s novel, however, is a game changer. Although it’s written by a man, the novel is structured so that we share our experiences with the female protagonist. When Effi’s bored, Fontane takes up page after page to explain her boredom, so that we’re bored with her. When Effi’s happy, we’ll only experience a page of excitement because time flies when we’re having fun.

This is no accident. Sharing Effi’s experiences means we’re naturally sympathetic towards her, so when she takes actions that were unforgivable in her Victorian Prussian context – ie: having an affair with married womaniser Major Crampas – we understand her motivations and direct our animosity towards the privileged few that oppress Effi.

Hanna Schygulla played Effi in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 adaptation. (Prod Co: Tango Film Prod, Dir: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Phot: Jürgen Jürges, Dietrich Lohmann, Ed: Thea Eymèsz, Art Dir: Kurt Raab).

Of course she’s young, naïve, and perhaps not the greatest heroine we could have hoped for. However, Effi Briest ticks all the boxes for a first wave feminist text that highlights women’s issues in Fontane’s context. Everyone should be very excited about studying this author!

* If you’re curious about translating the phrase ‘ungeheuren Ungeziefer’, check out this article by professional translator Susan Bernofsky.