Category Archives: German Literature

German Classic: Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig

Readers familiar with the blog may be aware that the Oxford German Network normally runs a German Classic Prize for sixth formers. While the Covid-19 pandemic has meant that the prize can’t run this year, they have come up with a great alternative way to engage with another Classic piece of German literature. If you study German and are currently in Year 12/ Lower Sixth, this is an awesome opportunity to immerse yourself in a German text and get some feedback from an Oxford academic. Read on to find out more…

A German Classic: Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig

Participation Guidelines for Sixth-Formers

We are delighted to announce the launch of the 2020 edition of ‘A German Classic’. Although we are unfortunately unable to run it as a competition this year, we would still like to invite you to read with us Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig (1912) – one of the most famous novellas in German literature and a masterpiece of European modernism. In his inimitably elegant and sumptuous style, Mann tells a transgressive story of Gustav von Aschenbach, an aging German writer, who falls in love with Tadzio, a teenage boy from Poland, during a holiday in Venice in the midst of a cholera epidemic. Often hailed as a break-through work for the queer community, Der Tod in Venedig might resonate differently now, in the era of the #metoo movement and the coronavirus pandemic.

You can sign up for free to receive a physical copy of the German original and an English translation of Mann’s novella, watch a specially recorded lecture that will guide you through the text, and have the opportunity to get feedback on your written commentary on a passage from Der Tod in Venedig from an Oxford academic. While logistic challenges this year mean that we are unable to compile extensive study materials and conduct our usual essay competition, we hope that you will want to join us for an exploration of ‘A German Classic’ in this adapted format.

‘A German Classic’ was launched in 2017 thanks to a generous donation by Jonathan Gaisman, QC. It is designed to celebrate a different literary classic each year and encourage in-depth study by creating a wide range of resources that open up different perspectives on the concerns at the heart of the work. The links to interviews and discussions, articles and performances remain available on our website to inspire ongoing interest in these works beyond the year of the competition. So far, we have featured Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust (in 2017), Freidrich Schiller’s Maria Stuart (in 2018), and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann (in 2019).

ELIGIBILITY

Participants must fulfil the following requirements as of September 2020:

  • be beginning their final year of full-time study at a secondary school in the UK (upper-sixth form, Year 13 or S6 in Scotland);
  • be between the ages of 16 and 18;
  • hold a GCSE, IGCSE or equivalent qualification in German offered in the UK;
  • be resident in the United Kingdom.

Participants are not, however, expected to have prior experience of studying German literature.

PARTICIPATION

All interested students should email the German Classic Coordinator, Dr Karolina Watroba (germanclassic@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk), as soon as possible. We will be accepting new participants until the end of July. Students will receive free of charge:

  • Physical copies of the German text of Der Tod in Venedig and an English translation. Shipping will be administered by the Blackwell’s online bookshop. Students will need to provide an address in the UK to which they would like the books shipped, by which they consent to having their address passed on to Blackwell’s. Shipping may take up to a few weeks. Editions received may vary as they will depend on the availability of stock. Since we depend on the availability of stock, which is currently subject to potential disruption, we cannot unfortunately guarantee shipping: orders will be placed on a first come, first served basis.
  • Access to a specially recorded, hour-long, university-style online lecture. The lecture will introduce Thomas Mann’s life and work, guide students through Der Tod in Venedig, and discuss additional resources on the text that are freely available online.
  • A choice of three short commentary passages from Der Tod in Venedig alongside a guide on how to write a good commentary. Students will be encouraged to write and submit their commentaries (c. 1500 words) by email by 1 September 2020. All students who submit a commentary by this date will receive individual written feedback on their work by 1 October 2020. The feedback will not include any ranking or mark. It will be designed purely as informal academic comment on the piece of work submitted.

We would like to ask all students who request access to these materials to let us know the name and type of their school (non-selective state-maintained; selective state-maintained; non-selective independent; selective independent; other) so we can monitor whether we are reaching a diverse range of schools around the country.

A Writer’s War

Last week we brought you news of an exciting new podcast from Creative Multilingualism. This week, we have another new podcast to share with you – this one produced by some of our academics in collaboration with the wonderful Year 10 students at Oxford Spires Academy. The podcasts are available to listen to here.

The Oxford Spires Academy’s project “A Writer’s War” was designed to examine how writers from the UK, France, and Germany responded to the First World War in poetry and prose. Students were encouraged to draw parallels between texts in three languages, and examined the respective authors’ experiences of the war, as well as cultural and artistic reactions to war. To this end, students were encouraged to ponder whether war, for the writers in question, was seen as a patriotic endeavour, or as a time of suffering, or as something altogether quite different. Students were shown archive documents sent from the trenches or diary entries from those at home.

The students were also taken to Magdalen College, where they examined various memorials such as that commemorating Ernst Stadler, a German Expressionist poet, Rhodes scholar, and Magdalen alumnus. Stadler was killed in battle at Zandvoorde near Ypres in the early months of World War I. Stadler was not named on the Magdalen War Memorial as he was a foreign combatant, but later received a separate plaque on Magdalen’s grounds. This opportunity enabled students to examine the politics of commemoration and the question of post-war reconciliation. Students were encouraged to think about such issues beyond the case of WW1.

Royal Irish Rifles ration party Somme July 1916 . Via Wikimedia Commons.

Organised by the Head of Languages, Rebekah Finch, students at the Oxford Spires Academy engaged in research-led workshops with interventions from Professor Toby Garfitt, Professor Ritchie Robertson, and Andrew Wynn-Owen (a current Ph.D. student and published poet) on the literatures of the three linguistic areas. The students also enjoyed a creative writing workshop with Andrew Wynn Owen, where they wrote their own poems about war.

Catriona Oliphant of Chrome Media presented a skills workshop on creating podcasts, after which each pupil made a short podcast about the project and experience, discussing what they had seen, read, thought, or written.

Professor Toby Garfitt, Professor Ritchie Robertson, Andrew Wynn-Owen, Professor Santanu Das (a specialist of WW1 and the Indian sub-continent) and Professor Catriona Seth also recorded podcasts on the topic.

The students enjoyed studying parallel and diverging literary traditions, and gained a greater awareness of various literary genres, the politics of commemoration, gendered reactions to war, and war as the subject for literary texts.

Cilck here to access the podcasts. There are nine episodes:

  1. Dulce et Decorum Est. In the first four podcasts, we hear from Year 10 students at Oxford Spires Academy.
  2. Fête. This is the second of four podcasts, in which we hear from Year 10 students at Oxford Spires Academy.
  3. All Quiet on the Western Front. This is the third of four podcasts in which we hear from Year 10 students at Oxford Spires Academy.
  4. In Memoriam. This is the last of four podcasts in which we hear from Year 10 students at Oxford Spires Academy.
  5. Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! In this podcast, we hear from Prize Fellow and poet Andrew Wynn Owen and Senior Research Fellow Prof. Santanu Das of All Souls College about the British response to the First World War.
  6. Art, Adventure, Love. In this podcast, we hear from Prof. Toby Garfitt, Emeritus Fellow of Magdalen College, about the response in France to the First World War.
  7. Storm of Steel. In this podcast, we hear from Ritchie Robertson, Taylor Professor of the German Language and Literature and Fellow of The Queen’s College, about the German response to the First World War.
  8. From Across the Seas They Came. We conclude this group of podcasts with a discussion about responses to the First World War in former colonies of the British and French Empires. Catriona Seth, Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature and Fellow of All Souls College, chairs a conversation between Prof. Santanu Das, Senior Research Fellow, All Souls College, and Prof. Toby Garfitt, Emeritus Fellow of Magdalen College.
  9. President Warren at Home. In the final podcast in our series, we visit the archives of Magdalen College to hear from archivist Dr Charlotte Berry and archives assistant Ben Taylor about some of the items in the College’s First World War collection.

Literature Masterclass: Dürrenmatt

You may remember that in the past this blog has featured clips from our sixth form literary masterclass: our tools and tips for sixth formers approaching literature in a foreign language for the first time. Past episodes have included a French introduction to ‘Time and Tense’ and an introduction to ‘Theatricality’, also with a French focus. Today, we shift the focus to German and consider the theme of ‘Perspective’ in a text that is commonly studied as part of the German A Level: Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Der Besuch der alten Dame. Dr Karolina Watroba explores this topic in the video below, showing how a few key quotations can reveal the shifting points of view represented in the play.

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.