1. Der Vorleser (The Reader) by Bernhard Schlink (1995)
In the late 1950s, 15-year-old West German Michael Berg finds himself in a passionate but secret love affair with a woman who is over 20 years his senior, leaving him confused yet enthralled.
As a law student several years later, he is observing a trial when he realizes that the woman in the dock is his former lover. But the woman on trial is a very different person to the one he thought he knew.
Der Vorleser belongs to the genre of Vergangenheitsbewältigung – a term used to describe post-war attempts to come to terms with the Nazi past – and is one of the best known examples outside of Germany. In 1997, it became the first ever German book to top the New York Times bestseller list, and Kate Winslet won an Oscar for her performance in the 2008 film adaptation.
The book has however come in for staunch criticism, as critics claim it encourages identification with the perpetrators of the Holocaust.
2. Die Verwandlung (Metamorphosis) by Franz Kafka (1915)
Franz Kafka was born in Prague in 1883, now capital of the Czech Republic.
At the time, Prague was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Kafka wrote in German. He is now regarded as one of the most influential literary figures of the 20th century, and the adjective “Kafkaesque” – meaning nightmarishly complex and oppressive – is taken from the themes of his works.
Die Verwandlung is probably his most famous work, and many are familiar with the bizarre first line: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect-like creature.”
Don’t expect this novella to get any less nightmarish from thereon in.
3. Das Parfum (Perfume) by Patrick Süskind (1985)
Whereas most good novels manage to conjure up images in your head, Das Parfum also conjures up scents and smells that waft up from the page.
Following the journey of a boy with an exquisite sense of smell which drives him to gruesome deeds, Süskind’s novel transports you back to 18th century France, and the sprawling, stinking city of Paris.
When it was published in 1985, Das Parfum shot to the top of the best-seller tables. It stayed in Der Spiegel’s bestseller list for eight consecutive years, also experiencing great success internationally.
You will not regret picking up this gripping yet grotesque read.
4. Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice) by Thomas Mann (1912)
5. Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin (1929)
The year 1929 – when Berlin Alexanderplatz was published – was the highpoint of the Weimar Republic, before it all came tumbling down with the Wall Street Crash. Berlin was like no other city in the late 1920s: diverse, liberal, and often debauched.
This iconic novel narrates the story of ex-convict Franz Biberkopf who, after being released from prison in Berlin, swears that he will live an upstanding and decent life. He is soon, however, plunged into the capital’s louche but exhilarating underworld. Döblin’s novel was voted one of “The top 100 books of all time”, a list compiled in 2002 by The Guardian.