Since I only really like classics, here are the books I recommend for diving into Central European and German culture.
I mostly chose fairly short books because I know from experience that it’s very hard to motivate yourself to start studying a language and to read longer books in a foreign language. There are some longer books on this list as well if you scroll down a bit.
1. Der Vorleser by Bernhard Schlink
Difficulty level: 4/10
Number of pages: ~200
I hated this book when I first read it, mainly because the first half consists of a lot of illegal sex (15-year old guy, 36-year old woman) and some very confusing events, but by the second half it starts to make a lot more sense why these scenes were included in the first place.
There’s a movie with Kate Winslet that I didn’t watch in full length (because I don’t watch erotic/romantic movies), but I watched the second half and liked it a lot.
I feel like the book is a good start for getting to know the implications and aftermath of the NS regime in Germany. It also addresses how a lot of people who grew up in Nazi-Deutschland (Austria was a part of it but they called it Deutsches Reich) still had the exact same way of thinking and ideology years later.
Here's the trailer of the movie in English:
And in German:
2. Die Ermittlung by Peter Weiss
Difficulty level: 8/10
Number of pages: ~240
Not a lot of people know this book in Austria, but it is most certainly one of the most interesting ones ever written. It is a popular play (because it’s very modern and well-written for being presented on a stage) based on the „Ausschwitzprozesse“: the trials after the end of the war in the 50s where nazi criminals were sentenced and killed.
Peter Weiss was very interested in the trials (just like Hannah Arendt was, pretty sure some Americans know about her and her unpopular opinion(s) about the Holocaust and Eichmanns role in particular). It may be disturbing to read, but from a linguistic point of view, it is art, and when you look at the content, it works with the witnesses‘ accounts and makes the play worth reading/seeing.
I think that this is one of the more advanced books on this list but I love it a lot because it’s serious without pointing fingers. Everything the author wants to say is said without there ever being a line that tells you precisely what the message of the book is. I like that.
Full length play:
3. Die Physiker by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
Difficulty level: 5/10 because of old vocabulary - other than that, 3/10 due to simple sentence structure
Number of pages: not even 100
A true classic (written according to the tradition of Aristotle (3 Aristotelische Einheiten, unfortunately I couldn't find a translation), „die Physiker“ is one of the only original works written and produced after WWII. Dürrenmatt was a very popular Swiss author who was very successful in the German speaking world.
This is by far the most popular play of the 60s. This play makes absolutely no sense when you read it in translation. It’s also a lot of fun to imagine everyone speaking Swiss German while reading this book.
4. Der Besuch der alten Dame by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
Difficulty level: 4/10
Number of pages: ~160
Yet another brilliant play by the same author, this book tells the story of a billionaire who returns to her home town to seek revenge. Her home town is almost bankrupt and she offers the town money if the citizens kill the man who impregnated her when she was young. She had to move away over night and is still very bitter about it.
It’s an absolutely bizarre comedy and makes a lot of sense when you read it as a non-American in my opinion.
The dude behind all of this creative and brilliant stuff (we'd call someone like that CHEF in Austrian slang lol look at him smoking a cigar (or is that a joint?) and basically not caring about what's going on around him):
5. Andorra by Max Frisch
Difficulty level: 4/10
Number of pages: not even 100
This is perhaps a more serious and political book, and is arguably one of Frisch's most famous works (next to Homo Faber). He was also very popular and praised when he was still alive and even lived in Rome with Ingeborg Bachmann (a very controversial Austrian Lady) for some time, until he moved on to another woman.
Andorra is about a guy who thinks that he's a Jew because his father always told him that he is one, but then he finds out that he isn't and it's all pretty interesting to see the storyline unravel this plot twist. There's more to it but I don't want to take everything away!
I do not recommend reading Ingeborg Bachmann‘s poetry or other works to people with a level of German that is below C1 because it will most likely make absolutely no sense and her work is too meaningful (she also lived with Jean Paul Sartre for example) to not be understood. She most likely killed herself and also most likely had some mental illness but I like how interesting her work is.
Max Frisch interviewing himself:
6. Corpus Delicti or Unterleuten by Juli Zeh
Difficulty level: 9/10 because of long sentences, the books are thick and they take a long time to get going
Number of pages: ~260 or ~600
This author uses very specific vocabulary and long sentence structures which I personally find very appealing. Her work is complex but also a lot louder than her male colleagues‘ which I already presented - at the end, it’s usually clear what she wants to say.
Corpus delicti (the title is latin but the book is German) is a dystopian and utopian novel about a woman that lost her brother because of a new system that failed her brother. In this new system, HEALTH is the most important objective of society and politics and it is extremely important that you obey all rules. It is somewhat similar to the current political situation.
Unterleuten takes approximately 300 pages to get going but it’s worth a read if you are really serious about working on your German. It’s a story about a small town with old thinking patterns.
7. Schachnovelle by Stefan Zweig
Difficulty level: 4/10
Number of pages: ~110
This is another very meaningful book because Zweig wrote it while he was in South America (he had to flee due to the political situation) and killed himself (with his wife) the same day that he handed in the transcript for this book.
He couldn’t handle being away from the Austria that he loved. He was torn away from a community that already loved his work and felt awful in his „new home“ which was an exile to him, even though he still made quite a lot of money in South America and the USA in comparison to other exiled authors.
This book discusses chess briefly (the board game) and the main topic is political imprisonment. It’s a great book if you get it, and I think that both the Spanish and the English translation are probably also very good because they're quite popular as well. My mother first came into touch with this book in South America for example, when she was learning to speak Spanish.
There's a movie called "Farewell to Europe" about Stefan Zweig's life that I personally liked very much. I think that through the movie you understand his life more and the struggles that he had in South America and the USA; he missed Austria, Switzerland and Germany a lot. He didn't get why people believed Hitler and followed his ideology. He stood up for a unified Europe without war.
The film is multilingual; though mostly German, it contains Portuguese, Spanish, French and English scenes (as you can see in the trailer below). We watched it at school after I recommended it and since most of us speak German, English, French and some Spanish, we were able to follow everything without subtitles.
8. Franz Kafka: Die Verwandlung or Prozeß
Difficulty level: 7-8/10 due to old German and rather long sentences at times, also old grammar and ortography that is now considered wrong (for example, "Prozeß" is no longer correct; under the new spelling rules, it's "Prozess")
Number of pages: ~50-60 or ~250
Kafka is another Austrian classic that is an absolute must-read for German learners. Spotting an annoying person when they speak German is easy: listen for their use of „kafkaesk“ or anything else that ends with „-esk“ and you’ll know that they’re pretentious if they use these words too much.
Kafkaesk is an adjective that originates from French/Italian and means that something is related to Kafka‘s work.
Both books are extremely typical for Kafka. Die Verwandlung is about a Banker who turns into a huge bug over night and then has to deal with that while not being accepted by his family. Kafka felt very lonely and not accepted by many people in his immediate surroundings and this book shows that.
Prozeß is about a guy (also a Banker because Kafka was a Banker as well) who is invited to his own trial but he doesn’t know what he’s done. He tries to find out whether he’s guilty and what the maximum charge is but it is very difficult.
Both books sound boring but they’re very well-written and essentially master pieces. Everyone should have read a Kafka in their lives. Also in translation but if possible in German ;)
Authors I recommend
My absolute favourite authors are Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Max Frisch because they’re Swiss CHEFS meaning they were funny guys with a lot of personality. They lived at the same time and helped each other out.
Martin Suter is another Swiss author I like a lot. He wrote "Die dunkle Seite des Mondes", which is a book about a guy who takes magic mushrooms and then changes a lot.
I’d say that some very important and famous German authors are: Bertolt Brecht (Der gute Mensch von Sezuan, Dreigroschenoper), Thomas Mann (basically the German Hemingway) and Peter Weiss (Abschied von den Eltern, Die Ermittlung).
Important Austrian authors are: Elfriede Jelinek (Die Klavierspielerin), Peter Handke (Wunschloses Unglück), both of which won a Nobel prize for literature and Thomas Bernhard (Frost).
Comments on diversity
I just want to add that I have no idea who was a Jew out of the people on this list; I realise that my suggestions are mostly leftist works written by men, but this represents the majority of works I read and those that I grew up with in general.
Which books do you like and recommend for learning foreign languages?