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Oktoberfest Best Books: Grass, Twain, Nabokov, More

Best reads for Oktoberfest, including Twain, Grass, Nabokov, Isherwood, and more.

Matthias Schrader

The Daily Beast introduces "Reading in Place," in which we suggest books for travelers both armchair and real, we select the best titles to hoist in honor of Germany’s Oktoberfest.

It’s time for Oktoberfest, that yearly ritual of beer drinking and lederhosen and dirndl wearing, a fun, giddy, celebration of German identity and German skill in brewing the perfect liter mug full of high-alcohol Festbier. We raise a Maß to all the brave souls who hoist their share of suds in one of the raucous big tents in Munich, where the only true Oktoberfest takes place for 14 days each year starting in late September. U.S. book review sections to this day tilt heavily toward the ongoing fascination with the developments of 70-odd years ago, but anyone contemplating a visit—virtual or otherwise—to present-day Germany might want to turn to this offering of books about Germany and the Germans in which neither the word “Third” nor “Reich” figures prominently and one finds nary a reference to that failed artist from Linz, Austria. Here we introduce our guide to the higher enjoyment of bringing books along for the ride or just taking the ride of leaning into a book as if you were.

—Steve Kettmann

Steve Kettmann, an American living in Berlin since 1999, is the author, co-author or editor of eight books, including four Times best-sellers. He previously wrote a weekly column for East Berlin's Berliner Zeitung and is now at work on a memoir about German-American and German identity.

Berlin Blues, by Sven Regener

Sven Regener just might be the coolest guy in Germany, or that at least is the impression you come away with after taking in a concert of his as singer, horn player, and front man for the German band Element of Crime. Regener the vocalist has a sung-out-of-the-corner-of-his-mouth style that is both friendly and gruff, and his song-writing is biting, blunt, and lyrical. The same goes for his novels, including his first, Herr Lehmann, set in 1989, the year of the fall of the wall, and published in English as Berlin Blues. Regener’s dead-pan depiction of the slow-paced dissipation Berliners have long turned into an art from holds up surprisingly well, and he offers a feel for the dynamic, ever-changing district of Kreuzberg no guide book can match. Sample: “It’s humiliating, he thought, for someone who’s nearly thirty years old—someone who’s had only three and a half hours sleep preceded by a brush with a canine killer and two dumb policemen, someone with a throbbing head and dry mouth—to be insulted by a member of his family, let alone by his own mother, the one person in the world who’s supposed to be wholly in sympathy with every act committed by the fruit of her womb.”

The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Anyone who has read much Jack Kerouac will likely be floored to go back to the book that turned Goethe into the world’s first literary celebrity upon publication in 1774. Kerouac puts a bust of Goethe into On the Road as a signal of how much that book was inspired by Goethe’s approach and belief that the future of Western literature lay in writing that was “confessional.” Add to that “adolescent.” Germans remain proud of Goethe’s achievements over a long career, and well they should. This first book, which later deeply embarrassed the more mature Goethe, offers a much different glimpse of the German spirit. Sample: “O my friends! Why does the stream of genius so seldom break out as a torrent, with roaring high waves, and shake your awed soul?” If that doesn’t sound like Kerouac, nothing does.

The Awful German Language, by Mark Twain

Published as a small book of its own, or as an appendix to A Tramp Abroad, Twain’s incomparable takedown of the German language serves as vital inoculation for anyone seeking to learn more than Doch! and Das geht nicht! Sample: “Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.”

Those Crazy Germans! ALighthearted Guide to Germany, by Steven Somers

This is an odd little volume in some ways, but it has a roaring good time with its whirlwind survey of German fun and German peculiarities. Written by an American, the book is free of the sibling-rivalry undercurrents that so often make Brits so insufferable on the Germans. There are some hearty exaggerations (few visitors to German parks will come across “thousands” of nude sun-bathers in one place), but also many spot-on descriptions, such as Somers’s riff on the fun weirdness of hearing an Oktoberfest tent go nuts over an oom-pah version of “Country Roads” (really), or the urgent need to get out of the fast line on the Autobahn even when you’re doing 150 yourself; the guy behind you will gladly hover less than a foot behind your rear bumper until you slide over. Sample: “Oktoberfest came about in 1810 as an event to celebrate the marriage of Bavaria’s King Ludwig 1 to Princess Maria Theresa of Prussia. Historically speaking, this was significant in that it unified the southern Catholic kingdom of Bavaria and the northern Protestant kingdom of Prussia, forming the start of what is now modern day Germany.”

King, Queen, Knave, by Vladimir Nabokov

It’s often said that Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita in his second language, an astonishing fact given the dexterous word play and masterful command of English on display in that most writerly of novels, and this is true enough. Less widely known, though, is that after leaving Russia, Nabokov lived in Berlin for some 15 years starting in 1922 and was quite obstinate, even proud, about not bothering to learn more than fledgling German. The result is a period in his work, the Berlin novels, that provide a fascinating snapshot both of the man and the city. King, Queen, Knave, somewhat mawkish in plot with its classic love triangle of woman, husband, and woman’s lover/husband’s protégé, opens with a dazzling set piece and evokes the Berlin of its day with nonpareil vividness. Sample: “Berlin! In that very name of the still unfamiliar metropolis, in the lumber and rumble of the first syllable and in the light ring of the second there was something that excited him like the romantic names of good wines and bad women.”

My Century, by Gunter Grass

Even with John Irving’s startling explanation in the Times Book Review in 2007 that reading The Tin Drum by Grass at age 19 and 20 showed him how to be a writer, and the obvious deduction that the wacky Irving world of Garp and Hotel New Hampshire was incubated in some crucial way by reading Grass, still many Americans have trouble getting into the work of this German Nobel Prize winner. My Century from 1999 was largely missed or seen as a small book, but that was only partly Grass’s doing: his intention with this book, a series of stories offering his take on each year of the departing 20th century, was to start a discussion. He wanted his fellow writers, like Portugal’s José Saramago, to follow suit with books offering their own corresponding volumes, and Saramago for one told Grass he would—but it never happened. Still, My Century offers a good way to sample Grass without being bogged down in nettlesome questions about issues like his wartime youth in Danzig. Sample, from “1961,” “A year after the wall went up, a man by the name of Peter Fechter was shot barging his way through Checkpoint Charlie; he bled to death because nobody would come to his aid.”

The Politics of Memory: Looking for Germany in the New Germany, by Jane Kramer

Jane Kramer’s New Yorker dispatches from Germany in the years before and after the wall came down were some of the most riveting magazine writing in memory given her front-row seat to a world in flux. This collection, published in 1996, might strike some as dated, given all that has changed, but there is value in having a basis for comparison. The hip East Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, for example, which in Kramer’s account is a Stasi-infested hot bed of dissent, has long since evolved into a highly gentrified neighborhood where chic shops dot every corner and baby strollers swarm the sidewalks. It’s still charming and beautiful, though. Sample: “With 300,000 informers, the Stasi was not so much a mirror of East Germany; to a large extent, it was East Germany.”

Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall, by Anna Funder

Anna Funder started studying German back in Australia, much to the chagrin of her parents, who found the language coarse and disturbing, but she continued and moved to Berlin to study in the years after the wall came down. She had a fascination with East Germany shared by many others who moved to Berlin in those years, but took it farther than most, and the portraits she sketches of the people left behind by the political change have been celebrated by both Germans and non-Germans as offering a deeper look. Still, this is also her book, in which her voice is strong, and one theme is how in looking for others we hope to find ourselves. Sample: “I first visited in Leipzig in 1994, nearly five years after the Wall fell in November 1989. East Germany still felt like a secret walled-in garden, a place lost in time. It wouldn't have surprised me if things had tasted different here—apples like pears, say, or wine like blood.”

Summerhouse, Later: Stories, by Judith Hermann

The author, born in West Berlin, was 19 when the wall came down and has emerged as an important voice of her generation in Germany. This collection of stories has a spare, ethereal quality, but Hermann lived Berlin’s transition for herself and gets the details and the ethos right. Sample: “Stein smiled with exaggerated cheerfulness and said nothing. He simply couldn't get the hang of our sophisticated, neurasthenic, f--ked up expressions, even though he tried; for the most part he watched us as though we were actors performing on a stage.”

Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood

Orwell referred to the contents of this novel, which indirectly led to the stage and screen versions of Cabaret, as “brilliant sketches of a society in decay,” and the decay part deserves to be emphasized. Vivid as the sketch is of one Sally Bowles, more haunting still is the portrait of Isherwood’s landlady in the tenement where he stays, who herself sleeps in the living room behind a screen “on a small sofa with broken springs.” Glamorous such scenes are not, but Isherwood, born and educated in Britain, later a naturalized American who lived in California from 1939 to his death in 1986, did get to know the Germans and it shows. The Bowles character here is a long way from Liza Minnelli, but also an original. Sample: “Sally’s German was not merely incorrect; it was all her own. She pronounced every word in a mincing, specially ‘foreign’ manner. You could tell that she was a speaking a foreign language from her expression alone.”