Reading Munich — München erlesen

The first great virtue of the 20-volume “München erlesen” (Selected Munich, with a bit of a pun on the German word for reading) series is the simple fact of its existence. There are not many provincial capitals that could support a literary series that runs to 20 books, let alone one with the quality of authors from Thomas Mann and Alfred Andersch to the less well known but still excellent Lena Christ and Franziska Gräfin zu Reventlow. The second is the range of periods covered by the books in the set.

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I was charmed to find half a dozen books set in whole or in part in pre-WWI Munich. This was a period when the city had grown enough to have its own bohemian quarter and art movements, when the deeply rural and traditional life of most of Bavaria clashed with city and university people testing boundaries and joining Europe’s modern movements. The city naturally drew from the countryside the ambitious and discontented, and they could see both environments from an outsider’s perspective, the better to write about them for posterity. Out of these half dozen, I liked best the three written by women: The Swing (Die Schaukel) by Annette Kolb; Johanna Rumpl (Die Rumplhanni) by Lena Christ; and Herr Dame’s Notebooks (Herrn Dames Aufzeichnungen) by Franziska Gräfin zu Reventlow. The latter two could hardly describe more disparate social worlds, yet they were contemporaries and separated by very little physical distance.

Only one of the books in the series directly addresses the rise of Nazism in Munich, although even after he had attained power Hitler called the city “the capital of the movement.” That book is Success (Erfolg) by Lion Feuchtwanger, and I haven’t read it yet because it’s 750 pages long. But the atmosphere that gave rise to Nazism is there in Herrn Dames Aufzeichnungen. The clash of social revolution and conservative reaction informs much of the second half of We Are Prisoners (Wir sind Gefangene), as does the dislocation felt by soldiers returned from WWI; both of these were crucial to the political extremism of 1920s Germany, a struggle that eventually the Nazis won. In The Father of a Murderer (Der Vater eines Mörders), Alfred Andersch brings personal and political together, portraying the father of Heinrich Himmler as a petty tyrant of a school director at a training ground for Bavaria’s elite where democracy is a dirty word, authority and hierarchy are all-important, and iron determination will lead to triumph. This is how Nazism happened, as it happened.

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Three of the books in the set take place in the immediate postwar years, showing what Nazism wrought in Munich. Ruin, destruction, overturning the hierarchies that its supporters and fellow-travelers had so valued, foreign occupation, eventually a radical reconstruction of society. 48 Schelling Street (Schellingstrasse 48) paints a more optimistic picture, in part no doubt because the author had been an anti-Nazi and Social Democrat, and had gone into exile after Hitler seized power. Kolbenhoff gets a chance to be part of building the Germany he had hoped to see. Pigeons in the Grass (Tauben im Gras) is, as I wrote in 2019, “a much rawer book.” Not everyone was keen on the democratic turn that West Germany took, had no choice but to take, after the war, and Pigeons in the Grass shows them. It shows that “the economic miracle wasn’t all economics and wasn’t all miracles.”

Another half dozen books in the series are set in more recent decades: one in the late 1960s and early 1970s, one deeper into the 1970s, two in the 1980s, and two in the 2000s. (“München erlesen” was selected and published in 2007–08.) Unfortunately, this batch is much weaker than the others. Of the three books I’ve labelled “Stinker” at Frumious since 2014, two of them are the 1980s books in this set. Fortunately, they are both short, but it’s better to skip them entirely. The 1970s book is the only one that I didn’t finish. I’m still reading the 1960s/70s book, and about a third of the way through it’s fine but also no great shakes. The two books from the 2000s are both mysteries, and both are parts of series featuring recurring characters. They show a grittier Munich than the “laptop and lederhosen” mythos that the city promoted about itself in those years. I liked seeing familiar places from the time when I lived in Munich, and the stories were pretty good too.

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If that sounds like faint praise, well, yes. As Jo Walton writes, “The trouble with mimetic fiction isn’t that you can tell what’s going to happen … but that you can tell what’s not going to happen. There isn’t going to be an evil wizard. The world isn’t going to be destroyed in Cultural Fugue and leave the protagonist as the only survivor. There aren’t going to be any people who happen to have one mind shared between five bodies. There are unlikely to be shape-changers.” Mundane fiction is not my natural home; it doesn’t stretch my imagination enough. I think that’s why I liked the dialect and intimately realized rural setting of Die Rumplhanni, or the artistic weirdos in Herrn Dames Aufzeichnungen. In Der Vater eine Mörders Alfred Andersch used a small incident to probe some of the twentieth century’s biggest questions, while Wolfgang Koeppen in Tauben im Gras and Walter Kolbenhoff in Schellingstrasse 48 show the consequences.

Taken as a whole, the series shows how the city developed over time, both in history and in art. To its credit, it offers contrasting perspectives on the same era, and does that for several eras. The editors selected some authors who were beloved local figures, such as Siegfried Sommer and Karl Valentin, and they also published others, such as Annette Kolb, who were probably little read but deserved attention in a new era. I’m not quite finished with “München erlesen” – I am still reading Heißer Sommer and who knows if I will attempt the 750 pages of Erfolg — but I am already looking forward to another publishing project from the Süddeutsche Zeitung: Metropolen, a set of 20 books relating to major world metropolises from Tehran to Tokyo, Johannesburg to Lagos, Buenos Aires to Moscow.


The illustrations in this post are from an advertisement for the series that showed in cinemas in 2008. They show the series’ distinctive design superimposed on three Munich landmarks: Karlsplatz, on the western edge of downtown; Marienplatz, Munich’s central square with part of city hall visible at the right of the picture; the Theatinerkirche and Feldherrenhalle at the southern end of Munich’s main boulevard. The text “The most beautiful [Seiten] of Munich” plays on the German word “Seiten” meaning both “pages” and “sides.”

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  1. […] second is a collection of 20 books concerning Munich. I’ve read all but two of them, and all since starting to write for Frumious. I didn’t […]

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