Germany and Israel Fruitful literary relations

Amos Oz at the Leipzig Book Fair;
Amos Oz at the Leipzig Book Fair; | Photo (detail): © Leipziger Messe GmbH/Uli Koch

Israeli authors are attracting German readers with gripping stories and a sense of humour. German literature, by contrast, still has difficulties in Israel, but a gradual change is taking place.

The Israeli author Amos Oz once said that it was novels by Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll that persuaded him to abandon his decision never to set foot on German soil. “Literature was the one thing I simply couldn’t avoid, so I read German post-war literature as soon as it was translated into Hebrew.” In March 2015, the winner of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade repeated those words, this time as a guest at the Leipzig Book Fair. The focal point of that 2015 Book Fair was the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel. Amos Oz presented his latest book, Judas, there in front of an audience of over 600 in the completely sold-out theatre.

There are also historical reasons why Israeli literature is successful in Germany. “Guilt feelings as a result of the Holocaust facilitated a lot of licences,” explains Eldad Stobezki. Born in Israel, Stobezki lives in Frankfurt am Main today, working as a literary agent for, among others, Keter, one of the largest publishers in Israel. In the mid-1960s, German publishers like Siegfried Unseld and Michael Krüger discovered Israeli authors for the German book market – including Amos Oz and David Grossmann. Today, along with Meir Shalev, they are among the most popular Israeli authors in Germany. The first Jerusalem Book Fair took place in 1963 and became the pivot of bi-national exchange and of trade in rights and licences. The novels licensed in that period deal mainly with the Holocaust.

New literary themes

The literary themes changed over the course of time, and although the Holocaust is still present, it is increasingly shifting out of the focus of many novels. The broader range of literary themes is being well received by German readers. Israel is now firmly fixed in the awareness of the Germans, and not just for historical reasons. What many German readers like about Israeli authors is their word play, their irony and their unusual stories. Etgar Keret, for example, is popular “because his way of writing is very amusing. It makes fun of everyday life and includes a lot of Jewish humour,” the literary agent Eldad Stobezki emphasises. Other examples are Eshkol Nuevo, whose stories focus on younger couples in Israel, the erotic stories by Zeruya Shalev and Ron Leshem’s depictions of army life for a younger generation on the border with Lebanon. The Israeli author Lizzi Doron drew a lot of attention with her novel Who the fuck is Kafka in which she describes a turbulent friendship between an Israeli woman writer and an Arab-Palestinian journalist. The success of Israeli literature in Germany is giving rise to more and more translations: between 10 and twenty titles annually were translated from Hebrew into German over the past years. At the 2015 Leipzig Book Fair, more than 40 Israeli authors presented their books.

Growing interest in German Literature

But how popular is German-language literature in Israel? Although Israel is a country with a lot of readers, the orientation is more towards Anglo-Saxon literature. “German literature still has the reputation of being very difficult and cerebral,” says Eldad Stobezki. A lot of persuading is necessary therefore to get an Israeli audience to consider the younger generation of German writers, but the efforts have not been totally in vain. After all, the number of German novels translated into Hebrew has levelled out at about five to ten a year. In recent years, licences for successful novels by that new middle generations could in fact be sold to Israeli publishers. These included, for example, Campo Santo by W. G. Sebald, Kathrin Schmidt’s Du stirbst nicht (You’re not going to die), Julia Franck’s Mittagsfrau (Lady Midday), Catalina by Markus Orths or Der Schrecken verliert sich vor Ort (This Place holds no Fear) by Monika Held.

As for the titles that actually make their way through the eye of the needle, it is hard to speak of high sales figures, as the Israeli market simply cannot produce that. Nevertheless, the interest in German literature is growing, as can be ascertained far away from the book market. At the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for example, a series of lectures on German-language literature was held in 2014.