German Literature and Humour Ironic, funny, artistic

Wolf Haas was awarded the Bremer Literature Prize for his novel “Verteidigung der Missionarsstellung”
Wolf Haas was awarded the Bremer Literature Prize for his novel “Verteidigung der Missionarsstellung” | Photo (detail): © Lukas Beck

In a book published in 2013, two German writers lamented the fact that humorous literature was thought very little of in Germany. However, things are beginning to change in that respect.

The book Deutsche und Humor. Geschichte einer Feindschaft (Germans and Humour. The History of a Hostility) by Jakob Hein and Jürgen Witte was published in 2013 and, if you like, a polemic. In it, the authors came down hard on the German literary scene. “Humorous literature has scarcely ever been acknowledged in the form of serious awards,” they write, claiming that humorous art was consistently held in low esteem. Their critique was aimed at the culture sections of newspapers and the juries for literary prizes.
 
In the 60 years in which the Georg Büchner Prize has been in existence, there have been numerous winners “who have involuntarily exhibited humour, but at the most only three who could be called consciously humorous,” the book says. Among the works nominated for the German Book Prize since 2005 there have so far been “just three humorous books”.

“It’s astonishing how strong the resistance to humorous art is”

Was this lament justified – and has it been heeded? After all, something quite unexpected happened in the 2015 Literary Year: Frank Witzel, although by no means a decidedly humorous author, was honoured for Die Erfindung der Roten Armee Fraktion durch einen manisch depressiven Teenager im Sommer 1969 (i.e. The Invention of the Red Army Faction by a Manic Depressive Teenager in the Summer of 1969), a sensational book that broke the mould to date – highly experimental in its language and composition and with a very humorous touch.
 
Was that just a one-off? After all, the critique by Hein and Witte was not pure invention. Even one of those they addressed supported their complaint: Uwe Wittstock, established critic, literary head of the news magazine Focus and frequent member of juries, confirmed that the atmosphere in the consultation rooms can be rather strained. “It’s astonishing how strong the resistance to humorous art is,” says Wittstock. At one of the jury debates surrounding the German Book Prize, he even heard the statement that a book which garnered a large audience simply had to be bad literature.

The question of whether one may laugh at Hitler

For his part, Wittstock professes that he has always had a weakness for writers with an attacking humour. He even pleaded that the Bertolt Brecht Prize of the City of Augsburg be awarded to the humoristic poet and draughtsman Robert Gernhardt, who died in 2006. “It was not very easy to push that through,” Wittstock recalls.
 
Against this backdrop, it comes as no surprise that one of the most successful novels of the year 2012 received no prize at all: the Hitler satire Er ist wieder da (Look who’s back) by Timur Vermes. Vermes appeared out of nowhere, in literary terms. Until then, he had only written for the tabloids and for magazines, and also worked as a ghostwriter. One can well imagine how warily the established literary critics handled his book.
 
It took three months and a jump to the top of the Spiegel bestseller lists before the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung paid any attention to it – or had to pay attention to it? After all, people everywhere were discussing whether one could laugh about Hitler or even with Hitler. This was thanks to a mischievous author whose brilliant and subtle humour no one could easily deny.

Cheered up by a columnist

What is more, Vermes had written a novel which, apart from its many other angles, also enabled Er ist wieder to be read as a satire of German society in the early years of the millennium. Alas, this viewpoint was scarcely even noticed because of the fixation on Hitler.
 
Occasionally, columnists themselves also cheer up the literary landscape: Adam Soboczynski, for example, co-head of the cultural section of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, has now joined forces with writers. In 2006 he was already treating his “double life” as a Polish-born journalist in Germany with irony. He received prizes for his reports and stories. In 2015, he published his first real novel, Fabelhafte Eigenschaften – a satirical, self-mocking observation of the German culture industry and its protagonists.

“Restrictions significantly relaxed”

Rainer Moritz, literary critic and head of the House of Literature in Hamburg, sees no reason to speak of an ostracization of humorous literary anymore. “That certainly existed for a long time, but the former restrictions have been greatly watered down. Things are very much easier for comical literature today,” says Moritz, referring to the award of the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize to Tilman Rammstedt in 2008, and also to Wolf Haas, who received the 2013 Bremen Literature Prize and in 2016 the Jonathan Swift International Prize for Satire and Humour.
 
So what is the situation as regards the acceptance of humour in the German literary world? Things have started to change. As a result, the main demand made by Hein and Witte could be fulfilled sooner than expected: namely, to distinguish exclusively between good and bad art, and not between serious and humorous art.