Families in a new guise

Formen von Familie
© Goethe-Institut

by Miriam Zeh

The hunger for reality remains intense in German-language literature. There are still plenty of writers writing about their own families. By so doing in autofictional novels they succeed not least in defining their place in history and society. The different literary forms in which family stories are recounted in this autumn’s novels are especially interesting.

In her novel Lügen über meine Mutter (‘Lies about my mother’) Daniela Dröscher chooses a hybrid combination of essay-style passages and narrative episodes. Whereas initially the first-person narrator Ela describes growing up during the early 1980s in provincial West Germany from a child’s point of view, as an adult she then conveys the power structures within her own family with empathetic distance and sociological expertise. This not only allows the family’s big taboo topic to be thematised – her mother’s weight, which Ela’s father constantly criticised – but the novel, which figured on the shortlist for the German Book Prize, also captures a fragment of the history of female emancipation in West Germany in the mother’s desire to fulfil her potential in the world of work despite the absence of child-care facilities.

Daniela Dröscher Lügen über meine Mutter © KiWi © Amrei-Marie - Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Jan Faktor’s autofictional novel Trottel (‘Fool’) oscillates between Prague and East Berlin and between tragedy and comedy, amidst a plethora of bizarre, not to say surreal imaginings. In the 1980s this Czech-German writer was involved in the underground literary scene in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg area, and is thus in a position to recount the most incredible anecdotes about this fashionable artists’ quarter. However, the spontaneous-sounding gush of words is repeatedly interrupted by outbursts of grief: Faktor’s manic-depressive son took his own life. In this novel, which likewise made it onto the shortlist for the German Book Prize, the author – now over 70 – is haunted by family issues and by the question ‘whether a fool can ever achieve happiness in life’.

Jan Faktor Trottel © KiWi © Von Woebau - Eigenes Werk, CC BY 4.0,

Heinz Helle is also well aware that one’s family can be burdensome. His novel Wellen (‘Waves’) is part of a newly emergent novel genre (of which Anke Stelling was a precursor) that aggressively turns the circumstances of its creation into part of the narrative. Helle describes how he has to write in the gaps between looking after two small children, shopping for lunch, and folding freshly laundered underwear. What with housekeeping and looking after the children, he is repeatedly troubled by his own ingrained notions of maleness. What kind of consciousness must he seek to develop as a member of the sex that is chiefly responsible for wars throughout history and for much of present-day violence? Given the brief periods of time left to him for thinking and writing by his family duties, this essentially fragmentary novel also consists of short segments that for that reason are all the more precisely and perhaps even more economically formulated. Every entry: a single sentence that generates its intensity within the tightest of compasses.

Heinz Helle Wellen © Suhrkamp © Max Zerrahn

Blutbuch (‘Blood book’), the novel by Kim de l’Horizon that won the 2022 German Book Prize, describes the author’s search for a language and form appropriate to their own identity. Because the narrating self identifies themself as non-binary, as neither male nor female, the book subscribes to a queer aesthetic by fluctuating between figurative, essayistic and reflective passages. The narrator figure poses the question ‘What do literary texts look like when there’s no idealised human subject at the centre of them blithely Goethe-ifying the world?’ – and in responding to this question the narrator repeatedly resorts to their own family history. The narrator figure makes a particularly big effort in respect of their own disciplinarian grandmother (‘Grossmeer’ in Bernese German) and hits on intense images for the propinquity of the ageing, dementia-stricken body and the non-binary body. But this tumultuously incisive novel also reconstructs the life stories of earlier ancestors, right back into the 14th century, thereby tracing a legacy of hurt that carried through from generation to generation before finally culminating in the person of the narrator figure. Kim de l’Horizon’s Blutbuch thus simultaneously constitutes both the deconstruction and the regeneration of the family novel that is currently to be found in so many different variations.

Kim de l'Horizon Blutbuch © DuMont © Von Harald Krichel - Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Miriam Zeh works as a freelance literary critic and literary scholar in Frankfurt and Mainz, and presents radio shows for stations including Deutschlandfunk. She is also co-editor of POP Kultur & Kritik magazine, and is involved with the Books up! initiative ( /

Translated by John Reddick

Copyright: ©, December 2022