Reviews and Reports

Katja Herges and Elisabeth Krimmer (eds.), Contested Selves: Life Writing and German Culture




Book review


In Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774), a piece of life writing constitutes one of the founding documents of modern German literature. The tragic story of the young bohemian Werther and his beloved Charlotte is partly based on the life and suicide of Goethe's friend Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, but is also infused with passages from Goethe's own letters and inspired by his unrequited love for Charlotte Buff. Validating Paul De Man's assertion that autobiography is not necessarily a genre or a type of writing, but rather a way of approaching and interpreting literature, Goethe's Werther can equally be read as biography, autobiography or as a work of fiction. Despite the fact that the novel sets the scene for the intricate interplay of life and literature that became a distinguishing mark of European Romanticism, the particular significance of life writing for German literature and thought is obvious if one considers the role of biography for German Historism in the tradition of Leopold Ranke and Gustav Droysen, of autobiographical writing from Goethe's Dichtung und Wahrheit (1811-1833) to Ruth Klüger's Weiter leben (1992), or of auto/biographical tropes in fictional genres like the Bildungsroman. This makes it all the more surprising that no comprehensive study has yet been devoted to the role of life writing within the German context. Even the term ‘life writing,’ bridging the gap between different genres and media, has only recently and somewhat reluctantly been adopted in German-language scholarship. A recent collection of essays, edited by Katja Herges and Elisabeth Krimmer, entitled Contested Selves: Life Writing and German Culture has set itself to remedy this shortcoming.

Author Biography

Tobias Heinrich, University of Kent

Tobias Heinrich is Lecturer in German at the University of Kent. Previously, he has taught at the University of Vienna, the University of Oxford, the Al-Azhar University Cairo and the University of Belgrade. From 2012 to 2014, he was Deputy Director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for the History and Theory of Biography and in 2018 he was DAAD Visiting Scholar at the Interdisciplinary Centre for European Enlightenment Studies (IZEA) in Halle (Saale), Germany. He has published on German literature from the eighteenth century to the present, on questions of Life Writing and biography, and on the aesthetics and poetics of friendship. His monograph Leben lesen: Zur Theorie der Biographie um 1800 [Reading lives: On the theory of biography circa 1800] was published with Böhlau in 2016. His current research project is concerned with a cultural history of friendship in the age of mass media. 





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