Geschichte der deutschsprachigen Literatur 1900-1918: Von der Jahrhundertwende bis zum Ende des Ersten Weltkriegs.
Anyone familiar with Peter Sprengel's monumental history of German literature from 1870 to 1900 (reviewed in MLR, 96 (2001), 574) will have high expectations of this complementary volume. Once again, Sprengel offers a virtually comprehensive overview of his period, with deft and subtly personal accounts of innumerable major and minor works. After the introductory 'Portrat einer Epoche', including sections on literary movements, intellectual currents, and the institutions of literature, there are four large chapters on genres (narrative prose, drama, lyric poetry, and non-fictional prose), followed by an invaluable seventy-page account of First World War literature.
Inevitably this scheme creates difficulties. While many subsections bear the names of individual authors, there are only a few--mostly those who died prematurely, such as Trakl, Heym, Stadler--whose entire oeuvre can be discussed. To counterbalance this fragmentation, Sprengel includes many sections and subsections on specific literary types which include enlightening juxtapositions. Thus a section 'Vom Mysterienspiel zum Stationendrama' links Hofmannsthal's Jedermann with mystery plays by Alfred Mombert and Rudolf Steiner, and, via Kaiser's Holle Weg Erde, with Expressionism. His major chapters also deal separately with Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, and while the assignment of Rilke to the Austria he hated could be questioned, Swiss writers are thus ensured generous coverage. They include not only Carl Spitteler (whose epic Olympischer Fruhling is treated sceptically) and Robert Walser, each given his own subsection, but such figures as Jakob Bosshart, Peter Ilg, and Friedrich Glauser, who are so unfamiliar outside Switzerland that none of them makes it into the Oxford Companion to German Literature. Regional writers within Germany, such as the Bavarians Ludwig Thoma and Lena Christ, receive less generous treatment: to learn about their work one must consult several sections, finding, for example, brief mention of Thoma's socially critical rural novels under' Heimatroman and Bauerngeschichte' and a paragraph on his Lausbubengeschichten under 'Kinderund Jugenderzahlung'.
Although this in some ways is best regarded as a reference work, it also provides an individual perspective on the epoch. Sprengel begins with the questioning of authority in the Empire, the home, and the school. His starting-point is the well-documented fact of frequent suicides among schoolboys: both Rudolf Ditzen ('Hans Fallada') and Johannes R. Becher attempted suicide in adolescence, and it was thematizedin Hesse's Unterm Rad, Emil Strauss's Freund Hein, and of course in Wedekind's Fruhlings Erwachen (first performed in 1906). From there Sprengel moves adroitly to the Expressionist critique of the family, to the literature of colonialism, and to the battle of the sexes, though the authors cited here are all male (Sternheim, Hauptmann, Kokoschka, Franz Jung). Dealing with women's writing, Sprengel's emphases are questionable: there is no mention of Lou Andreas-Salome's novel Ma (1901) nor of Annette Kolb's Das Exemplar (1913), though Else Lasker-Schuler rightly receives extended treatment, and women autobiographers (Adelheid Popp, Lily Braun) are duly noticed. The book ends with the literature of protest against the War. The last text discussed at any length is Andreas Latzko's Menschen im Krieg (1917), a collection of stories which deserves to be better known. Sprengel respects the integrity of literature while constantly acknowledging the social conditions that stimulated and constrained it. His encyclopaedic masterpiece should be in every library's German literature section.
ST JOHN'S COLLEGE, OXFORD
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|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2006|
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