Written during Rilke’s formative years, his advice in Letters To A Young Poet is a guide not just to artists, but to anyone who wants to live well. Ranging over topics as diverse as vocation and art, sex and solitude, nature and literary criticism, Letters is a lyrical and spiritual guide to living, reading, feeling, and loving. Quick to read, this tiny book will stay with you long afterwards, and hold up to frequent rereadings. Like a holy book, it is best read often and briefly: peep at one passage, savour it, and turn it over on your tongue.
Whether you’re looking for an examination of crime and decay, a multi-disciplinary origin-story of individual consciousness, or a landmark in modernism literature that has influenced generations of writers, or just a jolly good narrative – Berlin Alexanderplatz will change the way you read and think.
Buddenbrooks is the four-generation saga of a wealthy 19th-century German merchant family. The Nobel Prize is generally awarded for an oeuvre; Mann’s 1929 citation was primarily for Buddenbrooks: an unusual choice which this novel justifies. Mann’s first novel, written in his early twenties, shows a prodigious talent for observation, an eye for character, an ear for dialogue and dialect, and a canvas ably spanning the better part of the 19th century. Buddenbrooks regularly tops Must-Read Lists of German literature; it has already become one of my favourite novels.
Death in Venice records the struggle between discipline and leisure, respectability and abandon in the person of aging writer Gustav Aschenbach. This quasi-autobiographical novella captures the conflict between social mores and primal desire; between the love drive and the death drive.
Siddhartha is the fictitious biography of a man who shares a name, and temporal-spatial proximity, with the Buddha, and who echoes many notes of the Buddha’s development. This spiritual journey into the self unfolds in rolling lyrical language, develops psychological insights in vivid imagery, and reconciles the cacophonous conflict between the worldly and the spiritual in a symphony of joy. Siddhartha is most memorable for its portrait of its protagonist: who combines amiability with an openness to endless change, and becomes a role-model for spiritual seekers everywhere.
Group Psychology summarises the existing research, and offers the rudiments of a unifying theoretical framework: based on the ego-related processes of suggestibility and object cathexis. In the twin human drives of libido, and of identification with an external object, Freud locates the building-blocks for group psychology. A century on, Freud’s monograph remains a useful tool to understand phenomena of mob behaviour: the preponderance of primitive emotions, the suspension of self-interest, and the moral lows and highs between which mob behaviour often swings.
Inspired by real-life events, In Dubious Battle is a vivid behind-the-scenes portrait of an agricultural strike during the Great Depression. Ingénue Jim joins up with seasoned communist agitator Mac to organise migrant labourers striking for a living age. Good intentions miscarry, priorities are tested, and the mob rises and wavers in this gripping human drama.
Howards End is a novel of ideas, an experiment in reconciling idealism and pragmatism via Forster’s panacea: “personal relations.” Written under the shadow of the Great War, the novel is an allegorical plea for peace between Germany and Britain: a peace based on mutual compromise and humility, and the surrendering of fatal ambitions. Howards End analyses a Britain undergoing rapid economic change and social fragmentation: with cars racing across country roads, but social mores and sexual double standards stuck in the last century. Forster offers compelling interior portraits of its protagonists, Meg and Helen Schlegel, and of a handful of secondary characters across the social spectrum. While the plot is problematic, and the resolution rushed, the novel’s poetic philosophical and psychological speculations remain with the reader long afterwards.
A Psychological Analysis of Adolf Hitler is of historic value to students of personality and of psychoanalysis. Historians have questioned the validity of its sources; the contemporary reader will be amused by the explicit focus on psychosexual development; several of the report’s conclusions are dubious at best; its terminology varies widely from those of contemporary psychopathology. Nonetheless, the Analysis offers plausible reconstructions of Hitler’s history and self-image, and constitutes an imaginative reconstruction of Hitler’s psychological economy.
This monumental tome doesn’t just document the rise of the Nazis and the lifespan of the Third Reich – it also traces the roots of Nazism deep in German history. With meticulous research and mostly able narrative, Shirer offers compelling portraits of Hitler and his closest associates – from the competent and passionate Goebbels, to the vain and bungling Ribbentrop. Notwithstanding frequent back-and-forths in time, a prejudice against German culture as exceptionally repressive, and pejoratives typical of the time but nonetheless distracting to a contemporary reader – this is an impressive work of scholarship, accessible to a lay audience, and a comprehensive introduction to the Third Reich.