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Books this Season: Memoirs and Biographies

Winter 2004/2005

b>Fiction / Arabic Literature / Memoirs and Biographies / Politics / Nonfiction


The critics all agree that with "Geboren am 13. August" Jens Bisky has written a successful version of the GDR memoir. The Bisky family belonged to the socialist upper class in the GDR. Jens' father, Lothar Bisky, was rector of the East German film school in Babelsberg, near Berlin, and now heads the PDS, the successor party to the former East German communist party. Jens' brother Norbert Bisky is a famous painter. Jens Bisky, born in 1969, is now editor of the Süddeutsche Zeitung's feuilleton section. For Toralf Staud, writing in Die Zeit, he has written a "true book" about the GDR, calling it an antidote to the GDR nostalgia so treasured by those who have forgotten what the communist regime was really like. For Staud the book attains great clarity, as Bisky "dissects" the GDR without the anger of a dissident. "Surprisingly pale" however, are the final chapters on the fall of the Wall and the arrival in the German Federal Republic.

Ulrich Enzensberger's "Die Jahre Kommune I" takes a fresh look at familiar territory. The author was the youngest member of the famous Berlin commune which also included Rainer Langhans and Uschi Obermaier. In Die Zeit Wolfgang Kraushaar, an expert on the generation of 68, commends Enzensberger's successful weaving together of the personal with the historical and his fusing of many individual episodes into a story.


Schiller is the talk of the land these days. This year is the 200th anniversary of his death, and new honours are being heaped on the long derided poet. Rüdiger Safranski's huge Schiller biography even ranks among Der Spiegel's Top 20 bestsellers. "The book just about manages to exorcise Schiller of the ghost of platitude," writes Rolf-Bernhard Essig in Die Zeit. It portrays Schiller as a poet whose modernity lies in his conscious opposition to nihilism. "Gripping objectivity," promises Hans-Jürgen Schings in the FAZ. In the NZZ, Manfred Koch calls Safranski's Schiller the Sartre of the 18th Century.

Historian Johannes Kunisch has written the first comprehensive biography of "Friedrich der Große" in twenty years, to great critical acclaim. The critics agree that this is the first thoroughly modern portrait of Frederick the Great, though many ask with a hint of regret what the book has done with Frederick's greatness. The FAZ writes that old Fritz looks comes over as "a throne sitter from the generation of 68". The SZ struggles with Kunisch's shrinking Friedrich to a normal-sized late absolutist ruler. In Die Zeit, historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler was thrilled with the book, finding it "illuminating, well informed, differentiated, and entirely free of blind veneration."

Hanno Loewy's biography of "Bela Balazs" uncovers new sides to this Hungarian multitalent. For many years the author, critic, essayist, librettist and theoretician Bela Balazs was known above all as the author of a book on film theory, "The Visible Man." Not in vain, writes NZZ critic Laszlo Földenyi, for Balazs' key work was done in this area. This book informatively sets out the background of Balazs' development, his youth in Hungary, his ambivalent friendship with Georg Lukacs, and the relation to his Berlin mentor Georg Simmel. And it shows how Balazs rediscovered his favourite genre, the fairytale, in film. Földenyi praises the book as "excellent", prophesying that it will remain a standard work for a long time to come. Die Zeit finds the book "more gripping than most novels", while the FAZ admires the quality of the research. recommends Balazs' "Jugenderinnerungen" as one of the best autobiographies of recent years.

China's most famous woman poet Li Qingzhao lived in the 12th century. Previously unknown in Germany outside academic circles, Li comes alive in Barbara Beuys' biography, "Der Preis der Leidenschaft". Although Beuys cannot read classical Chinese, Jürgen Osterhammel in Die Zeit praises "the thoroughness of her approach, her diligence and earnestness". Beuys has conjured up a "wonderful portrait of medieval China". "lx", writing in the NZZ, agrees that Beuys arouses interest in China, past and present.

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