Reflections on my first year studying German at Oxford

Back in Michaelmas Term 2015 (Autumn/Winter 2015) some Student Ambassadors suggested that OGN launch a blog.  And that’s exactly what we did!  In this post Zoe Aebischer, one of those students, reflects on the first post she wrote for OGN and indeed on her whole first year studying German at Oxford.

I’ve just looked back at the first blog post I wrote at the beginning of my first year studying German, and I am shocked/amazed/confused that the year has passed so quickly and I am now only a few days away from starting second year (eek!). I arrived in Oxford having read very little German literature, so the fact that I have now read works by German philosophers, playwrights, poets and novelists, ranging from being written in approximately 1190 (‘Gregorius’ by Hartmann von Aue, an epic poem, the plotline of which was always amusing to explain to my friends) up to 1975 (‘Einen Jener Klassischen’ by Rolf Dieter Brinkmann), has taught me that you can achieve a lot more than you ever thought possible. It definitely helps build your confidence knowing that you can, you can do more than “just” recite a list of vocab in a foreign language (although that’s still something I need to work on…), but can analyse a poem or write an essay on the narrative voice of a novel written in a foreign language.

Views of Oxford and Worcester College

I think the most important thing I’ve learnt in the last year (other than how to include German puns in as many places as possible, or how to…endure…a two and a half hour philosophy seminar while being ill with the flu) is that, although Oxford is at times incredibly overwhelming, pressure-piling and demanding, every other student is in exactly the same position, and this leads to the creation of some really close and supportive friendships. There is also, of course, time to squeeze in things that are fun and relaxing, such as dressing up for the colourful and chaotic college bops or going to see poetry slams by Julia Engelmann (if you haven’t already, I would highly recommend looking her up on YouTube!).

And so I go into second year feeling generally positive: I’m looking forward to helping my college children (new first year students) navigate life at Oxford; to many more amusing moments in German classes (I’m reminded of the time in a translation class when we were given a chunk of text in English: one person translated it into German, then passed it to the next person who translated it back into English, then to another person who translated this sentence into German and so on until we had gone round the whole group – somehow from ‘The fog came pouring  in at every chink and keyhole’ we ended up with ‘Chaos permeated every chimney and every keyhole’… ok so perhaps it’s not that funny, but it’s these kinds of moments that bring a bit of light to your day.) I’m even (sorry to any medieval German enthusiasts reading this) looking forward to studying more medieval German texts – despite my initial sensation of pure fear when, last year, I saw the medieval German text on my reading list.

Best of luck to everyone starting or continuing at Oxford this year!

 Zoe Aebischer, Worcester College, Oxford

More tips for flathunting…

Following on from our previous blog post, here’s part two of our guide to flat and house hunting in German-speaking countries – jargon busting for flathunters and the perils of viewings!

  1. Jargon and abbreviations

Abbreviations obviously save space in adverts with strict character limits, but they can leave foreigners scratching their heads in puzzlement. Here’s a handy guide to some of the most common to help you avoid any nasty surprises.

1-Zi-Whg. = 1-Zimmerwohnung. Bed-sitting room or bedsit. Flats and houses are not measured by the number of bedrooms (as they are in the UK), but in how many rooms. A 1-room flat will be the space in which a tenant sleeps, eats, and works/sits.

Altb. = Altbau. Old building. This could mean a range of things, though generally will mean a building built before 1940. In cities that suffered severe bombing in the 1940s, it could also mean that the advertised property is in a building that was part of the rush to reconstruct in the 1950s. In addition to some genuinely charming original features, you can expect such things as wood frame double glazing and no lift access, high ceilings, thinner walls or possibly showers located in kitchens. Listings may also give the ‘Bj.’ or ‘Baujahr’ – year of the building’s construction – as an indication.


Bes. = Besichtigung. Viewing.

DG = Dachgeschoss. The room or flat is located under the eaves of the house. Rooms and flats located here are often cheaper because they are smaller and, in old buildings in particular, prone to getting very warm in the summer (and cold in the winter).

Nicola Deboys' YA kitchen
Nicola’s kitchen in her year abroad flatshare

EBK = Einbauküche. An installed kitchen is present. If you’re intending to live on your own, be aware that not all flats come with a kitchen and white goods ready to use. Tenants frequently install their own on moving in (and remove them when vacating the flat) or – especially in the case of 1-Zi-Whg. (see above) – will purchase relatively inexpensive hotplates on which to cook. If you do not see this abbreviation in an advert, ask about it.

HK = Heizkosten. Heating costs. Note that many online listings will also give the heat efficiency rating of the property.


Kaut. = Kaution. Deposit. Typically 2 months’ rent.

Kehrwoche – is it your turn?

Kehrwoche = lit. ‘sweep week’. If you live in southern Germany, especially in the Swabian part of Baden-Württemberg, you will find frequent references to this practice of having a communal cleaning rota for the shared areas of the building. Look out for the rota notice in the building entrance hall.

KM = Kaltmiete. Rent ‚cold‘. Rent listed with no Nebenkosten.#

NK = Nebenkosten. These can include some or all of the costs for heating, water, electricity, weekly rubbish removal, Hausmeister services (note not all buildings will have a Hausmeister), TV & radio licence, internet. These are charged on a monthly basis in addition to the basic rent and can range between anything from 40 to 250 Euro. If you don’t see them listed in the ad or they seem rather low, ask about them.


NR = Nichtraucher. Non-smoker.

TG = Tiefgarage. Underground garage. This may indicate that the flat comes with a parking space, which could nevertheless be an extra cost in addition to rent and Nebenkosten. In some cities, parking spaces are like gold dust, so if you don’t have a car, consider subletting your parking space.

WG = Wohngemeinschaft. Shared flat of 2 or more people.

WM = Warmmiete. Rent ‘warm’ or ‘heated’. Rent listed with Nebenkosten, but remember the Nebenkosten may not include heating!

ZKB = Zimmer, Küche, Bad / Zimmer, Küche, Balkon


Zweck-WG = A flatshare that is functional, not about being friends (often young professionals).  Ads like this may be less picky about who they accept, but living here could be lonely if you’re completely new to the area.


  1. Viewings

You should always view a room or flat before you sign the contract and hand over your money. If you cannot do the viewing in person, ask a trusted friend to go on your behalf and take photos or even Skype or live chat with you.

If you are planning to move into a WG, the chances are that all or some of the current group of flatmates will want to meet you. This could range from a very informal chat and tour of the flat to an interview panel situation (be prepared to answer some unusual questions). You will almost certainly not be the only applicant and you could even find yourself being shown round with a (large) group of other hopefuls at the same time. However, remember that viewings are also an opportunity for you to decide whether you would want to live with them and whether the space is as advertised. Just because you have looked at the flat or room doesn’t mean you have to take it.  Things you might like to ask are:Wohngemeinschaft kitchen sink

  • Do the flatmates spend time together – cooking/parties/going out etc? (Or actually a Zweck-WG?)
  • Is there a Putzplan for allocating cleaning? Is anyone a Putzteufel??
  • How long do the others intend to stay? Are they in fact also about to move out?
  • Are pets allowed? (Do you really want to end up living with a large dog called “Kaiser”??)

You’ve found a room or a flat, seen it and met your landlord and housemates, and signed the contract? Congratulations! Now hot foot it to the Bürgeramt to register your new address – don’t forget to take your copy of the contract and your passport with you! To avoid having to wait in a long queue, go very early in the morning – or make an appointment (your local Amt will have on online booking service). Usually your registration will be valid from the start date of your contract, so you’ll be able to do things like open a bank account on and after that date. Make sure that your administrator at the Bürgeramt gives you written confirmation that you are registered at that address and keep that letter safe for future reference.

And relax!  You’ve successfully completed your search for a WG!

Madeleine Brook & Nicola Deboys, OGN Coordinators

Still searching? How to find that elusive first German flatshare

So it’s time for your year abroad or you’re moving abroad for your first job. The thought of trying to find somewhere to live in a foreign country – and then also having to grapple with that country’s bureaucracy can be pretty daunting, especially if you’re having to do it on your own. Knowing that you can’t open a bank account or do anything else involving a contract for services until you have registered a local address with the Einwohnermeldeamt or Bürgeramt (citizens’ registration office) only adds to the pressure. So, following on from Francesca’s post earlier this summer, we (OGN Coordinators Madeleine and Nicola!) have got some tips for making the process easier and at least more predictable, if not actually completely stress-free. The experience of finding somewhere to live will vary from place to place and your options will depend on your own situation. So we aren’t going to be able to cover every eventuality or permutation, but we hope these hints and pieces of advice will provide some good general starting points for your search!

  1. Getting started – when and where to look, and what to look for

Now, of course, you may already know people in your destination country, or know people who know people – that’s great! Spread the news of your upcoming move, let them know that you are looking for somewhere to live so that they can ask around as well. Even in the age of the internet – or perhaps most especially in the age of the internet – word of mouth is a valuable tool.

If you’re a student, then the most obvious thing to look at is university accommodation. The Studentenwerk (also more inclusively known as Studierendenwerk) in a university town provides a range of rooms at cheap prices for students, as well as meals, kitchens, laundry, and socialising facilities. As soon as you know that you’ve been accepted by a university, check the incoming international student and staff pages of its website for contact details and the application process.

Nicola View WG Abroad
The view from Nicola’s WG room on her year abroad

However, you might prefer a flatshare (Wohngemeinschaft or ‘WG’) or even living on your own, although of course the latter option will be more expensive. This might go without saying, but it is infinitely easier to persuade somebody of your cleanliness, friendliness, reliability, and general viability as a potential housemate or tenant in person. You may well find that any enquiries you make via email while still in your home country fall on deaf ears. Nevertheless, it is advisable to start your search early – if only because it will give you a reasonable idea of what is available, where, and for how much.  Try also to balance the desire to have everything organised in advance with having somewhere you’ll be comfortable living for a year – having found a year abroad WG online, OGN Coordinator Nicola had a beautiful fully furnished room, but  this came with a whole string of flatmates during the year, including a very large dog called “Kaiser”….

Online listings are plentiful, so here are some sites that we’ve found most useful:

For general searches:

Mitwohnzentralen and Mietwohnzentralen offer a free search service for long and short-term lets of furnished rentals to a range of tenant types, including families and businesses.

For flatshares:

Demand in some cities (e.g. Munich, Stuttgart, Vienna) is exceptionally high, so be prepared to send a lot of enquiries and not get very many responses in return. Decide what requirements you have (location, rent range, amenities in the area, etc.), but be prepared to be flexible.

Do also check listings in local newspapers (many will also have an online presence). Many will simply contain listings already advertised on the main online search sites, but are worth checking nonetheless.

  1. Temporary accommodation

It isn’t always possible to find somewhere to live before you’ve arrived in your destination country. If it looks like you’re going to find yourself without a home when you arrive, plan ahead and set up temporary accommodation for yourself so you have a place to lay your head while you hit the internet and the streets hard in your ongoing search. OGN Coordinator Madeleine spent six weeks in places varying from a hostel dorm to an Airbnb sublet before she found a flat to move into when she recently moved to Germany. Or maybe you’re only going to be in the country for a relatively short period anyway. Fortunately, there are plenty of inexpensive options for finding temporary accommodation in addition to the usual youth hostels, youth hotels, and couchsurfing.

  • Student dormitories may hire out rooms during vacation periods for short lets. Check university pages and the Studentenwerke.
  • Kolpinghäuser. There are a few hundred of these organisations spread throughout Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Originally set up by the Catholic Church to cater for the needs of apprentices, they are open to all regardless of religious or political affiliation. In addition to providing support and accommodation to young trainees and apprentices, many also offer short-term accommodation at reasonable prices to all comers.
  • Airbnb is now widely used in Germany, Austria and Switzerland and can offer options for stays of a few nights to a few months. Airbnb lists subletting options (Zwischenmiete), and many similar Zwischenmiete listings can be found on the other flat-hunt sites, as well. One of the benefits here is that many of the additional costs of renting (heating, electricity, etc.), will be covered in the fee for your stay.
  1. (Online) safety first!

Although most adverts will be from genuine landlords and tenants, online accommodation search sites are a perfect hunting ground for scam artists, many of whom are operating outside Germany, so be vigilant at all times. Good accommodation search sites do monitor for hoaxes, but may not be able to react fast enough to remove suspect adverts.

If an offer seems too good to be true, then you’ll probably be best advised to give it a wide berth. Poor German or English in their written communication is often a good indication of a scam, but is by no means a certain identifier.

Under no circumstances comply with any requests to pay money as a deposit or rent through a third party or if you are not given bank details (e.g. scams frequently use Western Union and similar money transfer services). Make sure you have met your landlord, viewed the room or flat (or asked a trusted friend to do this on your behalf) and signed a valid contract before you hand over any money. The reverse is equally true: landlords in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland generally won’t make contracts with people they haven’t met and whom they know nothing about. So although you should never give out any personal information (the same naturally applies to any copies of your passport and your bank information), being able to name an institution or official person to whom they can turn for more information or a reference may be useful.

Hoax landlords often claim to live abroad and that it is impossible for them to come to the country of their property (Madeleine saw a lot of versions of this story – frequently using almost identical phrasing and layout, the difference between them was often only in the quality of the English or German!). Note that genuine landlords living abroad would usually have an official agent working on their behalf. So keys should not be sent in the post to you, but should be given to you in person by the agent on behalf of the landlord.

Madeleine Brook & Nicola Deboys, OGN Coordinators

Psst… More tips to come next week – stay tuned!

In the beginning: navigating the labyrinth of ‘WG-Gesucht’

About to embark on your year abroad and it’s the first time you have to look for somewhere to live? This week German student, Francesca, gives us her experience of landing in Germany and flat-hunting during her year abroad. Next week, some tips on where to look and what to expect…

If you are capable of briefly forgiving me my narcissism, then allow me to present my year abroad in Germany as a kind of story; a tragicomic tale of intrigue (over disappearing yoghurts) and swashbuckling encounters (with German bureaucracy)!

Remembering my secondary school tutor’s fascination with the seven basic plotlines, I would place my year abroad into the following categories: The Quest, Overcoming the Monster, and, (it goes without saying really) Voyage and Return. The object of an initial arduous month-long quest? A place to live. The monster to be slain? Well, I’m using the term monster very, very liberally here. Shall we say, the monster of reluctance? The monster of impatience? The monster of defeatism?  (Sorry for making you endure that awful metaphor.)

I think these pesky creatures crop up in everyone’s day at some point, and having spent my first week(s) in Germany crying over various housing rejections, it’s safe to say that defeatism had a rather significant role. Everyone says ‘persistence is key’, but no one mentions exactly how many weeks you will have to be persistent for, how much of your Erasmus grant will be spent on air b&b, how frustrating it feels to turn up to a house visit and see a queue of seven other people outside the door- all interested in the one room on offer.  At least, however, I had been warned that the monster of impatience would put up a fight when it came to dealing with bureaucratic necessities, so the queuing up outside the town hall at 7:30 a.m. to register was to be expected. But eventually my quest was fulfilled: I had a room, I was officially a registered citizen, I had a bank account, several different university cards, and had signed and sent various forms that I pretended to understand.

However, the challenges of finding somewhere to live and the challenge of living with four people you’d never met before are very different. I am sure that most people, when asked, would consider themselves to be good at sharing. I had lived alone at university, I was independent, oder? Oder indeed. There is very little about living inside college accommodation that requires or promotes independence. I shared a communal hoover, an iron, laundry appliances and a couple of microwaves at best (to this day I have never used that iron). Now I share a whole living space, shelves, cupboards, a garden, chores, and, very pertinently for Germany, recycling.

Wohngemeinschaft kitchen sinkHowever, a house-share isn’t just called a house-share here, but a Wohngemeinschaft (or ‘WG’ for short), which literally  and very roughly translates as a ‘community that lives together’. Whilst house-sharing is by no means a unique concept, the German variation of it did seem unique to me in some aspects: The word ‘community’ seems to imply more than just sharing – there is also the expectation of harmony. Many WGs that I applied for seemed to run ‘auditions’ for potential Mitbewohner (housemates), and I seemed doomed to fail with my hesitant German and lack of persuasive powers to convince them that I was clean, tidy, responsible, fun and friendly all at the same time (probably because I’m not).

However, the aptly named Zweck-WGs operate on the basis that there are no expectations of particular friendship between housemates, but rather you just all live your separate lives under the same roof (a Zweck is a function, a purpose, an objective etc.). Even though my room was advertised as within one of these, it turns out that we do get along pretty well after all. Of course, learning to share is always going to be difficult. I woefully endure one housemate’s over-tidiness whilst inwardly bemoaning the other’s untidiness, yet I do sometimes lament that emptying the dishwasher seems perpetually befallen to me, and I sometimes think wistfully back to living alone and being able to walk around in my pyjamas all day free from judgement!

Wohngemeinschaft kitchen sinkHaving said that, gradually I have come to realise that washing up someone else’s plate won’t kill you, chores are an unfortunate necessity of life to be shared, there’s no need to turn into Gollum over a yoghurt and it is actually nice to have people to talk to, especially when those people are nice themselves. The WG world can be hard to navigate for any newcomer, and I am only qualified to talk about one, but to any prospective year abroad student in Germany I would really recommend it. You may have gone from talking about newspaper articles at university to talking about who last watered the plants in your flat, but language practice is language practice nonetheless. The whole point of year abroad is supposed to be about gaining an experience of the country, and there’s nothing like your landlord making you potato soup with sausages on your first night to confirm your preconceived notions about Germany, and nothing like your bus home being three and a half hours late to confute them.


Very creative and a little bit crazy – German poetry for young learners

Along with the Oxford German Olympiad Prize-giving, throughout the month of June OGN ran a number of other events, all designed to offer an introduction to interesting pieces of German literature in as accessible and attention-grabbing a manner as possible.  This post looks at the first of these sessions, aimed at younger learners, and includes resources that teachers can use for their own lessons.

Photo: Friedrich Böhringer

Many of our local schools start teaching German around Year 8 or 9, so I decided to run a one-off session for pupils in Years 9 and 10 looking at ‘Modern German performance poetry’.  Having advertised the topic as “very creative… and a little bit crazy” I hoped the poems would live up to expectations!  The opening poem auf dem land by Ernst Jandl certainly provoked a good deal of surprise and laughter amongst the group, and already offered a sense of just what it can mean to “perform” a poem.  Trying to name all of the animals mentioned proved a challenge in some cases (see how many you can get!) so this film from a Berlin primary school gave some helpful hints.

The main focus of the session was the poetry of Nora Gomringer, who has won a number of prestigious literary prizes including the Jakob-Grimm-Preis Deutsche Sprache (2011) and the Ingeborg-Bachmann-Preis (2015).  Ursprungsalphabet is a fantastic poem for younger learners because the idea of an alphabetical poem going “Ich bin Ariadne… Rilkes Panther Tier-Pfleger… X-Men…” is easy to grasp and identifying familiar characters provides a great way in to closer analysis.  This video shows Gomringer’s performative skills and her ability to truly entrance her audience, whether through her incredibly S-L-O-W rendition of “Ich bin die L-A-N-G-S-A-M-K-E-I-T” or the quirky inclusion of “X-Men” near the end.

Having experienced these poems, along with Gomringer’s Daheim (written with no spaces and performed at breakneck speed) the pupils were let loose to prepare their own performances or write short German poems in the style of Gomringer or Jandl.  The results were impressive!

I think it’s safe to say that all the attendees left feeling that they had experienced a creative and crazy side to the German language and had an interesting first taste of German literature.  Look out for my next post giving a roundup of our Year 11-12 reading groups…

Nicola Deboys, Oxford German Network Coordinator

Viel zum Lächeln – Awards at the Oxford German Olympiad

After hundreds of entries from schools all across the UK, heated discussions amongst judges and the final seal of approval from head judge Professor Henrike Lähnemann, the Oxford German Olympiad 2016 finally came to a close on Thursday, 16 June with a prize-giving ceremony in Oxford.

Rosie Goldsmith OGO2016
Rosie Goldsmith speaking at the Olympiad prize-giving

OGN was delighted that Rosie Goldsmith, award-winning journalist and freelance broadcaster for the arts and current affairs, was able to come and award the prizes to the winners of this year’s Oxford German Olympiad.  She is a champion of international literature and language-learning, and founded the European Literature Network in 2009. She has lived in many countries, including Germany.  As many of you will know, the theme of this year’s Olympiad was Deutscher Humor – nichts zum Lachen?  Accordingly, we set Rosie the somewhat daunting task of speaking on the topic of German humour.

Rosie retraced her experiences of visiting and living in Germany and her personal encounters with German humour, or indeed her search to find something that met her definition of ‘humour’.  By all accounts this was an often fruitless search, but with glimmers of wit shining through.  She recalled that with the fall of the Berlin Wall those in the West suddenly had access to a whole new wealth of jokes, those popular amongst citizens of East German, often political satires directed at leaders such as Honecker.  In later years she also came to appreciate the quality of German TV comedians.

As many Olympiad entrants will have found this year, what is funny in one language may not be particularly amusing at the end of the translation process – perhaps the grammar and vocab in the target language are too long-winded, perhaps some wordplay goes astray, or perhaps it is a question not just of translating words, but also of cultural transfer. Take a look at the winning entries in the category “Years 5/6 Illustrate a Funny Phrase” for some examples.

Chatting with some of the prize-winners

Despite all these difficulties, Rosie is continuing on her quest to unlock the secrets of German humour, and is a fervent supporter of the arts.  She encouraged the prize-winners to keep exploring the mysteries of German, whether literature, language or just everyday life.  Hopefully the prizes, provided by our partners, the German Embassy, Goethe Institut, Penguin, and OUP, will help these budding Germanists do just that.

To see all the winning entries, as well as further photos of the event, visit the OGN website.

Of course, a blog post about German humour wouldn’t be complete without a punchline… in this case it’s more of a cliff-hanger… On 26 September 2017, European Day of Languages, we will announce the theme for the 2017 Oxford German Olympiad!

Nicola Deboys, Oxford German Network Coordinator

Learning to see: Rilke’s Neue Gedichte

The last of our mini-series of literary posts also heralds the last of this year’s OGN reading group sessions: here, Rey Conquer introduces us to aspects of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry.
Stephen Emmerson’s ‘translations’ of Rilke’s Neue Gedichte, at the Austrian Cultural Forum’s Kakania festival in London, involved, among other things, turning the book into pills, into seed bombs, into a cake, even into the audience’s own excrement.  We might think this nothing more than a provocative stunt, an act of exuberant irreverence. After all, Rilke was serious and high-minded, one of the most important poets writing in Europe in the last century, and his poetry has influenced not just other poets but also philosophers and critics (not to mention nuns). But the idea of transformation was central to Rilke’s work, and Emmerson’s desecrations are a helpful caricature of some of the things Rilke himself was particularly interested in at the time he was writing the Neue Gedichte (New Poems).
459px-Paula_Modersohn-Becker_016 Rainer Maria Rilke 1906
Portrait of Rilke by the Expressionist painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906.

Rainer Maria Rilke was 26 when he turned up in Paris in 1902 to write a book on the sculptor Auguste Rodin. He had written and published poetry, plays, short stories, art criticism (he went on to write a novel, based on his experiences in and of Paris, Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge) which was published in 1910). That is, he was no novice; but when in Paris, he set himself the task of learning, first from Rodin and then from Paul Cézanne—and this second encounter, in which he visited an exhibition of Cézanne’s paintings daily, is documented in a series of letters to his wife, the sculptor Clara Westhoff. What did he hope to learn from these ‘apprenticeships’? For an answer we might turn to the protagonist of his novel, Malte, who writes, “Ich lerne sehen.”

Why might a poet want to learn to see? It seems obvious why a painter or sculptor would want to see, because the finished artwork is something that has to be seen (and in the case of both Rodin and Cézanne, the artwork is *of* a real thing that itself had to be seen). If we read Rilke’s earlier or later poems, seeing seems often less important than hearing or indeed thinking, remembering, imagining, and so on. But in the Neue Gedichte many of the most striking poems are like paintings or sculptures, or are about paintings or sculptures (one of the most famous, ‘Archaischer Torso Apollos’ is about a statue, for instance), and they pay a lot of attention to looking, and use techniques such as repetition and sound patterning to create a sensory ‘portrait’ of an object or scene. The very first to be written was ‘Der Panther’:
Der Panther
Im Jardin des Plantes, Paris
Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, dass er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.
Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.
Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf -. Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille –
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.
Rainer Maria Rilke, 6.11.1902, Paris
Even at a first glance we can see the ways in which parts of the visual world are turned into poetic language: for instance, the repeated word ‘Stäbe’ in the first stanza mimics the bars of the panther’s cage. Not only does this help us see the panther, it also helps us see that poetry, like painting and sculpture, is made out of something: words. Neither Cézanne nor Rodin hid the marks of their tools, and the very visible and audible use of  assonance and alliteration in this poem (‘Stäbe gäbe’, ‘Kreise’/‘Kraft’) is a way of making clear that this is something that has been worked, and worked on. For while working with Rodin, and while spending time with the paintings of Cézanne, it was not just looking and seeing that he was learning; he was also learning to work. In a letter to Clara, he reported Rodin’s advice: ’Il faut travailler, rien que travailler. Et il faut avoir patience.’ (‘You have to work, nothing but work. And you have to be patient’).
Emmerson turned Rilke’s poems into a ‘seed bomb’ that would be planted and produce, from the words, flowers. Rilke did the opposite: he turned flowers (and carousels, and swans, and fountains, and parrots) into words, into poems. These are poems that are at times linguistically difficult and dense, but with some patience, they open out.
Rey Conquer, Somerville College, Oxford

Donna Clara – Heinrich Heine’s Bad Romance

We were a bit voreilig with our posts – oops! Heinrich Heine’s work is at the centre of the second of OGN’s reading groups – this week, Alex Marshall gives us an insight into some of the complexities of Jewish life and literature in nineteenth-century Germany.
Donna Clara‘ (Buch der Lieder, 1827) is Heinrich Heine’s most direct and probably funniest commentary on antisemitism. In lush, mock-epic verse, Heine describes the courtship of a fair maiden, tired of the false promises and empty flattery of the court, by a handsome young knight, almost the very image of St George, interspersed with the sudden, gratuitous and frankly bizarre outbursts about Jews she subjects him to. When she asks the gallant knight his name, we instead hear his father’s: “Rabbi Israel von Saragossa“.
Lancelot Bears Off Guenevere, Tales of the Round Table, Andrew Lang (1908)
The relish and pride with which the young knight reveals this secret is matched only by the tolerance he shows, sitting patiently through no less than three antisemitic rants and only revealing his ancestry when asked about his identity. We’ve all indulged someone we fancied more than we would someone else, but is the knight’s superhuman patience that far away from the flattery of the other suitors in the court? Did he deceive poor Donna Clara by letting her fall in love with him, and can we blame him for it?
Since Heine based this poem on “personal experience” his readers might wonder just how long he spent, sitting at a dinner table, while the pretty girl opposite alternated lingering eye-contact with anti-Jewish tirades. Did Heine ever reveal his own roots to her, or is Donna Clara, like much great humorous writing, the product of a case of Treppenwitz?
Jews burned alive for the alleged host desecration in Deggendorf, Bavaria, in 1338, and in Sternberg, Mecklenburg, 1492; a woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)
The mock-epic form adds greatly to the humour, but also expresses the underlying tensions between Heine’s German and Jewish identities. While German Romanticism loved to, well, romanticise Medieval Europe, Heine reminds us that, for Jews, the Middle Ages were not just a time of courtly love and shining armour, but fear, persecution, and ritual  humiliation. These myths that were the life-blood of German romantic nationalism, but for Heine, a German romantic nationalist who was also a Jew, they were what you might call problematic. As the poet imagines himself chivalrously winning the heart of a fair damsel, he wryly asks what the damsels in those days would have really thought of him.
But other questions come up. Has Donna Clara ever met a Jew before, or is she merely repeating what she heard elsewhere? Why does he not give his own name, but the obviously,Jewish name of his father, Israel? Is that really his father’s name or is he merely a “son of Israel”? Why does he stress his father’s rabbinical learning, unlikely to impress your average antisemite? Is he more proud of the scholar’s blood in his veins than his own knightly status? Has he, like many Jews in the nineteenth century, Heine included, had to convert to Christianity to get the job? And why St George, the Christian martyr and slayer of monsters who, although usually portrayed as a European knight, has his origins in Palestine?
Alex Marshall, University of Oxford

How to start reading Kafka?

This week, ahead of the third OGN reading group, Karolina Watroba thinks about how to tackle one of the most famous German writers of the early twentieth-century: Franz Kafka.
Franz Kafka in 1906

Franz Kafka is probably the most famous German-language writer, and he has certainly been one of the most influential authors of world literature in the twentieth century. His unique style has even given rise to a brand new adjective, ‘kafkaesque’ – so if having one’s name turned into a common word is anything to go by, Kafka has really become an inseparable element of our culture. It might seem overwhelming to actually have a go at reading something written by a literary legend like Kafka, which is why I want to share five ideas for how you can start reading him!

1. Translations of famous opening lines – different every time!
The first of Kafka’s texts I read in German, and in fact one of the very first pieces of literature written in German that I decided to tackle in the original language, was a novella called ‘Die Verwandlung’ – ‘The Metamorphosis’. It later turned out that I would study this story in my first year at Oxford – it is one of the prose set texts for first-year students here. ‘Die Verwandlung’ was originally published in 1915, and it begins with one of the most famous opening sentences in the history of literature:
‘Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheuren Ungeziefer verwandelt.’
In Ian Johnston’s translation: ‘One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed, he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.’
You’ll find eight other English translations of the opening sentence to compare in this fun article from The Guardian. Kafka’s works are in the public domain, so you can find them online for free. Check out this bilingual edition of ‘Die Verwandlung’.
2. Expect the unexpected!
Perhaps the best-known, and the most influential of Kafka’s texts, is his unfinished novel Der Prozess The Trial. He wrote it at about the same time as ‘Die Verwandlung’, but it wasn’t published until 1925, a year after his death, when his lifelong friend, Max Brod, decided to go against Kafka’s will and start publishing his hitherto unpublished texts, rather than burning them. Der Prozess boasts another unforgettable opening sentence:
‘Jemand mußte Josef K. verleumdet haben, denn ohne daß er etwas Böses getan hätte, wurde er eines Morgens verhaftet.’
In John Williams’s translation: ‘Someone must have been spreading slander about Josef K., for one morning he was arrested, though he had done nothing wrong.’
Even in this opening sentence, it is already evident that, in many ways, Der Prozess is written like a detective story. So if you like suspense and investigations, you’ll find Der Prozess very interesting – partly because it reverses the conventions of this genre and constantly challenges your expectations of it.
3. Short forms for the short of time
If both ‘Die Verwandlung’ and Der Prozess seem too long to start with, why don’t you try one of Kafka’s many shorter pieces? He wrote numerous little texts that range in length from just one line to one or two pages. Those published during his lifetime are conveniently collected in one volume, Ein Landarzt und andere Drucke zu Lebzeiten (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1994). There you’ll find such little gems as ‘Wunsch, Indianer zu werden’, or ‘Der neue Advokat’, as well as ‘Die Sorge des Hausvaters’, which will be the text for our reading group next week. These texts are very brief (‘Wunsch, Indianer zu werden’ is just one sentence, six lines!), but also incredibly intriguing – and simply unlike anything you’ve ever read.
4. Get an introduction to the critical debates
While having a go at reading Kafka is definitely the best way to get to know his works, at some point you might feel like having a look at some secondary literature on him. A great starting point would be Kafka: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2004), written by Oxford’s own Ritchie Robertson. This little book is accessible and thought-provoking, which makes it an ideal place to start exploring broader themes and concerns running throughout Kafka’s work.
5. Get an introduction to the critical debates (Teil 2!)
Another place to go if you’d like to discover new ways to approach Kafka, is a series of documentaries and drama called In the Shadow of Kafka, produced by BBC Radio 3 in May 2015. You’ll hear there, among others, German poetry expert Karen Leeder talking about meaning and communication in Kafka’s works, or Margaret Atwood – a famous Canadian writer – reflecting on what Kafka’s texts have meant to her since she was a teenager.
I hope that this post has given you plenty of ideas about how to approach Kafka yourself. Go explore!


Karolina Watroba, Magdalen College, Oxford

The Nibelungenlied, or Making a Medievalist

Ahead of OGN’s annual German literature reading groups, we’ll be introducing the texts that will form the basis for each of the four sessions over the coming weeks. Dr Mary Boyle will be leading the first group on 8 July. Here, she ‘macht uns für den Startschuss bereit’ by introducing our first text: the Middle High German epic poem, the Nibelungenlied…

Uns ist in alten mæren wunders vil geseit

von heleden lobebæren, von grôzer arebeit,

von fröuden, hôchgezîten, von weinen und von klagen,

von küender recken strîten muget ir nu wunder hœren sagen°

[In ancient tales many marvels are told us: of renowned heroes, of great hardship, of joys, festivities, of weeping and lamenting, of bold warriors’ battles–now you may hear such marvels told!*]

Nibelungenlied Manuscript C, Folio 1r, about 1220-1250
A page from the Nibelungenlied, Manuscript C  (ca.1220-50)

I was first given the Nibelungenlied in English translation when I was sixteen or seventeen. I used to read it in the car on the way to and from guitar lessons. Perhaps my seventeen-year-old self would be disappointed that it was the Nibelungenlied I kept up with, and not the guitar, but after another twelve years of medieval studies, I think it was the right call.

The Nibelungenlied was written down by an anonymous poet around the year 1200. The story was not of his own creation; he wove together centuries’ worth of legends about the hero Siegfried, his betrayal and murder, and his wife’s bloodthirsty and comprehensive revenge. These myths and half-forgotten histories were not just popular in German, but also circulated in Old Norse.  Medieval gore is not exclusive to twenty-first-century fantasy film and TV!

Siegfried's murder Nibelungenlied Manuscript K 1480-1490
Siegfried’s murder, as shown in Manuscript K (1480-1490)

I am going to use an extract from the Nibelungenlied for my Oxford German Network Reading Group session, as an introduction to the literature of the German Middle Ages. The text as a whole covers almost everything that a twenty-first-century reader might expect to find in medieval literature: castles, romance, knights, queens, quests, dreams, and lots and lots of blood. It provides fodder for any number of conversations you might equally have about modern literary texts: gender politics, the role of religion, the use of violence, space and place, narrative construction, love and loss, and many more. It wasn’t the first medieval text I encountered, but it fixed itself firmly into my mind.

It’s not a ‘perfect’ text, but it is never less than compelling. At times we see how the poet struggled in combining these semi-connected myths into a single narrative. Characters remain inexplicably youthful for decades. There are abrupt changes in the figures who are expected to attract our sympathy. We hear conflicting accounts of backstory, and characters behave in ways which can appear illogical. On top of that, we have inherited three distinct versions of the text. But the Nibelungenlied has taken hold of the imagination of generations of readers (and, initially, listeners). The reception of the text is a branch of study on its own. It has been reshaped and reinterpreted: used by the Romantics, refashioned by Wagner, and, unfortunately, co-opted by the Nazis.†

I began by quoting the famous opening stanza of the Nibelungenlied with its promise of heroes and of wonders, of toils and of weeping. I will close with the final stanza, when all of those things have been laid bare. The wonders have passed, and all that remains are consequences.

Ine kán iu niht bescheiden, waz sider dâ geschach:

wan ritter vnd vrouwen weinen man dâ sach,

dar zvo di edeln knehte ir lieben frivnde tôt.

hie hât daz mære ein ende: daz ist der Nibelunge nôt.°

[I can’t tell you what happened afterwards there, except that knights and ladies were seen to weep, and noble squires, too, for the death of their dear friends. Here this tale is at an end–that is The Nibelungs’ Doom.*]

Mary Boyle, University of Oxford


° Karl Bartsch and Helmut de Boor (eds.), Siegfried Grosse (trans.), Das Nibelungenlied (Stuttgart: Reclaim, 2002, repr. 2006).

* Cyril Edwards (trans.), The Nibelungenlied: The Lay of the Nibelungs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)

† For more information, see Werner Hoffman, ‘The Reception of the Nibelungenlied in the Twentieth Century’ in A Companion to the Nibelungenlied ed. by Winder McConnell (Columbia: Camden House, 1998), pp. 127-152.