We have just come back from The Black Forest, having driven across France from Dieppe to Strasbourg and then into Germany, staying for a week in a very comfortable rented house in Titisee-Neustadt – a place I would recommend to anyone who appreciates wonderful scenery and all the facilities of a lakeside resort.
Before I left I borrowed a copy of Germania by Simon Winder. I was intrigued by the subtitle, A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern, as I tend to enjoy quirky travel books. However, while this book is definitely quirky, it is also a vast compendium of German history and culture, combining anecdote, travelogue, history and personal reminiscences in a very readable style, amounting to about 450 pages.
Simon Winder seems to have acquired all the information contained in this book the hard way – by slogging through the country from north to south, year after year, visiting castles, cathedrals and museums wherever he went, collecting as much information as he could. Whereas most of us would look cursorily around such places before moving on to the next location, Simon seems to have made a personal study of each site, obviously buying the guidebooks and then working out the connections with other places and other times – in other words he is a “synthesiser” who has brought together a vast array of information in order to create this substantial volume.
His background reading was also about as comprehensive as one could expect (seven pages of bibliography), and this has led to a book which while being in places very funny (in the humorous sense), it also seems authoritative.
The amount of detail is overwhelming at times, but Simon’s evident fascination with everything he sees carries the reader along in a sort of joyous fog, with fact after fact trailing along behind him (its all rather too much to take in in one go):
Wandering or rather shuffling around the fabulous little Bach museum – wearing the outsize grey felt slippers still issued to visitors walking on historic parquet floors in the former Eastern Bloc, one of the Soviet Union’s smaller legacies – I was as happy as a clam . . . there is definitely a part of me that would feel it a legitimate use of the rest of my life to shuffle, in the style of some religions, in my shaggy slippers round and round the rooms of Kothen Schloss as an act of seriousness and focus and gratitude.
While we read of the countless princes, kings and “tribal warlords” who ruled the land we now know as Germany (which of course barely existed as a cohesive whole until the 19th century), I found the charm of the book to lie in Simon’s digressions:
One pleasure of solitude is a heightenened awareness of animals. A decision to simply stand still and not make a noise, if in the borderline tedious company of oneself, is easy. I remember in Lubeck sheltering from the rain under a blossoming crab-apple tree crowded with blue tits tumbling about above my head; or spending ages watching a shrew working its way up a slope of the Dragon’s Rock, a modest Rhineland hill, but a sort of lavae-packed Annapurna from the shrew’s point of view. I once walked the length of a sunny street in Hildesheim accompanied by a light-scared bat . . .
Covering such a vast span of time (from the Roman period to the 1930s), I kept coming across people or events I’ve read about. For example, just to home in on writers, there are many references to writes such as E T A Hoffman, Thomas Mann, Gunter Grass, Franz Kafka and many more, and every reference seemed to tell me something I didn’t know before.
I think the best tribute to this book is that having borrowed it from the library, I’m now going to buy it. Germania is one of those books I feel don’t actually want to live without – its got to be there on my shelves to refer to whenever I come across some new item I want to look up when reading books by German authors or books about Germany. My only regret is that the story ends in 1933. I hope that Simon Winder now writes another volume to cover the period up to the present day. Perhaps the changes of the last 77 years were just too vast to be slotted in to Germania.
Author: Simon Winder
Publication: Pan MacMillan (2010), Hardback, 480 pages