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What would the world be without books? And many of the great ones are by authors from Cologne. Photo: Getty Images

Touched by the muse: literature from Cologne

Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll is the best-known writer to have come out of Cologne. But there are several other authors for whom the city served or serves as a muse. We profile six of them.

Heinrich Böll: thought the cathedral was too showy

Heinrich Böll
Heinrich Böll – without doubt the best-known writer to come from Cologne.

“My memories of the streets of my childhood, Teutoburger Straße, where I was born, and Karolingerring, Ubierring, the Südstadt district, are becoming increasingly colder,” Cologne author Heinrich Böll once noted.

A recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, he felt there were “several Colognes”, according to an interview with his son René Böll a few years ago. Born in the city in 1917, Heinrich Böll associated the pre-war Cologne of his childhood and youth with carefree times. He began writing – mainly letters – not long after he finished his bookseller apprenticeship. It was not until after the war that he entered short story competitions. His works from this time describe the destruction of his home city, starvation and, as in Der Mann mit den Messern (The Man with the Knives, 1948), what war does to human beings.

Böll went on to become one of the most significant writers of the post-war era thanks to his critical and no-holds-barred depiction of the bigotry of the newly founded Federal Republic of Germany in novels such as Ansichten eines Clowns (The Clown, 1963).

His feelings about Cologne’s architecture – and the city’s famous landmarks – remained ambivalent. He spoke of the “melancholy of the Rhine”. Describing himself as a Catholic in his 1981 autobiographical work, Was soll aus dem Jungen bloß werden? (What’s to Become of the Boy?), his opinion on the cathedral was that it was far too showy. Böll passed away at his home in Langenbroich following an operation.

Hilde Domin: a “Spanish poet” who wrote in German

Hilde Domin
Hilde Domin, born in Cologne, was largely known for her poetry. Photo: Imago

Born in Cologne in 1909, author Hilde Domin went to school in the city and studied law, philosophy and political science in Cologne, Bonn and Heidelberg. When the Nazis seized power, the Social Democrat with Jewish roots went into exile in Italy, the UK and, eventually, the Dominican Republic. Looking back at her past, Domin (who was born Dira Löwenstein) once stated that writing saved her from taking her own life after the death of her mother in 1951.

Although she did return to Germany in 1954, Domin continued to divide her time between her old home and Spain. She saw herself as a Spanish poet writing in the German language, traumatised by her experiences of exile and persecution but far from giving up.

Hilde Domin died in Heidelberg in 2005 at the age of 96.

Jürgen Becker: a writer of experimental literature

Jürgen Becker
Cologne poet Jürgen Becker has won numerous literature awards, including the Georg Büchner Prize and the Bremen Literature Prize. Photo: imago

When a 1,000-page collection of his poetry was published by Suhrkamp this summer, Jürgen Becker stated that he didn’t care much for stereotypes and that he was neither the archetypal cheerful Rhinelander nor a cheerless melancholic.

His mood depended on the weather, the Georg Büchner Prize winner claimed laconically. And the fact he was born in summer was an advantage. His birthday is, after all, on the same day as Marcel Proust’s (1871-1922) as he recently pointed out, tongue in cheek.

Becker was born in Cologne ten years after Proust’s death and has lived here all his life apart from a brief period between 1939 and 1950. In 1960, he joined Gruppe 47 and began developing a form of language that was extremely experimental. In addition to the poetry that has inspired generations of poets, his career included a post as manager of the Suhrkamp publishing house and head of the radio drama department at Deutschlandfunk.

Volker Kutscher: creator of the Gereon Rath crime series

Volker Kutscher
Cologne-based writer Volker Kutscher is currently one of Germany’s top-name authors.

Volker Kutscher’s series featuring the character Gereon Rath recently saw the publication of its ninth book, Transatlantik. At the same time, Sky is currently showing the fourth season of Babylon Berlin, which is based on the books. These nail-biting thrillers take place in Berlin during the Weimar Republic era and the seizure of power by the Nazi regime.

Reading Kutscher’s precise descriptions of Berlin neighbourhoods and cultural life in the capital might make you think he comes from there but that’s not at all true. Kutscher is a resident of Cologne and went to university here, taking subjects including history and German language and literature. He researches his novels meticulously, which is ultimately what makes them so vibrant and compelling. Gereon Rath, incidentally, comes from the Rhineland too but that’s the only thing the author and his protagonist have in common!

Melanie Raabe: a thriller writer who’s chosen Cologne as her home

Melanie Raabe
Melanie Raabe was born in Jena but she now lives in Cologne and thinks of the city as her adopted home. Photo: Christian Faustus

“I write books and books write me,” admits 41-year-old author and Raabe und Kampf podcast host Melanie Raabe. And she’s chosen an inspiring district of Cologne for that writing: the Belgian Quarter. Her debut novel Die Falle (The Trap) came out in 2015 and literary agents had already snapped up the rights pre-publication for translations into languages including Spanish, French and Italian.

In her high-octane thrillers, Raabe successfully navigates the usual clichés and provides magnificently rich descriptions of her characters. The same is true of her first non-fiction book, in which she explains the pop phenomenon of Lady Gaga. Her latest novel reads like a thriller though it isn’t actually one and is called Die Kunst des Verschwindens (The Art of Disappearing, published in October 2022).

Sabine Schiffner: a blend of everyday language and poetry

Schriftstellerin Sabine Schiffner
Sabine Schiffner is one of Cologne’s best-known poets. Photo: Stefan Winterstein

It would probably be difficult to define what expertise a poet needs. Sabine Schiffer, for instance, studied drama in Cologne and was part of the Schauspielhaus company between 1992 and 1996. Later on, she was an assistant to big-league directors like Werner Schroeter and Günter Krämer, before staging her own productions.

It was also during the mid-1990s that Schiffner’s first volume of poetry, besteck im kopf, was published. She has long been one of Cologne’s best-known poets, blending everyday language and highly poetic images to create her own style. Her latest book, wundern, was published recently.

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