Facebook iconTwitter icon

Oxford German Network banner image

Jonathan Gaisman QC on

A German Classic Prize: how literature inspires

Now a distinguished QC, Jonathan Gaisman first encountered the German language as a schoolboy, and this sparked an enthusiasm for German literature that has stayed with him. In the following post, he describes how his passion for German culture inspired him to start a new essay competition for the Oxford German Network – with the aim of allowing young people to discover for themselves how exciting German classical literature can be.


My first German teacher, a perceptive man called Roy Giles, wrote in my initial term's report: "He will do well at this language, because he likes the noise it makes." And so I did: aged just 14, I was immediately delighted by the disembodied voice on the audio-visual tape, which was how my acquaintance with the German language began: "Hören Sie zu, ohne zu wiederholen". The cadences of this unremarkable sentence, bidding one to listen without repeating, still enchant me today. The story on the tape told of the prosaic doings of a German businessman attending an industrial fair. He was called Herr Köhler. Presumably this was a joke, though one unlikely to appeal much to schoolboys. But what caught my attention was the dramatic plosive - unlike anything in English - available to those willing to launch into the sentence "Plötzlich klingelt das Telefon". That this sentence, like its companions, was of a banality worthy of Ionesco deprives it of none of its nostalgic appeal: I was already reaching for the handle of the door.


Four years later, by the time I left school, I had passed well and truly through. In those days, studying a modern language involved an intensive study of literature. We went through Prinz Friedrich von Homburg and other writings of Kleist, carefully read Maria Stuart, and more than dabbled in the shallows of Faust, Part I.  A personal enthusiasm bordering on obsession led me to commit large slabs of Faust to memory, and they are still there. Giles had played us recordings of Gründgens' performance of Mephistopheles; another teacher, Mark Phillips, earned my particular gratitude by introducing me to Schubert’s Lieder. And so the way was opened to poetry, to music and to the extraordinary contribution of German language and thought to the life of the arts from the 18th century on.


German literature and culture had thus passed into my bloodstream, and become part of my imagination and mental being. So it was inevitable that I would take modern languages to university, where I was lucky enough to be tutored by a third fine teacher, Francis Lamport, at Worcester College, Oxford. Sadly, before long, but not before adding authors such as Büchner, Grillparzer, Kafka and Mann to my acquaintance, I abandoned the outer form of German studies, and dwindled into a lawyer. But the fire within was alight, and it burns still. The few years between the ages of 14 and 18 when I studied German represent the dominant intellectual influence in my education, and the one for which I am most grateful.


The simple aim of this prize is to enable other students to set out on the same journey which has enriched my way of seeing the world, to discover the inspiration of the German literary canon, and to avow the great truth uttered by Karl der Groβe himself: "The man who has another language has another soul".

Jonathan Gaisman