Germanic Languages | Writing the Self: Autobiography in the 20th Century
G825 | 23017-23018 | Prof. Dr. Helmut Lethen

How can we distinguish autobiography and literary fiction? Can works
of literature be a reliable archive of individual and collective
memory? Can they be authentic expressions of our lives at all? In
what way can autobiographies serve as source material for cultural

Autobiographical writing has turned into a highly controversial
issue in 20th century literary theory. Every constituent of the term
has become problematic: the "auto" of a sovereign Ego and an
undivided persona, the "bios" relating to a culturally encoded life,
the "graphein" which holds every problem of mediality. Especially
Roland Barthes' claim of "The Death of the Author" seems to have
shattered the legitimity of any autobiography.

Yet, in spite of these academic scruples, autobiographies continue
to be among the best-loved genres consumed by the wider public; and
I, too, enjoy all sorts of autobiographical writing: diaries,
letters, memoires. Do autobiographies satisfy a basic need for
narrative structures extracted from life?

The course will begin with the study of four concepts which can be
considered the cornerstones of theoretical dispute:

1. Philippe Lejeune's structuralist concept of the "autobiographical
2. Jean Starobinski's treatise on the style of autobiography
3. Paul de Man: "Autobiography as Defacement"
4. Boris Groys: "Unter Verdacht"
(The relevant extracts will be supplied in class.)

Having thus gained a theoretical background, we will read
significant German texts as well as examples from French, English,
and American literature. They will constitute the basis for

Class will meet Monday & Wednesday, 4:00pm - 6:30pm in BH018, and is
scheduled for the first eight weeks only. 3 - 4 credit hours.

Required texts:
- Thomas Bernhard: Die Ursache (ISBN: 3701701415)
- Thomas Bernhard: Der Keller  (ISBN: 3423014261)
- Thomas Mann: Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull (ISBN:
- Walter Benjamin: Berliner Kindheit um Neunzehnhundert (ISBN:
- Peter Weiss: Abschied von den Eltern (ISBN: 3518017004)
- Walter Kempowski: Im Block (ISBN: 3813502368)
- Rainald Goetz: Abfall fur alle (ISBN: 3518410946)
- Paul Auster: The Invention of Solitude (ISBN: 0140106286)
- Martin Amis: Experience (ISBN: 0375726837)
- Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (ISBN: 0520087836)