The Invention of Life
Die Erfindung des Lebens

hanns josef ortheil the invention of life
Luchterhand Literaturverlag
August 2009 / 592pp

This book is outside of the five-year window for guaranteed assistance with English language translation. We suggest getting in touch with the relevant funding body for an informal conversation about the possibility of support. Please refer to to our  recommendations page for books that are currently covered by our funding guarantee.


This deeply sensitive and original book traces the development of a child silenced by trauma into a successful and well-loved author, for whom words are at the core of his being. The largely autobiographical tale begins in the early childhood years of Ortheil’s fictional alias Johannes in the 1950s, years that are spent largely in silence. Johannes’ mother has lost the ability or will to speak after some traumatic events in the past. Her emotional vulnerability and isolation affect him strongly, in turn making him mute and so introverted that he is often taken to be mentally challenged.

The turning point is reached when Johannes must leave his mother’s side to start school. With no language and only stunted emotional development, his first weeks are disastrous, and his father decides to take radical steps to rescue him. His remedy is twofold: to bring his son to the countryside where the family was originally from, and to separate him temporarily from his mother. The plan is a success and Johannes slowly begins to develop into his own person. He becomes a gifted pianist, moves to Rome and finally emerges as the author that Ortheil is today.

This main storyline is interwoven with a contemporary narrative which comments on the text as it unfolds and tells of the events surrounding the writing of the childhood narrative. The older man’s internal reflections on his youth and its significance are thus juxtaposed with the external story of his life in Rome.

Ortheil’s descriptions become mesmerizing and jubilant, especially in his depictions of music and piano-playing. And since the story of Johannes’ life is very much a story of the development of language, every word counts and Ortheil often succeeds in sharing with the reader the sense of mystery and power and otherness that surround words in Johannes’ world. It is a fascinating journey that follows the boy as he struggles to define a language that he must tame before he can learn to use it, first as a reluctant ally and later, in his career as a writer, as an intimate friend and partner.

The core of the book, which consists of family bonds that both make and break you, the struggle to grow up and the search for an identity, will make this moving story a treasured experience for many readers.

press quotes

‘In contrast to most of his writer compatriots, Ortheil has no fear of a happy ending or great love. The Invention of Love is a comforting novel.’– Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

about the author

Hanns-Josef Ortheil, born in 1951, is one of the most important contemporary German authors and has received many awards for his work, among them the Brandenburg Literature Prize, the Thomas Mann Prize of the City of Lübeck and the Nicolas Born Prize. He is professor of creative writing and cultural journalism at the 
University of Hildesheim.

Previous works include:
Faustinas Küsse (1998); Im Licht der Lagune (1999); Die Nacht des Don Juan (2000); Lo und Lu (2001); Die große Liebe (2003); Die weißen Inseln der Zeit (2004); Die geheimen Stunden der Nacht (2005); Fermer (2007/1979); Das Verlangen nach Liebe (2007); Hecke (2008/1979)

rights information

Translation rights sold to:
Ortheil’s previous works have been published in translation in France (Editions Jacqueline Chambon), Greece (Empiria), Japan (Quintessence), Lithuania (Gimtasis Zodis), The Netherlands (Ambo), Poland (Spoleczny Instytut Wydawniczy), Romania, Russia (Family Leisure Club), Spain (Ediciones Martinez Roca) and Taiwan (Global Group)

Translation rights available from:
Verlagsgruppe Random House.
Luchterhand Literaturverlag
Neumarkter Strasse 28
81673 Munich, Germany
Tel: +49 89 41363313
Contact: Gesche Wendebourg 

Luchterhand Literaturverlag was founded by Hermann Luchterhand in 1924 and has been publishing literary titles since 1954, an early and triumphant success being Günter Grass’s novel Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1959). Its list includes literary fiction and poetry as well as definitive editions of selected writers’ complete works. In 1997 the firm was voted Publishing House of the Year by the German trade journal Buchmarkt. It is now part of the Random House Group. Authors include Christa Wolf, Ernst Jandl, Pablo Neruda, António Lobo Antunes, Will Self, Frank McCourt, Hanns-Josef Ortheil, Terézia Mora and Saša Stanišic.

translation assistance

Applications should be made to the Goethe-Institut.

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