Juli Zeh was born 1974 in Bonn, Germany, the daughter of Wolfgang Zeh, a lawyer and former Secretary-General of the Deutscher Bundestag [German Parliament]. She grew up and attended school in Germany. After leaving school, she studied European and International Law in Passau and Leipzig, graduating in 2003. While doing an LLM programme on ‘Recht der Europäischen Integration’ [Law of European Integration], she also studied Creative Writing at the University of Leipzig. At the moment she is working on her doctoral thesis about Kosovo in the light of international law.
Since 1996 she has published short stories in various anthologies and magazines. Zeh has not only published several novels, short stories, and dramas up to now, she has also written numerous essays and articles in magazines and newspapers such as Stern, Die Zeit, Der Spiegel, Merian, Die Welt, Du, FAZ, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and Stuttgarter Zeitung. Not only is the list of publications quite impressive for her age, but her work has been regularly honoured with several literary prizes, for instance the German Book Award (Best Debut), Rauris Award, Friedrich Hölderlin Award for Emerging Talent, Ernst Toller Award, Per Olov Enquist Award, Prix Cévennes for Best European Novel, and Gerty-Spies-Award.
In 2001 her debut novel Adler und Engel [Eagles and Angels] was published, and the English Translation long-listed for the international IMPAC award in 2002. In 2003 the young writer was awarded the Ernst-Toller-Prize:
The failure of politics has rarely been made clearer by a representative of the younger generation as through Juli Zeh’s debut novel ‘Adler und Engel’. She describes the despair of a whole generation ‘in the face of the cynical combination of politics, profit and crime’. In the opinion of the jury, Juli Zeh, with her description of her travels in war-shattered Bosnia, ‘Die Stille ist ein Geräusch’, published in 2002, continues the tradition of Ernst Toller’s socio-critical and political travel prose into the present.
Zeh’s socially critical view can be found in all her works. In her travel prose Die Stille ist ein Geräusch [Even Silence is a Noise] she describes her journey to the bomb-shattered post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina– only accompanied by her dog Othello. As in her other works, it shows her powers of observation, and her language is rich in metaphor and wit.
The novel published in 2004, Spieltrieb [Gaming Instinct] tells the story of two young students – Ada and Alev – who blackmail their teacher Smutek. Starting very calmly the novel ends - after an act of violence – disturbingly. Zeh questioned ideas of good and evil when writing about ‘immorality and its consequences and [this novel] questions the continued validity of traditional principles and values and poses one of the most significant questions of our time: who today can say what is good and what is evil, and how can they know?’
The Novel Schilf (2007) was published in 2010 in English translation with two different titles, originally with Havrill Sacker as Dark Matter, and with Nan A. Talese as In Free Fall.
Her latest novel Corpus Delicti is a dystopian novel about a society that takes over control of the health of its citizens. When Mia’s brother commits suicide in prison, she loses faith in the system which controls everybody’s health. Standing up against the system, she refuses to obey the law. During her trial she is prepared to die a martyr’s death, but it turns out that she is being tricked. There can be similarities drawn to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and also Kafka’s Der Prozeß [The Trial].
The main question Zeh puts forward is that of personal freedom and which rights state and legislature are allowed to have. In Autumn 2009 she went on tour with the German alternative band Slut. They composed several songs based on her book, and even published it as a CD. About the same time she published the political essay Angriff auf die Freiheit [Assault on Liberty: The Obsession with National Security] together with Ilija Trojanow. They strongly criticize the fact that personal freedom is in danger because the state observes its citizens via internet, CCTV cameras etc. People are made to believe that it is for their own good and is necessary after the events of 9/11. In 2008, Zeh made a formal complaint to the German Interior Minister about the infringement of the constitutional right to privacy posed by the introduction of biometric passports. Juli Zeh was awarded the Gerty-Spies-Prize for her political commitment and her socially critical writing.
Compiled by Christina Barber-Pinkernell (Vienna)
Adler und Engel (Frankfurt/M.: Schöffling & Co, 2001)
Die Stille ist auch ein Geräusch. Eine Fahrt durch Bosnien (Frankfurt/M.: Schöffling & Co, 2002)
Spieltrieb (Frankfurt/M.: Schöffling & Co, 2004)
Kleines Konversationslexikon für Haushunde (Frankfurt/M.: Schöffling & Co, 2005)
Alles auf dem Rasen (Frankfurt/M.: Schöffling & Co, 2006)
Schilf (Frankfurt/M.: Schöffling & Co, 2007)
Corpus delicti (Frankfurt/M.: Schöffling & Co, 2009)
[with Ilija Trojanow] Angriff auf die Freiheit. Sicherheitswahn, Überwachungsstaat und der Abbau bürgerlicher Rechte [essay] (Munich: Carl Hanser, 2009)
Nullzeit [novel] (Frankfurt/M.: Schöffling und Co, 2012)
Treideln: Frankfurter Poetikvorlesungen [essays] (Frankfurt/M.: Schöffling und Co, 2013)
Nachts sind das Tiere [essays] (Frankfurt/M.: Schöffling und Co, 2014
CD and Audiobooks [Selection]
Corpus delicti. Eine Schallnovelle [with Slut] (2009)
Recht auf Beitritt? Ansprüche von Kandidatenstaaten gegen die Europäische Union (Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlag, 2002)
[ed.] Ein Hund läuft durch die Republik. Anthologie (Frankfurt/M.: Schöffling & Co, 2004)
Das Land der Menschen [children’s book] (Frankfurt/M.: Schöffling & Co, 2008)
[with Ilija Trojanow] Angriff auf die Freiheit (Munich: Hanser Verlag, 2009)
Plays and Adaptations
Corpus delicti (2007)
Good morning, Boys and Girls (2010)
Spieltrieb [film rights sold]
Schilf [film rights - X-Filme]
Corpus Delicti [film rights - cine plus]
Translations into Foreign Languages
Eagles and Angels [Translation of Adler und Engel by Christine Slenczka] (London: Granta, 2003)
In Free Fall [Translation of Schilf by Christine Lo] (New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2010)
Dark Matter [Translation of Schilf by Christine Lo (Harvill Secker, 2020)
The Method [Translation of Corpus Delicti by Sally-Ann Spencer] (London: Harvill Secker, 2012)
Decompression [Translation of Nullzeit by John Cullen] (New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2014)
Herminghouse, Patricia: ‘The Young Author as public intellectual. The Case of Juli Zeh’ inGerman Literature in a New Century. Trends, Traditions, Transitions, Transformations eds. Katharina Gerstenberger and Patricia Heminghouse (New York/Oxford: Berghahn, 2008 pp. 268-284)
McCalmont, Virginia and Maierhofer, Waltraud: ‘Juli Zeh’s Corpus Delicti (2009): Health Care, Terrorists and the Return of the Political Message’ (Monatshefte 104.3, 2012, pp. 375-392)
Smith, Jill Suzanne: ‘Sounds of Silence: Rape and Representation in Juli Zeh’s Bosnian Travelogue’ in German Women’s Writing in the Twenty-First Century ed. by Hester Baer and Alexandra Merley Hill (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2015, pp. 175-196)
Smith-Prei, Carrie and Richter, Lars: ‘Politicising Desire in Juli Zeh’s Spieltrieb’ in Transitions: Emerging Women Writers in German-Language Literature ed. by Valerie Heffernan and Gillian Pye (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013), pp. 187-207
—: ‘Relevant Utopian Realism: the Critical Corporeality of Juli Zeh’s Corpus Delicti’ (Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies 48.1, 2012, pp. 107-123)
Tropper, Elisabeth: ‘Analytische Apokalyptiker: Überlegungen zum Dystopischen in Theatertexten von Falk Richter und Juli Zeh’ (Germanistik in Ireland 9, 2014, pp. 135-150)