Elisabeth Plessen was born in 1944 as Elisabeth Charlotte Marguerite Augusta Countess von Plessen in Neustadt, in eastern Holstein. Initially, she grew up on her parents’ estate in Sierhagen, later attending a girls’ boarding school in Wieblingen near Heidelberg. After graduating from high school, she studied German literature, philosophy, and history in Paris and Berlin. She completed her studies with a dissertation on contemporary epics. Extensive travels took Plessen to the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Soviet Union. Since the late 1960s, she has appeared as a translator of works, including those of Hemingway, and has published individual stories and poems. Plessen became well-known in literary circles after the release of the volume »Meine ungeschriebenen Memoiren« (1974; Eng. »Such Sad Tidings«, 1976) Her breakthrough as a writer came with her debut novel »Mitteilungen an den Adel« (1976; tr: Notifications to the Nobility).
In this volume, as in almost all her literary works, the author skilfully intertwines her own biography with elements of contemporary history. The novel deals with her relationship to her father and her aristocratic origins. The work was highly praised by critics and is among the most well-known texts about the conflict of the ’68 generation with their fathers’ generation. In her second novel, »Kohlhaas« (1979), she delves into the chaos of the peasant wars of the 16th century, based on Heinrich von Kleist’s novella. However, with her, the focus is less on different legal interpretations, like Kleist, but rather on the freedom to determine one’s own fate. From 1980 onwards, Plessen worked more intensively as a translator. Influenced by her relationship with the theatre director Peter Zadek, she often focused on dramatic works, including those of Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Marguerite Duras. Simultaneously, she wrote novels, stories, and poems. The author processed her intimate knowledge of the theatre and media world in the novel »Der Knick« (1997; tr: The Bend) about a drug-addicted actress. In »Das Kavalierhaus« (2004; tr: The Cavaliers’ House), she allows her youth in a boarding school during the Adenauer era to re-emerge in a literary form. In her novel »Ida« (2010), the writer returns to the 1970s and tells the story of an architect’s relationship with a student more than thirty years his junior. In 2010, she also released the last volume of Peter Zadek’s autobiography »Die Wanderjahre« (tr: The Wander Years). Her novel »Die Unerwünschte« (2019; tr: The Unwanted) is a follow-up to her debut, looking at seventy years of family history. Her latest novel »Die Frau in den Bäumen« (2023; tr: The Woman in the Trees) is a literary summer journey to Italy in the 1970s.
Elisabeth Plessen has been honored with various literary awards such as the German Critics’ Prize and the Meersburg Droste Prize. The author lives in Berlin and Tuscany.