In the wall-month of November 1989 I translated two pieces from an anthology of East German writing for the magazine Granta, which in the end didn’t use either of them. (These things happen.) One of them was by Christa Wolf, an extract, I think, from her book Sommerstück. It was just two pages long, nothing more than a preamble and image, but of a Shakespearean power and amplitude. A group of adults and children (Wolf’s habitual, occasionally irritating, panti-social ‘we’), driving in rural East Germany, stop by a beautiful old farmhouse that is in the process of being vandalised by the local youth: doors and windows, furnishings, the massive Dutch stoves in the corners, everything senselessly in ruins. As they leave, a little girl in the party sees a birdcage toppled over in a nettle-patch and walks over to have a look. Then she sees it: the furry remains (what remains) of a cat, locked inside the bird-cage and left to starve and rot.
I thought: could there be a better, more terrible image for what was happening, and what would happen to the East German state? Doesn’t it fabulously contain everything: Honecker and his wife in Moscow, in the Chilean Embassy, stalked by reporters (that phrase, ‘embassy compound’); the ransacking of the Stasi offices in the cities (the runde Ecke in Leipzig – they knew how to bend space); the Politburo huntsmen (hunting being the great GDR perk and hobby, equivalent to golf for the Japanese) now behind bars (the great GDR sanction and raison d’être: detention) – all in that one grisly cat? And then I thought: does she know? Could she see East Germany not just (rather obviously) as the abandoned and desecrated house, but as the defunct prison-state which the birds have flown and where the gaolers are now interned? Did she appreciate – or even share – ‘the fury of disappearance’, in a phrase of Enzensberger’s? Was it her prophetic insight, or the construction put upon her words by the anthologist and reader? And could she see herself, even then, as the cat stuffed inside the empty bird-cage of her oeuvre, maybe in Santa Monica now and a guest of the Getty Foundation, but for all that still in the doghouse?
Reading the two books now published by Virago is a peculiar activity and leaves a strange taste. They are neither of them new – both cover the best part of thirty years – nor yet good. Christa Wolf isn’t a short story writer, or there would be more epiphanies like the one about the cat: her best books are tissues she weaves between people (The Quest for Christa T.), between themes (Accident: A Day’s News), between ages (No Place on Earth). She proceeds by indirection – the short story gives her no space. You know more than you usually know as a reader, and you are looking for still more, a tense and unhealthy looking, a looking for tragedy: you read for dramatic irony, for the Greek words, hubris, peripeteia, anagnorisis, catharsis; you follow a person of stature, someone associated with an idea, the representative of a society. You don’t know quite where you are – is it Act IV, or the second part of a trilogy, ‘Christa Wolf at Colonus’?
The discrediting of Christa Wolf is in large part a West German achievement. With Unification, the West bought a cat in a sack, is peeved about it, and complains. Everything from the East has suffered revaluation, and East German literature – which thought itself something special, was thought in the West to be something special, even was something special – has been degraded as well. Christa Wolf, as its Aushängeschild, its best-selling literary export and the best-known spokesman – even apologist – for the country, has copped her considerable share of vilification.
The West has always had an ambivalent attitude to East German writing: athletes, spies and writers were three things the East seemed to be worryingly good at producing. East German books were published in the West (some houses, like Luchterhand, Wolf’s publishers, specialised in them), and were read in large numbers. My old copy of Christa T, is an 18th printing, and that was 11 years ago. But East German literature was always valued inasmuch as it offered criticism of the East German state: reading it in the West was an exercise in ill-will. On the one hand, there was the country, which you feared and hated and claimed didn’t exist (die Zone, ‘the Eastern Zone’); on the other, there were its books (Zonenliteratur, disparagingly – it sounds like science fiction), which you devoured. It is like the principle of Mariolatry: ‘There is no God, and Mary is his mother.’ Christa Wolf’s work, implying criticism much of the time, was highly prized, and partly it was her failure to ‘deliver’, in West German terms, that provoked their anger. Having wasted their time on a tool which didn’t do what it was supposed to do, and turned out not to be needed anyway, they threw it away. The acknowledgment that had been extended to East German literature (though never to the East German state) was revoked in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and elsewhere. Christa Wolf surely knows what she is about, following Thomas Mann to Pacific Palisades fifty years later.
Not that Wolf is completely without blame herself. It seems to me that she did three things wrong: she retained her allegiance to (an idea of) East Germany when it was too late for that; she pulled out of her desk-drawer an old and lachrymose piece of writing, Was bleibt (What Remains), written in June-July 1979, revised in November 1989, published in 1990), about how she was made to live for a time under the all too visible eye of the security forces; and, in deadly contrast to that, she herself – it emerged a little while ago – served the Stasi as an informant between 1959 and 1962. The first of these is all her: she was so constituted it would have been impossible for her to do anything else. The third is all GDR and force of circumstance – I can’t see how anyone from the West, not having had to suffer similar temptation and duress, can pass judgment on her for that. Her only real ‘error’ – one she was free to commit or not – was the publication of What Remains.
Within the GDR, Wolf’s role was quite complicated. It seems to me she was something like a tribune of the people, both within the system and against it, establishment when seen from outside East Germany, helpfully and tolerably anti from within. Her essays refer many times to the letters she receives from people all over the country; ‘Reply to a Reader’, for example, is a letter to a West German medical student about peace and the future of mankind; in that private-to-public, unknowns-to-celebrity, MP’s-postbag way, she was in touch with many hundreds of people. What Remains has her being visited by a young woman writer, getting poems from a young man, discussing the future (What Remains) after a reading: unofficial channels – she was denied access (she says) to East German radio and television. She seems always to have been helpful to other writers; few can have had a bad word to say of her – she was like a slightly out-of-touch mother-figure to her younger East German colleagues. What she valued about East Germany was the feeling of being plugged into the life of the society. The readings in factories, which the Government probably grew progressively less keen on, may now sound chi-chi, but she was not ‘alienated’ and ‘marginalised’, as she felt Western writers were. Goethe’s ‘creativity without society’ she glosses impulsively: ‘what a horrible thought!’ You could say that her need for the GDR to exist was greater than its own.
Reading through The Writer’s Dimension (edited down from almost a thousand pages of speeches and addresses and essays in the original – what other writer speaks for a thousand pages!), one senses her attitude to her country cooling a little. It is worth checking the dates at the end of each piece. (The place is never cited, though many of these talks were given in the West or abroad. Wolf was a perfectly trustworthy recipient of the privilege of foreign travel, notably staunch at a colloquium in New York, say.) Still, such things as the terms in which she talks about ‘science’ – a key locution, which at times seems like a synonym or code-word for ‘socialism’ – change drastically in the course of the book: in 1968 she calls for a prose appropriate to ‘the age of science’; by 1989 she is ‘perfectly happy’ to be ‘highly critical’ of it. When the crunch came in that year, she was in favour of continuity with spoonfuls of change: she had a hand in the appeal of writers and artists to which Egon Krenz and other Politburo members then stupidly and infamously added their names; she was booed for using the word ‘socialism’; she asked the demonstrators ‘to consider whom they would benefit’; and she called Reunification ‘a dangerous nonsense’. At the same time, the bones she threw her listeners were laughably and amateurishly literary: she quotes a crowd’s slogans back to them, calls for ‘many samples of the popular literary creativity’ to be ‘collected and preserved’, notes that ‘incidentally, we writers can learn valuable lessons by associating with groups like these.’ The note she sounds here is precisely that of the insincere and unteachable politician promising meaningless concessions. Her words as a writer are regularly vitiated by political clichés and considerations: ‘grass-roots democracy in action’; ‘Picture this: Socialism arrives and no one goes away!’ (surely a crib from the Sixties poster: ‘What if they gave a war and no one came’); or the foul, licensing phrase ‘subjective authenticity’.
There is a dichotomy in Christa Wolf’s work between the politics of the day and the politics of the long view: in the latter she got nothing wrong – the role of women, freedom, peace, the planet – in the former nothing right. In the long run, it is senseless to be anything other than utopian; in the short term, to be utopian is to be stupid. Christa Wolf ends her last piece, from February 1990, by lamenting that ‘there is no motherland in sight, no more than before.’ The nominal cabinet-representing, heavy-industry-dominated, goose-stepping and abortion-happy three-letter state (GDR) was never a candidate. It was carried by women, on the backs of women, but not for their benefit.
Christa Wolf’s movements and thoughts in the last weeks of the GDR can be pieced together quite closely from her essays, and very revealing they are too: a radio interview with a Western journalist on 8 October; on 9 October to Moscow for a week (!) then a hard-hitting but uselessly late article on conformism and false education (‘Perhaps now we will ... admit that torch processions and mass gymnastic exercises are signs of an intellectual vacuum’) for the East German Wochenpost on 21 October; on 30 October, a long and indulging and horribly ironic interview about a story of hers that had been adapted for Eastern television; a big speech in the Alexanderplatz on 4 November; and another on receiving an honorary doctorate at Hildesheim in the Federal Republic, where for the first time, and very oddly, we encounter the words ‘opposition literature’. Imagine that in the original, after a thousand pages! – ‘what we intended as our opposition literature’. And then: ‘We seem to have been mistaken. Our uprising appears to have come years too late.’
In those months she must have got out her old manuscript, Was bleibt, revised it and sent it off for publication. It was her decisive mistake: the one time she really tried to play to her audience, and played them false. The slim book appeared, blue sky through a net curtain on its jacket. It describes the course of a single day spent under police surveillance, ‘the lowest level of surveillance, the warning kind, the instructions for those carrying out the task being: Conspicuous presence.’ The men in the parked car in front of the window all day; the telephone; distrust of friends; an evening reading packed with the wrong people, with her real public locked out and provoked by the police. Its publication was a masterpiece of bad faith and bad timing, an arrant case of me-too-ism. At the very moment the West German press were asking ‘Who’s afraid of Christa Wolf?’ she came forward with a tremulous, back-dated book about her own fears. Elsewhere, in the essays, she talked airily of ‘the total commitment of one’s personal moral existence’, and of how ‘strength of character and loyalty to convictions have the power to shape a person’s writing style’. How could she begin a story with such a false crust of breathless excitement? The effect of the tenses is still more monstrous in German, with its stricter conjugations:
Don’t panic. One day I will even talk about it in that other language which, as of yet, is in my ear but not on my tongue. Today I knew would still be too soon. But would I know when the time was right? Would I ever find my language? One day I would be old. And how would I remember these days then? Something inside me, which expands in moments of happiness, contracts in fright. When was I last happy?
The enormous turning-circle apparent behind those questions made the politicians appear adroit. Did she actually have to live on Friedrichstrasse and wait for it to be dismantled to notice what had gone on there – entry-point for West Germans and exit for fortunate East Berliners, a less exalted Checkpoint Charlie? Then, later, it emerged that she had once allowed herself to be used as an informant in the way that she now, a kind of demi-ingénue, claimed to fear. The stone-throwing West Germans exercised their Schadenfreude to the full; they had always envied her success, but what they had found unendurable was the spectacle of her virtue, her decency, her incorruptibility. She had sought to bridge the historic German gulf between ‘ideas’ and ‘the people’: now it claimed another victim.
We won’t judge Christa Wolf; we are too close, too remote. The subtle grey gradations of East Germany and its bizarre puncturing are lost, except to the imagination. Someone like Christa Wolf will come along one day – as she did for Günderrode and Bettina von Arnim – and happen upon her case, the woman who was active in ‘the most petrified decade’ of the century (the 1830s, the 1970s). She will write uninvasively and enthrallingly – perhaps with some future style in her ear, the dream of scientific prose – of this bold woman living among ‘an inwardly divided, politically immature people’, where ‘a well-organised government and security operation stifled every free impulse’, and, impassioned by her heroine, she will say: ‘We should change our lives. But we are not.’
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.