Bertolt Brecht was known to say that the best argument against his plays were his poems. A similar thing might be said about the diaries and novels of the East German writer Brigitte Reimann, born in 1933. Siblings (1963), given a fluent but flawed translation by Lucy Jones, is the first of her novels to be published in English, after the two volumes of her diaries that survived: I Have No Regrets: Diaries, 1955-63 (also translated by Jones), and It All Tastes of Farewell: Diaries, 1964-70, translated by Steph Morris. Reimann burned an earlier volume, and a final instalment, known to have been written, and covering the years 1970 to 1973, has yet to surface.
While the diaries are the tumultuous, occasionally exhausting account of a life in equal measure insatiable and provincial, a rampage through four marriages and three divorces, several books and TV films, a clutch of prizes, numerous affairs, endless flirtations, oodles of vodka, a sponsored trip across the USSR, a childhood bout of polio and an early death from cancer (she was 39), Siblings is an almost cool, static, geometrical spider’s web of a book, in which the Reimann figure, a painter called Elisabeth, seeks to establish herself in love and country and career and at the same time prevent the emigration to West Germany of her brother Ulrich (another brother, Konrad, and a boyfriend, Gregory, having gone some time ago). The reader has a choice, diaries or novel: either the rough material of a life continually going off the rails, where even the depressions and dry spells and dysphorias are furiously energetic, with the camera jarring and jolting and facing every which way; or the carefully cropped, calculating, inadvertently revealing novel. The raw or the parboiled.
Siblings is like a book from a lost civilisation. It comes with four pages of endnotes, which these days is unheard of in fiction. This bespeaks the arcaneness of the so-called Dreibuchstabenstaat, ‘three-letter state’, the DDR (or GDR); the utter pertinacity, specialisation and goneness of its circumstances. There was its faith in heavy industry, its willingness to lock up its population (against Soviet advice), the kindliness and good humour of much of that population (most un-German), and the distressing ugliness of the official jargon, the Kaderwelsch, a play on the words Kader (a party cadre) and Kauderwelsch, meaning ‘gobbledygook’.
With their echt deutsch desire to come up to expectations, the East Germans found themselves in competition with both Soviet and Western writing. Their state, founded as recently as 1949, and – though it didn’t know this – with only forty years to run, wanted to find itself reflected and praised in its own newly created art. The Bitterfeld Way initiative of 1959, elaborated at a literary conference in the industrial conglomerate of Bitterfeld (where my uncle worked as a chemist, breeding potatoes), sent writers into production facilities in an effort to remove the distance between artists, intellectuals and workers. Outcomes, settings, style, personnel, where the ‘positive hero’ would do her bit to help create ‘the socialist personality’, were all subject to dirigiste, fat-fingered and anxious instruction from above. Or make that above and below and both sides. Certainly, in the most aspirational and most controlled decades, the 1950s and 1960s, it was rare for anything like an innocent, eccentric, personal or motiveless book to be written and published.
The literature of the state was micro-managed. It followed minute, inscrutable, unpredictable political-intellectual fashions. Small wonder, maybe, given that the state, set up for permanence, even though following on from and on the rebound from Hitler’s thousand-year Reich (one might have thought something more provisional and improvisational would have suited the circumstances better, but that wouldn’t have been the German way), wanted a culture to match. There were far too many cooks involved, and the recipe changed all the time, but it was all like a vast fermenting tub, with a small tin tap. Later, post-Zhivago, another tap was fixed, pointing West for material unpublishable in the East. Later still, as with the poet-singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann in 1976, the state simply shipped out those writers who had blotted their copybooks or gave cause for concern.
I wonder if there has ever been writing so conscious of itself and its market, with such a managed sense of mission. The Great American Novel may be either a rumour or an expression (like the Great White Whale), but the Great East German Novel was definitely a Project. Something that would square honesty and hope, ideology and life. A top-down product that contrived to appear bottom-up. Aesthetics was political, was social, was almost medical. One can see it still in reruns of East German television, where all the characters seem to be forever attending a funeral (in borrowed clothes); in the sort of humble functional clutter, the egg cupboards and shoe cabinets, that furnish forth the triste interiors in Siblings, with all the objects seeming to sing in a minor key. Reimann’s synoptic views anxiously show everything as though it enabled harmony and represented plenty: ‘Her hair lay thick and black on the pillow, and beyond her lay the garden, the thicket of cherry trees, covered two and threefold in white flower buds; and the short, squat chimney of the sawmill where we used to play cowboys and Indians.’
Descriptions in the pedantically realistic novels of the 1950s and 1960s – before the mood turned inward and critical and ‘dissident’ in the 1970s and 1980s – are reeled off like numbers at bingo, for readers scattered over the Eastern republic duly to mark their cards, with gratitude and familiarity deriving a sense of their own existence. ‘For as long as I can remember,’ Reimann’s character Elisabeth writes, ‘we’ve had a red coconut mat in the hallway, which is replaced every four or five years.’ It might all be called ‘No Room at the Top’.
Reimann was a slip of a thing in her twenties with a school leaving certificate when she published her first two books, both short, almost YA. One could hear, in the late 1950s, the sucking, kissing sound from the state. Sales, prizes, adaptations, commissions and political work were starting to come her way. She was in demand at conferences and residencies. She complained that she was spending her life on the phone and answering letters. She moved to a part-time appointment in the vast new lignite briquette and gasworks complex at Hoyerswerda, bringing literature to the workers, rather as Elisabeth in Siblings brings painting. The Stasi got in touch, sending her an appealing young man to conduct a four-hour interview, the meaning of which she didn’t understand for several weeks afterwards. When her husband was put in prison for six months for resisting arrest and hitting a policeman, she was slow to see the connection or the principle of leverage. She was insistently asked to produce a piece for a celebration of Walter Ulbricht’s seventieth birthday in 1963. (She didn’t.)
A stock in trade – a unique selling point, even – of East German writing (though I suppose also available to North Korean writing) is its introduction of a further dichotomous opposition, a further measure of destiny, beyond those dramatic pairings held in common across fiction: life/death, marriage/singleness, madness/sanity, poverty/wealth, prison/liberty. East Germany threw up another: to stay in a state that defined itself by locking up its citizens; or to leave, either quietly and with nothing, as my parents did, or with permission, or brazenly and illegally, at grave risk of death. Linientreue or Herübermachen: loyalty to the state or defection through the looking glass to what defined itself as its opposite. Nothing else is quite like this as a form of sundering: what is on the other side of the glass is still life, still Germany, but it reaches into something categorically inaccessible, or impossible, or despised. This is an either/or, positing ‘if that exists, we don’t.’ Or rather, it exists, but only in the form of obsolete illustrations, out of reach and without application: ‘We only knew the country between the Elbe and the Oder. The vine-covered hills of the Rhine, the thicket of masts and funnels in the port of Hamburg and the spires of Bamberg Cathedral were just pictures on postcards or pages we skipped over in our father’s old history books that had survived the war in the bookcase.’
Besides, that other country is tainted by ‘the overpowering smell of blood behind the scent of Virginia tobacco and oranges and Lux soap’. East Germany had washed itself clean without: look, no fascism here. (This rather facile and painless self-absolving is one reason behind the rise of the AfD in eastern parts of Germany now.) Both of Elisabeth’s engineer brothers are tempted, but differently. The older one, Konrad, is ‘elbow-man brother’, with his ‘hasty, busy handwriting’, a sell-out, defined by his materialism. The younger one, Uli, is a frustrated idealist: ‘I’m giving up on our people, but not our cause.’ In his unstable and inconsistent way, he wants more communism, not less.
Siblings is a generational book. Like Gen X-ers or Gen Z-ers, Reimann looked about her to see that the markers of life and society had been put in place by people alien to her. They might be heroes, veterans of Spain and old Balkan partisans and survivors of imprisonment and exile, but they don’t seem to offer a ready place in a contemporary society for Elisabeth or Uli. There is a social-industrial complex being run up, but they’re not sure they fit: Uli, because he has been pipped by engineers who are party members, though less qualified; Elisabeth because of male corruption and fear and the old aesthetics. ‘One day I saw one of his pictures hanging in the dining hall; it was a portrait of an activist in grey and brown tones, his ungainly hands balled into fists resting on his knee as he stared down from the wall through slitted eyes.’ Or there is a corny ‘portrait of a laughing crane driver with a red carnation stuck into his headscarf’, made worse than it is by the translation which has made the female subject a man. Elisabeth’s own painting is altogether more feelingful and enterprising, and is promptly – even dangerously – condemned (‘you end up with Kandinsky and Dufy’) for its formalist tendencies:
I’d been trying to capture Lukas at work, leaning on one knee, his face behind the welder’s mask, half-turned towards the viewer, engrossed and self-confident. I hadn’t cluttered the background with props. The light source in the bottom left corner was from the welding flame, a golden-red kernel from which flowed radiant blues and yellows, increasingly turning into delicate rings of violet, broken by the strong diagonal lines of the kneeling man’s neck and back.
Like her heroine in Siblings, Reimann disdained old-style socialist realism.
This is complicated because Elisabeth’s feelings towards seniority – as I think Reimann’s were too – are informed by expectant obedience, a sort of eroticised respect. ‘Around this time,’ she thinks to herself, belatedly, ‘I came to realise that my independence was in poor shape.’ In fact, you could throw a blanket over her responses to the male characters: her brother Uli; Hans, an ex; Gregory, another ex; Joachim, her boyfriend; his father, Erwin; Lukas, the ‘brigade leader’, an industrial worker with an appreciation of art; the wise party secretary Bergemann; even Ohm Heiners, the somewhat villainous old-school painter. On the one hand, the array of possible relationships is so great and potentially so variegated, from the neutral pool of comrade, colleague, workmate; on the other, all the men in Siblings seem to be the same man, and the woman seems to be equally drawn to all of them. The reader thinks, a little wistfully, of the few moments of calm in Reimann’s journals which occur when she is in the presence of Anna Seghers or, later, Christa Wolf. It was only those grandes dames of East German writing who had the ability to settle her agitation.
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