Wolf, Christa (Vol. 29)
Christa Wolf 1929–
East German novelist, essayist, short story writer, and editor.
Wolf is a highly acclaimed writer whose controversial novels urge an understanding of and a confrontation with Germany's past and present. Growing up at the time the Nazi regime began to flourish, Wolf witnessed Germany's rise to power, its demise, and its partition. A socialist who chose to remain in the Communist section, Wolf addresses in her writings both the advantages and the limitations of the communist system. This balanced awareness, along with her desire to help the Germans accept their responsibility for Nazism, are the sources of the controversy surrounding her work. Wolf has stated, "What is past is not dead. It is not even past. We separate ourselves from it and pretend to be strangers." On the other hand, the official East German stance claims that the establishment of the German Democratic Republic created a state untainted by complicity with Nazism. In addition to examining subjects which the government would prefer to ignore, Wolf refuses to write in the Socialist-Realist mode of objective, non-experimental writing, producing instead subjective, individualistic works.
Der geteilte Himmel (1963; Divided Heaven) tells of an East German woman who refuses to join her lover in the West, thus emphasizing the disparity between personal satisfaction and total commitment to socialism. An underlying theme is the search for self-identity—a theme more fully developed in Nachdenken über Christa T (1968; The Quest for Christa T). This novel centers on the narrator's struggle to analyze and piece together the life of Christa T, an ordinary woman who is meant to be representative of her generation. Because of its implicit and impartial judgment of life in a communist society and its failure to present a "socialist heroine," the novel lacked official support within the German Democratic Republic.
In the autobiographical Kindsheitmuster (1977; A Model Childhood), Wolf again takes issue with a subject often avoided in East Germany, the acceptance of national guilt. A Model Childhood is Wolf's most ambitious novel in its mingling of past memories with present realities. The story relates a trip taken by the narrator back to the village where she grew up. The narrator grows in self-knowledge as she attempts to confront and explain her acceptance of Nazism to her daughter, who is similarly involved in ideological confusion—in this case, the differences between capitalism and communism.
In a recent novel, Kein Ort. Nirgends (1979; No Place on Earth), Wolf appears to depart from her usual examination of Germany and its recent past to relate a fictional meeting and the tragic fate of two literary figures from the nineteenth century. On another level, however, some commentators maintain that Wolf is yet again making a statement on the individual's place in modern society—"no place on earth."
(See also CLC, Vol. 14 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)
[Kein Ort. Nirgends] which bears no genre designation, is, it seems, best described as a novella telling the story of a fictitious meeting of two well-known figures of the Age of Goethe, Heinrich von Kleist and Caroline von Günderrode, both deeply unhappy and suicidal. They are presented in a circle of well-known German romantics…. The scene is well set: Kleist, the writer and Prussian officer, torn between the real and the ideal.
Kleist, as usual, is described as the moody figure unable to "adjust to any conventional relationship in this world." Günderrode suffers from, among other things, bourgeois discrimination against women…. Slowly, the two suicidal figures are drawn together….
In both dialogue and narrative the novella is focused in psychological undercurrents and striking in its constant shift of point of view, from omniscient author to Kleist's and Günderrode's inner monologue, to analytic observations by yet another party to the game. This shift is foregrounded by the judicious use of the subjunctive mode. The overall effect is a mixture of much poetic cliché and some contemporary East German idiom.
Rita Terras, in a review of "Kein Ort. Nirgends," in World Literature Today (copyright 1979 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 53, No. 4; Autumn, 1979, p. 671.
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Christa Wolf has an established reputation in both Germanies, and a substantial body of work which gets better and better with every new novel. Her first major novel, Nachdenken über Christa T. (1968), was widely translated, but in Britain we still do not know nearly enough of her. The present collection of her stories from the years 1960 to 1972 [Gesammelte Erzählungen] offers a good occasion to extend our acquaintance of her range, from domestic idyll through childhood reminiscence to dream and satirical fantasy; from the two wry "days in the life of a woman writer", "Dienstag, den 27. September" and "Juninachmittag", through the—for her—relatively straightforward "Blickwechsel", to the dream-tale "Unter den Linden" and on to three brilliant satires on current literary, social-scientific and sexual ideologies….
Her characteristic theme is the integrity and fulfilment of the self, and this determines the characteristic form of her novels: in Christa T. and in her marvellous recent autobiographical novel Kindheitsmuster (1976) it requires the presentation of past experience in terms of present reflection upon it, resulting, in Kindheitsmuster, in the therapeutic re-creation of a self in history….
And now, after this landmark, there comes, long-awaited, a new and important novel, Kein Ort. Nirgends. She has always been a "literary" writer, deeply assimilating and...
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[In A Model Childhood] the narrator—called Nelly—describes her visit, together with her husband (called H), her brother Lutz and her daughter Lenka to her native town, formerly Landsberg but today Grozów Wielkopolski in Poland.
The superficial reason for the journey was what is called "tourism to home-towns," but the deeper motivation for Nelly was to recover for herself and lay bare to her daughter the past of her childhood in Landsberg under Hitler and during the war. (p. 11)
Christa Wolf memorably describes the German retreat and the Russian advance in the East. As recovery of time lost this book is successful. However, bound up with the effort of remembering, there is a great deal else: discourses on the nature of memory, the writer's self-examination about the book that she is writing, constant switching in time from 1971 back to the Hitler era, the dumbly uncomprehending attitude of daughter Lenka to her mother's attempts to explain how the family could have been Nazis.
Inside all this, there is a message: that despite the total elimination of Hitler's Reich, as the result of methods he introduced of dictatorship, total war, mass propaganda, censorship, concentration and extermination camps, we live today in an era in which every sort of horror enacted by governments is taken for granted. (pp. 11, 34)
In its effort to reconstruct the private lives of people who...
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The material for her stories [in Gesammelte Erzählungen] comes from Wolf's own experience, even though this may be disguised as fantasy, dream, animal satire or even science fiction. In the first story in the collection, "Blickweehsel," the flight of Germans from the advancing Russians at the end of World War II is described from a retrospective of twenty-five years. Here Wolf shares an important insight into her creativeness by describing a state of mind wherein a victim of events becomes simultaneously their witness….
But Wolf's stories are by no means limited to detached inspection of her autobiography. They are occasionally passionate confessions which, in "Juninachmittag" and in "Unter den Linden," make use of the technique of addressing a fictional "Sie" or "du." Even though the reader may not be addressed directly, one feels oneself responding, or attempting to respond more immediately than if one were not addressed. In three of the stories Wolf attacks pseudo-scientific manipulation and systematization. One of these, "Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers," continues the tradition of E.T.A. Hoffmann and, even more directly, of Gottfried Keller, by presenting satirical-feline views of human attempts at total (or totalitarian) engineering of human happiness…. It would perhaps not be too dangerous a generalization to say that what Christa Wolf's stories are aiming for is the opposite of that: the retention or restoration...
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[In Kindheitsmuster] Wolf's protagonist-narrator writes her account from her present ideological perspective of a committed socialist, but she is too alienated from her childhood self, called "Nelly," to write about her except in the third-person singular. Therefore, as an adult she cannot muster a personal identity solid enough to explore and confront her past self in the first person, as "I." Rather, she addresses herself as "you" in a kind of self-interrogation. Only at the end of the book, when she has relived the child's experiences and worked through those patterns of feeling, thinking and behavior which made her susceptible to Nazism, does she emerge as a person who calls herself "I." Hers is now a self which has been tested in the crucible of an acid self-examination.
The narrator does not consider herself and the child Nelly an isolated case. Rather she takes herself and the child as typical of their generation. In so doing she sheds some light on why it was and is so difficult for even the most responsible members of that generation to confront their participation, willing or unwilling, in Nazi events…. Hers is no self-pitying attempt to excuse that damaged generation, but rather an attempt to teach it to respond to personal and political situations "with appropriate feelings and responsibly." The narrator's self-interrogation extends easily to the reader, who is also included in the "you" of the writer's...
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What is this act of re-membering, of recognition? For Christa Wolf, it is a necessity…. For her narrator, there is an added urgency, for she was a child of Hitler's Germany and her East German daughter is owed explanations.
The dilemma is the observer's: to remain speechless or to live in the third person. The less unbearable alternative gives A Model Childhood its framework: the narrator revisits her home town—whose name as Polish destination is not what it was as German birthplace—together with her daughter, brother and husband, to refind Nelly, that self who was the child not just of her parents but her generation….
And it is in the brilliant juxtaposition of a child's perceptions and an adult's understanding that the question becomes not 'How could they?' but 'How could they not?'
In the irony which is the observer's blessing as well as curse, the pain of the search for Nelly becomes not just bearable, but compelling and, yes, humorous too….
And what the woman Nelly became tries to say to her daughter is that it wasn't just quotations from the Fuhrer that she collected in her autograph book, but the same sentimental tags that sophisticated Lenka has collected in her turn, that life then, as now, had its parallel realities to the ones the world will remember….
Lenka's world has its violences too. The book is long in the writing and the news...
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The Quest for Christa T. (re-issued to coincide with the publication of Christa Wolf's more recent novel, A Model Childhood) anticipates many of the themes and preoccupations of the later work: the fallibility of memory and the compulsion to remember, the tension between fiction and fact, the struggle for a form commensurable with experience, writing as a means of self-definition and of understanding others…. Christa T's experiences suggest with admirable economy the large-scale horrors of Nazi Germany and, in the post-war world, initial euphoria and progressive disillusionment with the Communist slogans which superseded the Nazi ones. Yet for all its sombre aspects, and despite Christa T's early death, the novel is ultimately an affirmation of individual resilience in the face of evil and adversity. Christa T's moments of happiness, the solace which she finds in literature and in writing her poems, her craving to "see" and the affection she inspires, all indicate that her wish "simply to be a human being" is capable of at least a limited fulfillment.
More than twice as long as its predecessor, A Model Childhood is also more complex, more explicit and bleaker in tone…. Throughout the novel she struggles to answer the insistent question: "How did we become what we are today?"
The attempt at an answer involves her in "a game in and with the second person and the third person, for the purpose of...
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Similar to—but far more involving than—Gunter Grass' The Meeting at Telgte, Wolf's novella [No Place on Earth] posits an imaginary colloquy between two German literary figures of the past: the great sensitive, Henrich von Kleist, shown soon after his burning of the manuscript for Robert Guiscard; and the poet Karoline von Günderrode…. Each portrait is vivid and poetic of itself…. And, together, their conversation drills through recklessness of thought, personal loves/hatreds (such as Kleist's for Goethe), and philosophy (Günderrode's anguished feminism) … before arriving at aphorism: "From what she has observed, she says, the ambition of gifted people is intensified by inauspicious circumstances, the ambition of the untalented by their distorted self-esteem." Historical, hypothetical, but marvelously intense: a fascinating short novel by one of Europe's most consistently haunting novelists….
A review of "No Place on Earth," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1982 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), Vol. L, No. 12, June 15, 1982, p. 700.
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Because [Christa Wolf] is East German, it would be easy to see her work as political protest, and to some degree it is. She grew up in Nazi Germany and described her early life in two brilliant semiautobiographical novels, "The Quest for Christa T." and "A Model Childhood." In "A Model Childhood," published here in 1980, she portrays a child, Nelly, who is an obedient daughter, good student and exemplary member of the Hitler Youth…. Nelly rarely rebels openly, but with each conflict something inside her quietly sighs as it is smothered. What is most striking about Christa Wolf's vision is that it is love more than fear that silences Nelly, a much loved child.
But it is clear that the nourishment Christa Wolf seeks is not to be found in the West either. The title of her new novel, "No Place On Earth," underscores this fact. The book is set in 1804. The scene is a country house on the Rhine during an afternoon tea; the cast is a group of wealthy, aristocratic Germans, gracious, polished, the intelligentsia. To some degree, this novel is based on actuality. It portrays an imagined meeting between two real people—Heinrich von Kleist, playwright and poet, and Karoline von Günderrode, canoness and poet…. From the opening pages, we know their future and the important events of their past. What is focused on is the nature of these two sensibilities, on what it feels like to know oneself utterly unsuited, utterly wrong in one's...
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In No Place on Earth, Christa Wolf imagines the meeting of two young nineteenth-century German writers—the dramatist Heinrich von Kleist and the poetess Karoline von Günderrode…. In their mysterious encounter, which seems to both writers to be, like Kleist's description of its Rhineland setting, "a sort of poet's dream," they share a utopian vision of their artistic potential…. Both sense that this meeting will be their only one; when the afternoon—and the novel—ends, they must re-enter history. Two years after the hour of their fictional encounter, Günderrode will stab herself to death with a silver dagger; six years later, Kleist too will commit suicide.
Like most of Wolf's earlier fiction … No Place On Earth is about people trying to reconcile themselves to the difficult worlds they live in. A prominent East German novelist and critic, a feminist and a Socialist, Wolf has spent the more than twenty years of her career tracing her past and the past of Nazi and postwar Germany…. Wolf makes meticulous use of the most quotidian detail to show the links between the personal and the political.
For Wolf, as for Handke, memory is key; an "unusued memory gets lost, ceases to exist, dissolves into nothing—an alarming thought," she writes in A Model Childhood…. While less overtly controversial than her writing about her own era, No Place On Earth, which presumably stems from...
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Unter den Linden, by Christa Wolf, who wrote Nachdenken über Christa T. (1968), is subtitled "Three Improbable Tales", and the subject-matter is certainly out of the ordinary. In the title story, a young woman relives, in a dream, an unhappy affair; in the second, an unusually gifted cat, a descendant of Hoffmann's Kater Murr, eavesdrops—and sceptically comments—on his master dreaming of physical and spiritual happiness; and the third is a report by a volunteer who undergoes a sex change in the course of testing the drug "Petersein Masculinum 199", but ultimately resorts to an injection of the antidote in order to revert to being a woman.
The time and place of these stories ranges from Berlin with its persistent echoes of the past to the year 1992, but there are dominant common features: each has a questing and questioning first-person narrator, a preoccupation with speculation and dream-worlds, and a university teacher of one kind or another. Christa Wolf seems obsessed with different levels of consciousness and their interrelationships, and worries away at issues of personal identity and the nature of reality with a persistence that borders on the tedious.
Rex Last, "Identical Issues," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1983; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3839, October 10, 1983, p. 1208....
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"What is past is not dead," writes Christa Wolf in A Model Childhood; "it is not even past. We cut ourselves off from it; we pretend to be strangers."… [This] estrangement from the past is deliberately cultivated in the GDR, though at a cost to the psychological need to come to terms with experience under nazism. In her … novel [A Model Childhood], Christa Wolf addresses precisely this issue of the discontinuous self. In her "Workshop Interview," she takes issue with the tendency of the GDR, still prevalent when the novel appeared, to appropriate as its antecedents the anti-fascists and resistance fighters and to ignore the fact that the majority of its members, no less than the citizens of West Germany, were in need of a therapeutic reckoning with the past and an exploration of their own involvement in guilt. This is the gap that A Model Childhood sets out to fill.
To the best of my knowledge, it is the first and so far the only GDR novel to deal with the issue on this level. As fictionalized autobiography it shares the difficulty experienced by West German writers in applying that genre to the reckoning with nazism: the fact that many Germans had not been involved in the resistance efforts and had, in fact, been scarcely aware of their existence. In presenting the past through the eyes of an ordinary person, it can be grouped with other autobiographical works that have since appeared in West Germany, such as...
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