(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

“My overall concern is the sinister effects of alienation, in aesthetics, in art, as well as elsewhere.” Thus does Christa Wolf, whose previous writings have often been in the mode of memoirs and lightly disguised autobiographical fiction, begin a series of reflections on the genesis and composition of her most recent fiction translated into English, Cassandra. The English subtitle, “A Novel and Four Essays,” obscures slightly both the nature of these reflections and the stature of the fiction, which in German appeared in 1983 as Kassandra und Voraussetzungen einer Erzählung, and which translates as “Cassandra and the presuppositions (or conditions, as the more literal internal subtitling of the English version has it) of a narrative.” Cassandra is a tale, a story, nothing more—certainly not a fiction with the ambition suggested by the honorific “novel”—and the nonfictional prose pieces which accompany it are only “essays” in the scarcely current etymological sense of the term. They are, rather, a series of documents related to the novel’s genesis and writing: an account of the author’s travels, a diary, and a letter to a friend. The relationship between these nonfictional documents and the fictional narrative poses the key formal and thematic problem of the book.

First, there is the question of the text’s voices. The major difference between the fictionalized first-person narrator of the tale and the subsequent musings of the author consists in the utter helplessness and hopelessness of the former, balanced against the slim margin of optimism which Christa Wolf continues to project for herself and her world. Cassandra’s resignation to her impending fate, which she has foreseen along with all the disasters that were to befall her native city, is signaled in her placing the following sentences in the past:I still believed [early in the war between the Trojans and Achaeans] that a little will to truth, a little courage, could erase the whole misunderstanding. To call what was true, true and what was untrue, false: That was asking so little (I thought) and would have served our cause better than any lie or half-truth. For it was intolerable (I thought) to base the whole war—and our whole lives, for wasn’t war our life!—on the accident of a lie.

The sense of purpose and commitment which these words project are no longer possible for Cassandra, as she is enslaved and bound for certain death at the hands of her captor’s vengeful wife, Clytemnestra.

Wolf still believes, however narrow her faith, in the possibility of truth telling, of evading the impending disasters of war and destruction by speaking about them candidly and critically. For she is, as numerous passages in the second half of the book make plain, Cassandra’s modern counterpart. If she does not quite yet feel herself in the same double bind as her ancient precursor (to be cursed with a gift of prophecy no one will believe), this does not diminish the precariousness of her situation nor her consciousness of the difficulty of her task. Sprinkled with references to and quotations from contemporary European politics, including the strategic and diplomatic imperatives which have generated yet another arms race on European soil (Wolf was a young girl when this mania last overtook Europe in the 1930’s; her experiences growing up in Nazi Germany are chronicled in A Model Childhood), the second half of the book draws a reasonable parallel between the current crop of Priams and Agamemnons and the venal, foolish, and proud Greek and Trojan men who brought destruction on themselves and their peoples for motives too complicated and obscure to admit of completely rational explanation: “But in Troy, I firmly believe, the people were no different from us. Their gods are our gods, the false gods. Only our devices differ from theirs.” Each individual strategic or tactical calculation makes perfect sense within the limited context of its formulation, but taken together the entire logic of the process looks simply mad. This, E. P. Thompson has suggested, is the logic of exterminism that governs the nuclear arms race; it was, equally, the exterminating angel which led to the sacking of Troy and the bleeding of the Achaean warriors. Didactically considered, this is what Cassandra is all about.

The parallel between...

(The entire section is 1796 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In 1982, East German author Christa Wolf agreed to deliver a series of lectures on poetics at Frankfurt University. She surprised her audience by presenting not the expected scholarly analysis of poetics, but rather a series of four talks including two “Travel Reports,” “A Work Diary,” and a “Letter,” which explain how she became interested in the figure of Cassandra. Her fifth “lecture” was the narrative Cassandra itself. This refusal to play by the expected academic rules shows Wolf’s attempt to break the boundaries of literary genres and to incorporate more intimate and personal, first-person literary forms into the canon of high literature.

The first four lectures, entitled Voraussetzungen einer Erzählung: “Kassandra” (conditions of a narrative), and the novel Cassandra were published as a single volume in East Germany. In West Germany, the narrative and essays were sold separately. Jan van Heurck’s 1984 English version rejoins them under the title Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays but ironically places the “Voraussetzungen” (conditions or “presuppositions”) after the narrative.

Wolf’s novel revises the story of Troy as told from the point of view of the ignored seer, Cassandra. Like Euripides in his play The Trojan Women (415 b.c.), Wolf narrates from the perspective of the vanquished survivors of war. The novel begins with Cassandra in Mycenae at the gates of Agamemnon’s fortress. Cassandra’s interior monologue as she awaits her death takes her back in memory to Troy.

Cassandra remembers peaceful scenes of the pregnant Queen Hecuba discussing Troy’s administration with her attentive husband, King Priam. These scenes give Cassandra a glimpse of society at a moment of balance between matriarchy and patriarchy. In the early days of Troy, there is no conflict between politics and family, no social wall between men and women. This fleeting moment of political and gender balance attracts Wolf. She is looking not for a moment of nostalgia but for a model of a different kind of social...

(The entire section is 876 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Christa Wolf seeks to remake thousands of years of literary tradition, to displace the hero from its center and to make a place for women in it. She clearly attempts to return women to the position of subjects rather than objects, to make them tellers, singers, and seers again rather than characters in a male plot. She is faced, however, with the problem that people do not live in a world that is whole and balanced between men and women; patriarchy has dominated for thousands of years and defined narrative in its wake. If Wolf is to narrate at all, she must do so within a tradition determined by patriarchy. She cannot rewrite the patriarchal myths without invoking and inscribing them anew in Western culture. This painful irony is the recurrent and unavoidable problem of all women “re-visionists.” Wolf counters, however, by demystifying myth, laying bare its rationalizing pragmatism. She does not want simply to inscribe new female myths; she wants reasonableness to replace the need for myth entirely. Ironically, Cassandra’s “madness” is the constant insistence on truth and reason.

Writing in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany), where 90 percent of the female population was in the workforce, Wolf displays a wider range of active female roles than patriarchy has traditionally suggested. Her women participate in political and religious power, as well as fulfilling the more traditional role assignments of mothers or exploited sex...

(The entire section is 467 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Booklist. LXXX, June 15, 1984, p. 1432.

Fries, Marilyn Sibley, ed. Responses to Christa Wolf: Critical Essays. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989. A collection of essays by twenty-one critics covering many of Wolf’s texts from a variety of critical perspectives. Not only includes essays from a feminist perspective but also gives some idea of the varieties of literary methodologies applied to Wolf’s work. Contains an index and an extensive bibliography.

Herrmann, Anne. The Dialogic and Difference: An/Other Woman in Virginia Woolf and Christa Wolf. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. Insightful feminist analysis of the construction of the female subject in the works of Virginia Woolf and Christa Wolf. An index and a bibliography including many references to feminist theory are provided.

Kirkus Reviews. LII, June 1, 1984, p. 530.

Kuhn, Anna K. Christa Wolf’s Utopian Vision: From Marxism to Feminism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. An insightful analysis of Wolf’s development from her early works to Storfall (1987; Accident, 1989). Kuhn traces Wolf’s movement from a reliance on Marxism as an ideology to a later development of a more feminist position. Includes an index and an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary works.

Library Journal. CIX, July, 1984, p. 1328.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 29, 1984, p. 1.

The Nation. CCXXXIX, September 22, 1984, p. 246.

New Leader. LXXVII, October 15, 1984, p. 14.

The New Republic. CXCI, July 30, 1984, p. 40.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, September 9, 1984, p. 20.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, May 18, 1984, p. 144.

Wolf, Christa. The Author’s Dimension: Selected Essays. Edited by Alexander Stephan. Translated by Jan van Heurck. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993. A collection of essays by Wolf on a wide variety of political and literary topics. Provides useful insights into the author and her attitudes toward literature and politics. Includes an introduction by Grace Paley.

Wolf, Christa. The Fourth Dimension: Interviews with Christa Wolf. Translated by Hilary Pilkington. New York: Verso, 1988. A collection of interviews with Wolf. Very useful for understanding Wolf’s process of composition, as well as her political concerns. A short bibliography of primary works is included. Contains an introduction by Karin McPherson.

World Literature Today. LVII, Autumn, 1983, p. 629.