Wolf, Christa 1929–
Wolf is an East German novelist, short story writer, and essayist. Realistic and often autobiographical, her work reflects the political pressures and turbulence she has witnessed in her country. Because of its inherent criticism and analysis, some of her fiction has suffered censorship from the East German government. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)
The theme of alienation in contemporary East German novels is most pronounced in Christa Wolf's The Quest for Christa T. Here, a young woman, as narrator, tries to piece together the life of her friend Christa T., who died of leukemia at the age of thirty-five. (p. 13)
In outline form, the story seems trivial. There is nothing outstanding or remarkable about Christa T. But, that is exactly the point. Christa Wolf writes about an average woman in East Germany, and she wants to understand why this woman is "drained" of her exuberance for life. In this respect, a disease, leukemia, is used metaphorically, as Solzhenitsyn uses it in Cancer Ward: Christa T. is suffering from a social sickness, which emanates from pathological conditions in her society. The narrator of the story feels compelled to analyze this sickness because she, too, may become "infected," and hence, seeks a cure.
As in Kant's Die Aula, there is a dialectical relationship established between the narrator and her material. The past life and development of Christa T. are critically examined in the present so that the future may be changed. Using notes and diaries bequeathed her by Christa T., the narrator reconstructs the picture of a woman who had great hopes about contributing as a teacher to socialist development in the German Democratic Republic. However, these hopes were dampened by the hypocrisy and rigidity of petty bureaucrats. As a woman, she felt manipulated, and the result is that Christa T. withdrew into herself, reluctantly, in order to escape being reified by the social system. However, Christa T. never gives up hope for the socialist revolution, as one of her last dreams reveals. She is only overcome by the "disease," and the cure for this disease is partially suggested in the telling of Christa's story…. (pp. 13-14)
[It] becomes clear that the narrator has written about Christa's growing alienation in order to question the conditions which led to her withdrawal and death. This life of an average young woman in East Germany must be made known now, because the narrator, as a woman and citizen of the German Democratic Republic, shares the alienation of Christa T. and conveys it continually in her narrative. In this respect the narrative is more of a struggle than a quest, a struggle against the insidious disease which cuts man off from both himself and the rest of mankind. (p. 14)
Jack D. Zipes, "Growing Pains in the Contemporary German Novel-East and West," in MOSAIC: A Journal for the Comparative Study of Literature and Ideas (copyright © 1972 by the University of Manitoba Press; acknowledgment of previous publication is herewith made), Vol. 5, No. 3 (Spring, 1972), pp. 1-17.∗
[Moskauer Novelle] is constructed around the pattern: German woman falls in love with Russian man, yet both renounce this love. In this first publication, Christa Wolf has already found the theme that will occupy her exclusively: human, personal relations in juxtaposition to the demands of a socialist society. Der geteilte Himmel repeats this theme, this time applied to the two Germanies. The novel centers on the separation of Rita, who remains in the East, from her boy friend Manfred, who leaves for the West. After a break-down, Rita relives in the hospital her time with Manfred, their discussions, their...
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decisions. Convalescence indicates not just a physical recovery but a spiritual process, an affirmation of life in the GDR. Christa Wolf tries to show how such a decision is not motivated by considerations of imperialism and capitalism versus communism, but that it is first and foremost a profoundly human decision that involves two individuals. East German critics immediately attacked the novel for insufficient ideological conviction and decadent subjectivism and found much fault with the fact that Manfred, the intellectual, leaves East Germany while Rita makes her decision on the basis of feelings and cannot even give ideologically convincing reasons for her actions. Reviews of this novel in East and West Germany may again serve as yardsticks for the entirely different points of view on either side of the "divided skies." While East German critics objected to the personal and subjectivist position of the author and the lack of ideological conviction, their West German colleagues, before turning to the novel itself, attacked East German criticism for dealing with the novel as if it were an essay, a report, or any other written statement whose sole significance lies in the ideological content and not in any artistic achievement. Then they proceeded to decimate the novel as a literary work. (p. 151)
[In] 1969, Christa Wolf presented her next book, Nachdenken über Christa T., which was immediately hailed by critics in West Germany as one of the most significant novels written in East Germany, whereas East German reviews were variously negative. The novel reconstructs (through diaries, literary sketches, unfinished letters, which were handed over to a former friend of Christa T.) the life and death of a "stranger," a young woman, wife, and mother who alienates herself from society, rejects the new world of those who no longer have any imagination, any depth, who are routine people. Yet, in the death of Christa T., Christa Wolf also criticizes those who cannot adjust to the new society. Life, the future, and progress belong to those who affirm the reality in which they live and to which they contribute.
GDR-reality intrudes into this novel only to the extent to which Christa T. must live with it—and she barely takes notice of it. The wide panorama of the novels of socialist realism is abandoned. (pp. 151-52)
Ernestine Schlant, "Fiction in the German Democratic Republic during the Past," in Modern Fiction Studies (© copyright 1975 by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Vol. 21, No. 2, Summer, 1975, pp. 139-55.∗
The reconstruction of developmental years lived in the arena dominated by National Socialism once again proves itself a valid literary undertaking. The success of Wolf's [Kindheitsmuster] … affirms the durability of this thematic material.
The narrative-time structure of this work … is as complex as it is successful. The focal point is a two-day visit by narrator and family to the small town of her birth—now in Poland—in July 1971. This brief span of hours retrospectively becomes the threshold from which the narrator reenters her early life at that point in 1932 when, at the age of three, she consciously used the word "I" for the first time…. [The] growth of the narrative is painstakingly dated through contrapuntal references to events in Vietnam and Chile and to such dissimilar persons as General Pinochet and Daniel Ellsberg. The account gains further tension through a fourth time dimension, centered upon the narrator's teen-age daughter, in whose eyes are reflected events of which she has no direct experience.
This careful study of the past results in a panorama of historical universality; the review of these events from an adult perspective places central emphasis upon the nature and function of the individual within this context. The major question, "How did we become what we are?" is confronted by the disturbing inquiry: "Can every human being be turned into a beast?"
The overall success of the work lies in Wolf's fresh view upon the crisis of expression. She assumes that, in an ideal case, total correspondence between the structures of experience and those of narration would be possible; this would permit the "precision of imagination" which she seeks. Such a technique, she concludes, cannot exist, for life is a dynamic process which continues beyond and thus invalidates even the most sophisticated narrative structure. Faced by this dilemma, only two choices seem indicated: "To remain speechless or to live in the third person." In her quest for expression, however, Wolf finds a third possibility in a variation upon the Wittgensteinian theme: "About that of which one cannot speak, one must gradually cease being silent." Resignation before this task is not permissible: "We shall never succeed in explaining why things have gone the way they have and not differently; nonetheless, we must not hesitate to undertake at least the preliminaries for future explanations." The writer, through the exercise of "moral memory," mediates between past and present.
Only a hint of the grandiose dimensions of this work and the achievement involved can be given here. It is regrettable that Wolf has chosen to alloy such narrative gold with the propagandistic dross of repeated references to American political machinations. Unjust as the deeds mentioned may have been, the manner in which Wolf has employed them cheapens her work. On the other side of the coin, her mention of events in Czechoslovakia in 1968 is almost unrecognizable behind the melodramatic slag with which it is veiled. (pp. 611-12)
W. V. Blomster, "World Literature in Review: 'Kindheitsmuster'," in Books Abroad (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 4, Autumn, 1977, pp. 611-12.
Christa Wolf's latest work Kindheitsmuster (1976) is her first attempt to give a comprehensive account of the exceptional and traumatic social upheavals which accompanied the crucial formative years of her childhood…. For Christa Wolf who is anxious not merely to document and give shape to its influence on her own early years, but also to clarify the lingering, ill-defined effects on the present, there also arises the difficulty of narrative method…. The narrative structure devised for Kindheitsmuster offers a complex and ingenious answer to these problems. The novel moves over three different time spans…. Christa Wolf moves effortlessly back and forth between these different time levels, weaving them into a web of association and implication between past and present to produce a novel which is about memory, about journeys actual and metaphorical, about the tantalising pursuit of formative childhood experiences and the influences which have made her and her generation what they are. (pp. 19-20)
For Christa Wolf … the true feel and significance of the years spent under National Socialism cannot be rendered through the organisation of factual historical detail about the period…. Christa Wolf sees the task … of the literary imagination not only to speculate about the range of emotions which lay beneath the surface appearance [of socio-political events] but, more importantly, to cancel the treacheries of memory and to correct the falsification of the image of the childhood self which comes as a natural part of growing up…. (pp. 20-1)
It is an integral part of this process and of the technique of the novel that the act of sifting and reflecting upon the past is never hidden from the reader. Sharing, as it were, the exasperation at coffee stains on the finished manuscript, the act of writing is constantly before us. We participate in the circumstances which accompany Christa Wolf as she writes; the effect on her of current political events, or the response to public readings of completed chapters are all incorporated into the progressing work. This makes Kindheitsmuster a radically different proposition from other meticulously researched and lightly fictionalised Nazi childhoods. (p. 21)
To single out isolated aspects of the novel … is to give only a partial impression of a scope and complexity which have their source in the juxtaposition of marvellously authentic images of the past with the reflectiveness of a fertile intelligence which is able to expand those images into new and often sombre contexts. One graphic instance of this is provided by the passages dealing with Nelly's confrontation, as her family treks westwards before the advancing Russian armies, with the human legacy of the concentration camps. This episode sparks observations on the psychological consequences of the survival syndrome….
It is excursions such as this, and the ability to focus on the lingering implications for the present of Germany's recent past which produces the dense and challenging text of Kindheitsmuster, one of the most accomplished pieces of fiction to emerge from Germany—West or East—in recent years. (pp. 22-3)
B. M. Kane, "In Search of the Past: Christa Wolf's 'Kindheitsmuster'," in Modern Languages, Vol. LIX, No. 1, March, 1978, pp. 19-23.
It is no coincidence that the contemporary German novelists most readily associated with the theme of war-guilt are all from West Germany….
The literature of East Germany [has focused] … overwhelmingly on the present and future, the building-up of socialism and the bright hope it represents….
It is against this background that the measure of Christa Wolf's achievement in her new work, Kindheitsmuster, must be judged. "What is past is not dead", she begins provocatively, "It is not even past. We separate ourselves from it and pretend to be strangers." The past that she then proceeds to evoke is her own, those years from 1932 to 1946 when, between the ages of three and seventeen, the "patterns of childhood" to which the title refers were formed….
[The narrative of the fictional-autobiographical family], however, occupies barely half of the book, for parallel with it runs an account of a two-day visit in July 1971, by Christa Wolf, her husband, her brother, and Lenka, her fourteen-year-old daughter, back to Landsberg, which now lies in Poland and is called Gorzów Wielkopolski. But this is no sentimental journey: it is a reckoning with a past that still haunts and, with the presence of Lenka, an attempt to explain to a contemporary teenager how these things could have happened. The confrontation of two epochs in the form of mother and daughter is one of the book's greatest strengths. Not only does it demonstrate the organic and emotional ties that link past and present, but it also shows the delusion of putting a neat full-stop after 1945 in the fond hope that the blame and all the emotional repercussions could be channelled conveniently westwards. Kindheitsmuster is a plea to remember and learn from the past and at the same time an appeal for vigilance and sensitivity in the present.
But there is more, for on top of this dual perspective we are also given a detailed and soul-searching account of the actual process of writing, with interwoven reflections on the problems of narrative form….
Thus we have a running commentary on the genesis and progress of the book, with disquisitions on the technical problems and the writer's own misgivings before the task she has set herself. All very interesting, painstakingly honest even, but it becomes a little wearisome that the reader should constantly have his own judgment preempted and that Christa Wolf should seek so persistently to undermine her own achievement. Her writing is sufficiently powerful to be allowed to speak for itself, and although a certain amount of formal scaffolding can be illuminating, here it sometimes runs the risk of obscuring the edifice within.
However, the continual shifting between levels of narration is in fact handled very smoothly, and, despite its excess baggage, Kindheitsmuster … never completely loses its momentum. It is a courageous book that breaks taboos and, as we have come to expect from Christa Wolf, it is infused with an integrity and a deep moral concern that raise it far above the narrow and selfconscious partisanship of much GDR literature. It speaks equally to East and West Germany—itself a daring accomplishment for an East German author—but also, with its atmospheric depiction of a fateful era and its patent and compelling truthfulness, to wider audiences beyond.
Peter Graves, "Reckoning with the Past," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3966, April 7, 1978, p. 396.