Christa Wolf 1929-
German novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, and screenwriter.
The following entry presents an overview of Wolf's career through 1998. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 14, 29, and 58.
A highly respected East German literary figure during the Cold War, Wolf won international renown on both sides of the Iron Curtain as a politically committed artist and voice of moral conscience. Though tolerated by Communist authorities, Wolf probed the psychological difficulties of East German life, scrutinizing Germany's Nazi past, problems facing women in a male-dominated culture, and the estrangement of the individual under a rigid social order. In daring novels such as Nachdenken über Christa T. (1968; The Quest for Christa T.), Kindheitsmuster (1976; A Model Childhood), and Kassandra (1983; Cassandra), Wolf broke with state-sanctioned literary modes to present highly subjective accounts of repression and alienation, particularly as experienced by women, winning universal appeal and attracting the interest of Western feminists. However, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and subsequent revelations that Wolf had briefly worked for Stasi, the East German secret police, she suddenly became a lightning rod for controversy; consequently, her reputation has suffered as critics question the moral—if not the literary—merit of her work.
Wolf was born Christa Ihlenfeld in Landsberg an der Warthe, Germany (now Gorzow Wielkopolski, Poland), the daughter of a salesman. A teenager during the Second World War, she was a member of the Hitler Youth. In 1945 her family fled from the advancing Soviet army to the Mecklenburg area, in what would later become East Germany. Four years later, enthralled by the utopian promise of Marxism, Wolf joined the Socialist Unity party. She also began studying German literature at universities in Jena and Leipzig. In 1951 she married essayist Gerhard Wolf. After earning her degree in 1953, she began working as a researcher for the East German Writers' Union. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Wolf held various editorial positions, including one with the literary journal Neue Deutsche Literatur. For a time, she also worked in a boxcar factory. In 1961 she published her first book, Moskauer Novelle (Moscow Novella), and the following year began writing full-time. Two years later she published Der geteilte Himmel (1963; Divided Heaven), for which she won East Germany's prestigious Heinrich Man Prize for literature. Divided Heaven also won great praise in West Germany—a rare achievement for an East German writer. During the next several years, she completed a book of essays, Lesen und Schreiben (1972; The Reader and the Writer); a film script, Till Eulenspiegel (1973), written with her husband; and a book of short stories, Unter den Linden (1974; Under the Linden). In 1974 Wolf traveled to the United States as the Max-Kade German Writer-in-Residence at Oberlin College, Ohio. In 1976 she signed an open letter protesting the East German government's mistreatment of writer Wolf Biermann, an action that resulted in her dismissal from the executive committee of the East German Writers' Union. The following year she was made a member of the German Academy for Language and Literature, a West German body. In 1979 she published a book of essays, Fortgesetzter Versuch, and the experimental novel Kein ort. Nirgends (No Place on Earth). She traveled to Greece in 1981, an experience that provided inspiration and material for the novel Cassandra, published two years later.
During the remainder of the 1980s, Wolf continued to collect honors. She won West Germany's most prestigious literary award, the Georg Büchner Prize, in 1980, was named a member of the European Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1984, became an honorary fellow of the Modern Language Association in 1985, and won East Germany's National Prize of the First Class for her novel Störfall (1987; Accidents: A Day's News). She also published a collection of essays, Die Dimension des Autors (1987; The Author's Dimension), and another novel, Sömmerstuck (1989). With the reunification of Germany—an event Wolf ardently opposed—the path of Wolf's career took a sudden turn. Soon after the Berlin Wall fell, Wolf published Was bleibt (1990; What Remains), a collection whose title story embroiled the author in a heated public controversy over her role in the former East Germany. The controversy soon erupted into a complete reappraisal of Wolf's entire catalog, intensified in 1993 after Wolf admitted that she had briefly worked for Stasi. Though shaken by an onslaught of ad hominem attacks in the popular press, and even relocating to California for a time, Wolf responded to charges against her in works such as Auf dem Weg nach Tabou (1994; Parting from Phantoms), a collection of essays tracing her development as a writer, and Medea (1996), a revision of Greek mythology.
Although Wolf's essays and short stories constitute an important part of her work, her literary reputation rests squarely with her novels, in which she elaborates upon the central moral and social themes that have preoccupied her throughout her career. Divided Heaven is narrated by Rita, a woman recovering from a recent, unspecified accident, who recounts the story of a failed love affair. Rita is an idealistic young education student from the country who firmly believes in the promise of socialism. Her lover, however, is a cynical urbanite who flees to West Germany to advance his career, assuming that Rita will follow. She chooses not to, and then suffers her “accident”—interpreted in the West as a suicide attempt (a taboo subject in East German literature) and an indictment of the East German state. In contrast, Rita's allegiance to the East was viewed by East German critics as a vindication of the state. Using the 1961 construction of the Berlin Wall as a backdrop for Rita's narration, Wolf imbues the novel's themes of division and separation with political urgency. The Quest for Christa T. is narrated by an unnamed young woman whose friend Christa T., a failed writer, has just died of leukemia. While combing through Christa's papers in an effort to make sense of her friend's life, the narrator discovers that Christa felt completely estranged from society and believed that, as a result, her literary pursuits were futile. Frustrated, Christa became a housewife, but found no refuge in what she felt was a banal existence. Ultimately, the narrator discovers that Christa's difficulty involved finding an appropriate way to be an individual—an “I”—in a society in which the collective “we” is all important. A Model Childhood is a largely autobiographical novel in which Wolf confronts her own—and Germany's—Nazi past. The heart of the narrative concerns the visit of a woman named Nelly to the town in which she grew up. During the course of the visit Nelly tells her daughter, Lenka, about daily life under Nazi rule and how ordinary people gradually acquiesced to Nazi brutality through self-absorption and political indifference. In this way Wolf emphasizes the importance of the individual's responsibility to remain engaged in society.
Wolf's next novel, No Place on Earth, was a radical departure from her previous works. Forsaking any semblance of realism, socialist or otherwise, she wrote of a fictional meeting of two nineteenth-century Romantic writers, poet Karoline von Günderrode and playwright Heinrich von Kleist—both of whom committed suicide. The two share their idealistic dreams of an artists' utopia, but also their sense of alienation from society—feelings shared by Christa T. in Wolf's earlier novel. Written immediately after Wolf's dismissal from the executive committee of the Writers' Union, the frustrations expressed in this novel also reflect Wolf's own. Wolf revisited the themes of social responsibility and frustrated isolation in her next novel, Cassandra, also one of her most overtly feminist works. Wolf's reinterpretation of the Greek myth begins with the shunned prophetess Cassandra in a Greek prison, recounting her part in the last disastrous days of the Trojan war. Wolf casts Cassandra as a lone voice of reason pitted against the arrogant Trojan military elite, who are too sure of their own power to heed her dire warnings. Wolf's mistrust of entrenched power also pervades Accident, a novel that relates the events of a single day in the life of its female narrator—a day during which her beloved brother undergoes surgery to remove a brain tumor and during which an accident occurs at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine, a mere thousand miles away from the narrator's home. The narrator's simple account of her day's activities—gardening, listening to the radio, walking to the post office—take on apocalyptic significance as she alternately yearns for good news about her brother's health and fears catastrophic news about the nuclear accident. While highlighting the obvious hazards of nuclear technology, the novel warns against blind faith in technology in general, which Wolf views as a serious affliction of modern civilization. Wolf returned to Greek mythology in Medea, her first novel following her public condemnation during the early 1990s. The novel rehabilitates Medea, who in the best-known version of the mythic story was a sorceress who murdered her own children as a means of taking revenge on her unfaithful husband. Wolf's version—told in eleven monologues delivered by six characters—is a complex tale of palace intrigue and political conspiracy in which Medea is innocent—her children were murdered by political rivals—yet she is powerless to clear her name and thus remains at the mercy of her corrupt enemies. Suggestive of Wolf's own vilification in the press, the novel is a meditation on the dangers of power and the elusive nature of truth.
Before the controversy of the early 1990s, critical assessment of Wolf and her work was overwhelmingly positive. She was regarded as a preeminent East German writer, as well as one of the finest postwar European writers, for her utopian ideals and penetrating critiques of postwar Germany, its patriarchal conceptions of truth and identity, and the alienation of modern techno-industrial life. While her complex narratives, replete with multilayered authorial perspectives and explorations of subjectivity, attracted notice for their postmodern quality, her vivid evocations of conflicted female self-identity and psychological crisis won the admiration of feminist scholars. Her critical reputation, especially as supported by Divided Heaven, The Quest for Christa T., A Model Childhood, and Cassandra, extended to both sides of the ideological divide between communism and capitalism. In East Germany, however, her acclaim came somewhat grudgingly. Officially she was recognized as a masterful writer, but her sometimes harsh criticism of life in East Germany meant that her acceptance was always tentative. Only Wolf's obvious devotion to socialist ideals kept her from facing official sanctions and total censorship. Her critical acceptance in West Germany was much more solid, with critics on the right commending her for admonishing the East German government, and critics on the left admiring her for standing up to a totalitarian regime while retaining her socialist ideals. In the eyes of many, Wolf was the ideal dissident writer. Moreover, she was seen in the West as a person of great moral authority who was willing to deal with difficult political and social issues in an honest manner, with the goal of improving the quality of human life.
All of this changed, however, with the fall of East Germany and Wolf's 1990 publication of “What Remains,” a story originally written in 1979 in which Wolf chronicles the slow, grinding horror of a day in the life of a writer under Stasi surveillance. Critics writing for conservative German newspapers considered the delayed publication an act of cowardice, contending that Wolf should have published the story in 1979, when it may have served a political purpose. Likewise, critics on the left considered Wolf's failure to publish the story sooner a betrayal of her dissident standing. Critics on both sides agreed that Wolf's actions were a dishonest attempt to portray herself as a political victim, and soon they were questioning whether she had ever been anything but a puppet of the East German state. Wolf's vaunted moral authority was thus undermined, and she was called on to atone for her misdeeds. The revelation three years later that Wolf had been an informer for Stasi between 1959 and 1962 further reinforced all the worst opinions. Wolf, however, was never without supporters, including Nobel laureate Günter Grass, who noted that Wolf's collaboration was essentially trivial, especially when viewed in contrast with extensive Stasi files outlining a decades-long campaign against her. Furthermore, though Wolf was the focus of the critical attacks, she was not the only East German writer to undergo harsh scrutiny in the early 1990s. Indeed, what came to be known as the “Wolf Case” was nothing short of a complete reappraisal of East German literature, a critical project of paramount importance in a Germany still very self-conscious of its recent reunification. In fact, some of Wolf's supporters claimed that the attacks on her were an effort on the part of German conservatives to strip the last traces of relevance from East German socialism, which they considered a threat. While the difficult cultural merging of the former East Germany and West Germany slowly proceeds, Wolf's place in contemporary German literature remains uncertain. As critics repeatedly note, any discussion of East German literature must take politics into account, especially in the case of Wolf, whose complex artistic and political commitments are inextricably connected. Yet none but the most vituperative of Wolf's critics has suggested that her purely literary gifts—her prose, her narrative technique, her subtle treatment of profound themes—are anything less than impressive.