Christa Wolf believed that shared names reveal mysterious affinities. Consequently, she had felt a close connection with English writer Virginia Woolf. Christa, the first name of the protagonist of The Quest for Christa T., suggests somehow that the protagonist resembles her author; her name also represents a hypothetical alternate life that Wolf herself might have lived under other circumstances. By creating Christa T., Wolf seeks an imaginative transcendence through self-realization as a writer. A 1965 passage collected in Wolf’s The Author’s Dimension: Selected Essays (1993) explains that The longing to produce a double, to express oneself, to pack several lives into this one, to be able to be in several places at once is, I believe, one of the most powerful and least [often considered] impulses behind writing.
Christa T. herself systematically collects life stories from local peasants, and she would have retold their stories had she survived her illness with cancer.
The T of Christa’s never-revealed last name suggests the German words Traum, or “dream,” and Tee, or “tea.” Traum connotes an authorial creation and a possible destiny not experienced by the narrator, and Tee suggests the taste of Marcel Proust’s madeleine cookie dipped in tea, which revives a flood of forgotten past impressions. The novel’s introduction explains why the narrator compulsively wants to memorialize her (fictional) friend and reconstruct her inner life: Doing so is “for our sake. Because it seems we need her.” Reading this statement, one might think Christa T. offers an inspiring example of a flawed possible self who finally achieves self-realization despite uncertainty concerning her vocation and despite obscurity and adversity (dying young from cancer). Indeed, she has some talent as a writer, but never becomes well known. Later, however, the narrator flatly refutes this interpretation: “Just for once, I want to discover how it is and to tell it like it is: the unexemplary life, the life that can’t be used as a model.” How can readers reconcile these two contradictory attitudes?
Analyzing the fictional narrator as a character (Wolf explicitly said she had considered this narrator, as well as Christa T., an invention), it seems that as she matures, she overcomes her initial, naïve admiration for Christa T. but recuperates the friendship despite losing its illusions. Through Christa T., she learns the value of an ordinary life.
Wolf’s desire to explore “the unexemplary life” appears to reflect her own transition from being both a fascist and a communist to having humanistic social values. Without anti-Semitic feelings, Wolf had participated in the Hitler Youth as an adolescent. Later, until the mid-1960’s, she had tried to atone for her own and for German collective guilt for the Holocaust by dutifully writing Social Realist literature glorifying the ordinary worker. She did so according to the dictates of the East German Communist Party under Soviet domination. She deliberately and loyally remained in East Germany, although for a time it would have been easy for her to have escaped to West Germany. She did not acknowledge then that some people had remained in the East only through inertia and apathy, and that some flights to the West had been motivated by positive values. The Quest for Christa T., however, reflects the author’s fatigue with her role as official spokesperson of East German Socialist values.
Probably owing to censorship, publication of the novel had been delayed for a year, until 1968. The German Democratic Writers’ Congress condemned the work for individualism and for infidelity to Socialist principles. Wolf’s own publisher, the Mitteldeutsche Verlag, publicly denounced itself and repented for having published a book whose...
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author seemed to confuse herself with her heroine and whose dominant tone was pessimistic. The publisher also repented for its humanistic rather than socialistic solution to life. Indeed, Christa T.’s struggle against cancer secretly represents the unmerited sufferings of peaceable, humanitarian Germans under fascism and then communism, and their intransigent inner resistance to these regimes.
Later, aggravating her “offense,” Wolf published her best-known work, Kindheitsmuster (1976; A Model Childhood, 1980; also known as Patterns of Childhood, 1984), as a personal confession and a national expiation, reviving unwelcome memories of the national disgrace of fascism and attempting to explain but not justify how German citizens could have become or could have collaborated with Nazis. Already, in relation to its readership, The Quest for Christa T. had been intended to defeat the remnants of fascism in people’s minds after it had been defeated militarily and to admit her own inextricable complicity with “the stormy, often cruel, shocking life of the times, which sometimes carries the writer along with it.”
Christa T. surpassed her author in one important respect: She never succumbed to the pernicious euphoria of fascist or communist doctrine. She offers a model of (flawed) integrity that does not depend on doctrinal supports. This model returns in Wolf’s later works.