Christa Wolf

07/02/2012 § Leave a comment

Another death I mean to write about: that of Christa Wolf, the German novelist who died last December aged 82 (Guardian obituary; Spiegel obituary). Born in 1929, Wolf grew up under the Nazis; the town she grew up in was then called Landsberg an der Warthe and was in Brandenburg in Germany; after the German-Polish border was moved westward after the Second World War to the Oder-Neiße line, it became Gorzów Wielkopolski in Poland. As an adult she became East Germany’s most famous writer.

My favourite book of Wolf’s–and one of the great European novels on the Second World War and its aftermath–is Kindheitsmuster (A model childhood-although it also seems to be translated as Patterns of childhood), written in 1976, which examines the way that the Germans remembered and dealt with their Nazi history. Divided between Nelly Jordan’s childhood and adolescence in and East Prussian town during the Nazi period, and the adult Nelly’s visit to the town–now in Poland–with her brother and daughter, the novel plays with the dislocations of time and space which Wolf herself experienced: their hometown is now a foreign country; the places of their childhood have been almost completely obliterated by war; even the language spoken is no longer the same.

“What is past is not dead; it is not even past. We cut ourselves from it; we pretend to be strangers.” Kindheitsmuster starts with an echo of William Faulkner; it continues, unsettlingly, in the second person: the narrator writes about ‘your brother’ when she means ‘my brother’, says ‘you do this’ when she means ‘I do this’. Wolf is universalising, addressing every German, forcing them all to confront their shared past–a past which was often, in the GDR, officially described as something which had been inflicted on the East Germans and not something they were complicit in. While the Communist leadership of the DDR did suffer terribly under the Nazis–Walter Ulbricht was exiled to Moscow, Erich Honecker spent eight years in a concentration camp–and the close relationship between the GDR and the USSR meant that the Red Army were usually described as liberators rather than conquerors of East Germany, the culpability of individuals within the GDR was more problematic than this might suggest.

Christa Wolf is constantly worrying around the impossiblity of making a fresh start, of being able to distance oneself from the horrors of the past. Kindheitsmuster speaks to the reader in the second person, but the narrator describes herself as a child in the third person, not as ‘I’ but as ‘she’ or ‘Nelly’. The adult Nelly is revisiting her childhood, partly literally, in visiting the town of her birth, but partly also in long discussions of the nature and meaning of memory. She recalls the innocence of the child Nelly, but also the myriad ways in which as a child she learned to ignore the realities of life under fascism–persecution of the Jews, Ukrainian slave labourers in the fields–until it’s clear that the idea of the innocence of the child is so flawed as to be non-existent. To function, fascism must make everyone complicit: there comes a point at which everyone chooses not to ask awkward questions or to look too closely at the fate of their Jewish neighbours.

Postscript: When Stasi files were opened after German reunification it was discovered that Christa Wolf had, for a short time, been a Stasi informant. Following an outcry from the newspapers and other writers, Wolf made public her Stasi file, which showed that she hadn’t supplied any information that  could be used to hurt any of her friends and acquaintances. She was, in fact, under surveillance by the Stasi for over 30 years herself. The outrage, however, overwhelmed rational asessment of her writing for many. After her death, her friend Günter Grass spoke about the controversy in his eulogy for her:

What had caused so much malicious will to destroy? A text written in the summer of 1979 whose themes were doubt, self-doubt, and the eavesdropping and overt surveillance of Christa Wolf and her husband by the State Security Service of theGDR. From the security of their own desks and intoxicated by the sort of gratuitous courage that seems to flourish in editorial offices like a potted plant, these critics accused her of having been too cowardly to publish her story as soon as she had written it. To do so, claimed Ulrich Greiner, “would surely have been the end of Christa Wolf as a state poet and probably have resulted in exile.” From his safe corner he asserted magnanimously that “she could easily have found shelter in the West.” And Frank Schirrmacher went so far as to accuse her in the plural: “Everyone recognizes that these are sentences from 1989, not 1979.” Neither acknowledged that it also took a decade for Sommerstück (“Summer Piece”), the novel she wrote after “What Remains,” to be published in the GDR.

What a prodigious amount of hypocritical outrage from the pens of journalists who had never been subject to state censorship, but who officiously and opportunistically served the zeitgeist.

Led by powerful and influential newspapers, the press campaign of 1990 continued on, again and again springing back to life. Echoes of it can even be heard in some of her obituaries. It was especially the term Gesinnungsästhetik [an aesthetics based on policial convictions], coined to describe the work of Wolf and many other post-war German authors, that to this day inspires the petty minds that want to lock up literature and its creators in a piece of real estate known as the Ivory Tower. Hard on its heels, the personalized neologism Gutmensch [do-gooder, politically correct person], an expression of the prevailing cheap cynicism, came into circulation and was posthumously applied to Heinrich Böll. At this late date, after Christa Wolf’s death, we should probably not expect that the spokesmen of that bygone campaign might apologize in print, if only to acknowledge the pain their odious behavior caused. They obviously lack the self-doubt that Christa Wolf evinced all her life—in excess, in my opinion.



Wislawa Szymborska

04/02/2012 § Leave a comment

Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska died last Thursday aged 88 (Guardian obituary). I came across her poetry first in Daniel Weissbort’s anthology The poetry of survival and loved it for her matter-of-fact, rather serious, but conversational voice. Her writing is like overhearing the private conversation of a teacher you’ve always admired.

You can read her speech on receiving the Nobel prize here:

This is why I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself “I don’t know,” the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriotMarie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself “I don’t know”, she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying “I don’t know,” and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.

Poets, if they’re genuine, must also keep repeating “I don’t know.” Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift that’s absolutely inadequate to boot. So the poets keep on trying, and sooner or later the consecutive results of their self-dissatisfaction are clipped together with a giant paperclip by literary historians and called their “oeuvre” …

She carries on with the theme of ‘not knowing’ in this Guardian interview from 2000, found via the roundup of tributes to her on the Poetry Foundation blog. Also on the Poetry foundation blog, an old post translating Szymborska’s advice to would-be poets in a Polish literary journal:

To Marek, also of Warsaw: “We have a principle that all poems about spring are automatically disqualified. This topic no longer exists in poetry. It continues to thrive in life itself, of course. But these are two separate matters.” 

To Ula from Sopot: “A definition of poetry in one sentence—well. We know at least five hundred definitions, but none of them strikes us as both precise and capacious enough. Each expresses the taste of its own age. Inborn skepticism keeps us from trying our hand at our own. But we remember Carl Sandburg’s lovely aphorism: ‘Poetry is a diary kept by a sea creature who lives on land and wishes he could fly.’ Maybe he’ll actually make it one of these days?” 

I posted her poem In praise of my sister on my old blog; tomorrow I will post another favourite poem, Monologue for Cassandra.


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