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Culture

by Jean-Claude Lebrun

Obituary : Christa Wolf, a Major Figure of German Literature

Translated Monday 12 December 2011, by Isabelle Métral and reviewed by Henry Crapo

The great German novelist passed away in Berlin last Thursday, aged 81.

Last October Alain Lance and Renate Lance-Otterbein proposed a new translation and a new title le Ciel divisé (Divided Heaven) of the narrative that was first published in French under the title le Ciel partagé (Heaven shared) by les Éditeurs français réunis in 1963. Thus they took us back to the very beginning of Christa’s work, when after a first, rather conventional, work published Nouvelle de Moscou (News from Moscow) (1961) she launched into a magnificent decade of creativity, freedom and criticism, in a GDR that was beginning to develop a vast collective reflection on the ways and ends of literature and art.

Christa Wolf, who died in Berlin last Thursday, December 1, will no doubt appear in retrospect like a victim for the division of Germany and of the Cold War. Though widely recognized and translated abroad, she bore the stigmata of being implicated in the political and cultural debate in the GDR and her obstinacy in questioning in her books and various talks and interviews the ”socialism that existed” as an unachieved utopia. The East-Berlin authorities criticized her more and more severely but she never ceased being considered in the West as somehow a free electron of the regime.

Was this the price she had to pay, on either side of the German inner border, for the loftiness and exacting rigour of her thought? The inscription of her work in the convulsions of German history and the ever deeper furrowing achieved thorough her writing set her incontestably on a par with Heinrich Böll and Gunter Grass. Her name was several times nominated for the Nobel prize: Böll won the prize in 1972, Grass in 1999, but the Swedish Academy carefully avoided crowning her.

From hope to anxiety

And yet Christa Wolf was deeply inscribed in the burning furnace of her time. Indeed, two years after the building of the wall, Divided Heaven takes up the issue of the country’s division frontally without settling it however: while her lover Manfred leaves the GDR for the West, Rita, the tormented heroine of the narrative, chooses to stay behind in the East. Christa T came out in 1968. (In fact the real title The Quest for Christa T. announces the real ambition of the work far more clearly.) Fifteen years later, this Christa, who had so passionately questioned and debated the socialist future of the young republic set up in 1949, is dying of leukaemia. The homonymy of the Christian names suggests that what Christa Wolf proposes here is the transposition into a novel of a process at work in herself. After the years of ebullition and hope came the years of unsettling anxiety. In the controversy that followed the publication, some of the contemptuous critics of East Germany went so far as to see in the fatal issue of this illness, the outrageous intimation of another lethal process, supposedly originating in the evolution of the GDR

“The past is not dead; it is not even past.”

Christa T. announces the full development of a mode of writing and engagement in which the intimate life, the social life and history are interconnected, and which culminated in 1976 with Patterns of Childhood , in which she looks back on her own development; it is maybe the most consummate of her works, at least the one that probes deepest into the novelist’s innermost soul and heart. Under the features of a certain Nelly she pictures herself as a petty-bourgeois young lady taken in by the Nazi parades in her small native town of Landsberg an der Warthe on Polish soil. This first narrative is lined with a second text in which the woman who is writing this story apostrophizes the young woman who is still alive somewhere within her. For a question has been nagging her ever since , fleeing with her family on the road of exodus in 1945, she had met two men in striped pyjamas, and one of them had simply asked: “But where ever have you all lived?” A first-rank personality in GDR, and a member of the Party’s central committee, Christa opens her book with two explosive sentences: “The past is not dead; it is not even past. We cut it off from ourselves and pretend we are strangers.” Patterns of childhood impresses us as being obviously a cardinal book in the author’s itinerary.

Other great texts, narratives or essays, written under the sign of “subjective authenticity the real driving force of the writing, later revealed a gift for rigorous critical reflection and self-criticism. Whether they revisit the German literary past (Keine Ort, Nirgends (No Place, Nowhere) (1994) or mythology (Cassandra (1983), Médea (1997), or develop the darker face of the GDR (What remains (1989) or follow the stream of current events (One day in the year (2006), all are stamped with the same demanding literary and ethic standards which cannot be dissociated in her work..

A person with a will of her own, an uncompromising citizen, and a writer who steered clear of facility, Christa Wolf has left us works that are essential to the understanding of the complexity of German history. Essential, too, to the picture of a certain way of walking on in life with a straight back


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