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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Christa Wolf, la liberté au risque du malentendu

by François Mathieu

Christa Wolf or Freedom at the Risk of Being Misunderstood

Homage is paid to the German writer on her 80th birthday

Translated Tuesday 21 April 2009, by Isabelle Métral

"Aucun lieu, nulle part, et neuf autres récits" ("No Place on Earth, and Nine Other stories", 1982) [1], translated from the German by Alain Lance, Renate Lance-Otterbein, Ghislain Riccardi, Yasmine Hoffman, Maryvonne Litaize, Lucien Haag et Marie-Ange Roy, Stock pub., « La Cosmopolite », 700 pages, 25 euros.

On Friday 20th last, Christa Wolf’s 80th birthday was celebrated at Berlin’s Fine Arts Academy. Germans today consider her as an intellectual guide, after Anna Seghers or Heinrich Böll...

Many writers attended the ceremony - which Christa Wolf herself did not want- writers like Adolf Muschg, Uwe Timm, Volker Braun, Christoph Hein, as well as political leaders, Lothar Bisky, die LInke’s co-president, Christina Weiss, former State Secretary for Culture. In homage to her, a collection edited by Therese Hörnick, an academic researcher, gathered 70 personal essays signed by Günter Grass, Friederike Mayröcker, Peter Härtling, Gregor Gysi - among others.

No sooner did Christa Wolf’s first works come out than French translators and publishers, stimulated by German Literature specialists Claude Prévost and Gilbert Badia, recognized in her a promising writer. The promise was kept. Ciel partagé (Divided Heaven, 1963), a love novel with divided Germany for a background, was published in GDR in 1963 and came out the next year in a French translation by Bernard Robert published by les Editeurs français réunis.

Her second great novel, Christa T (The Quest for Christa T.,1968), where drawing upon daily experience she described how social and political trends contradicted the objectives that the socialist state had set itself, was published in the GDR in 1968, and the translation into French by Marie-Simone Rollin was published by Seuil four years later.

Her later works also found their wayinto French after short intervals. Although it will be noted that these translations were published by six different publishers - proof that French publishers felt ill at ease with her writings and above all East-Germany’s contemporary literature. The second edition by Cosmopolite of ten fiction narratives, all written and published between 1965 and 1989 in one thick volume, gathers at last works that had so far remained scattered, and as the prefacer and translator Alain Lance himself makes clear, “enables readers to apprehend Christa Wolf’s works – a major achievement in contemporary literature - in a new, indispensable light".

Christa Wolf chose to remain in her country, and there to write, publish and be read by tens of thousands of readers, even though her criticism of the regime became sharper and sharper.

Born in Landsberg an der Warthe (today the Polish town of Gorzow Wielkopolski), Christa Wolf and her family fled before the Red Army in Mecklemburg. In Changement d’optique (A New Perspective?) she exposes for the first time the themes of her great works for the first time: war, captivity, the loss of her native country, of faith in life and the meaning of life, the loss of illusions, the fear of death.

After completing a degree in German studies she worked with publishers. A communist at heart, she was a supply member of the SED (unified socialist party)’s central committee from 1963 to 1967. The line in November 1965 at the 11th plenary session was to see in modern art trends a threat to “socialist realism”; writers and artists must be compelled to toe the line by using threats, bans and sanctions. But Christa Wolf refused the submission of art and culture to political power. As a result, she lost her status and was put under surveillance by the State security.

In the nineties Christa Wolf was accused of having worked for the state security ministry (STASI) between 1959 and 1962. She then took up a manuscript that she had drafted in the late seventies in memory of the months when the Biermann affair had hit the headlines in 1976 (the singer was deprived of his citizenship and several writers protested). This narrative, which came out in 1990 under the title What remains (What Remains and Other Stories, 1993) describes a day in the life of a female writer who, knowing that she is being watched by Stasi, takes various dispositions to protect her private life.

On the West-German side, this work was met with self-righteous protest and accusations of opportunism “in feigned ignorance,” Alain Lance points out, “of the fact that she had chosen to stay in her country and there continue to write, publish and be read by tens of thousands of readers even though power grew more and more manifest - even if she stopped short of being an outright dissident. Which enabled her to intervene in favour of young(er) fellow-writers who had been imprisoned.”

Then came a new creative period in her life from the late sixties to the early seventies, to cut matters somewhat short, when she “revisited” German romanticism and many of its writers’ lives and works, even as the GDR’s cultural authorities encouraged a renewed appropriation of German culture in its diversity. ETA Hoffmann in A Cat’s New Reflections on Life, or the circle of the young Heidelberg romantics in her eminent work No Place on Earth, where she brings about a supreme dialogue between two of the greatest suicides of German romanticism, long after the suicide of Goethe’s young Werther, Heinrich von Kleist and Caroline von Günterode, the former in an inn on the bank of a Berlin lake, the latter in the Rhine near Köln. Its narrative technique is unique in that it explodes all those that had so far been used and has remained unattempted since. Alain Lance once more provides the key: “Through the evocation of a former period she manages to set on stage a social despair in parallel with a writer’s failure. Christa Wolf once confided to him that working on this narrative was for her akin to a process of salvation, at a time “when the ground was pulled from under her feet.”

One has just celebrated the 80th birthday of a great writer in the German language. The Nobel prize jury, which recently awarded its prize to Günter Grass and Elfriede Jelinek would do well to give her the 2009 prize for a life and work that reflects all our struggles.

Translator’s note:

[1] The titles of those of her books that were translated into English and published are given in brackets and in italics.

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