My second read for #WITMonth is by an author I’ve read before, and one who’s been extensively published in Virago Modern Classics: Christa Wolf. I read her marvellous “The Quest for Christa T.” back in 2014, and I have a number of chunky (and not so chunky) Virago volumes by her on the shelves:

However, the book which called me recently was one I picked up not that long ago, and which was in one of my piles of possible reads for the month: “Eulogy for the Living”. Published by Seagull Books and translated by Katy Derbyshire, the book is an uncompleted fragment which looks back to her early years and it’s absolutely fascinating.

Wolf did, of course, have a very intriguing history; an East German writer, from the Cold War times when her country was split in two, she’s been a controversial figure over the years. Born in a city which would end up as Polish territory after the war, she and her family fled to East Germany where she lived out the Cold War until reunification. Much of her work seems to be to be involved with memory; “Quest…” certainly draws on the life and memories of two East German women who survived the war and made their way through a totalitarian regime; and “Patterns of Childhood” (published by Virago as “A Model Childhood”) apparently draws on its narrator’s past and memories. “Eulogy…” is described as a good companion piece, and as Wolf’s husband reveals in a short afterword, this is a book she had tried to write many times, to capture her early life and flight from her childhood home. The piece in this book is the longest version she managed to write before her death.

I wanted to know nothing of the wilderness that grew inside all people every night, for that was how I imagined it – a jungle inside every person, shooting up insanely every night, every morning newly broken, worn down, trampled. Friendliness and smiles by day, primeval jungle by night – it was all in the fairy tales.

“Euology…” is 126 pages long, and Wolf’s prose here is as layered and sometimes fragmentary as I found it in “Quest..”. As she tells her story, the narrator dips back to the time the family moved to the small town, built their shop and settled with their grandparents living on the top floor. She explores her school days and friendships, her relationship with her mother, father and brother, and her own moods and personality. These sections are juxtaposed with the urgent need to flee as the Russian Army is getting very close, and the contrast between the past, when all seemed right in the world and the Fuhrer was in charge, and the present where all the certainties are dissolving, is striking.

Running through the book as a strong thread is the narrator’s relationship with her mother; as with all mother/daughter relationships, this is a complex one, and the two clash frequently, sharing the same stubborn characteristics. The narrator craves her mother’s love, yet rebels against her, is sometimes afraid of her, and recognises her mother’s frustration with the life she has – which is certainly not the one she would have chosen. There is a dramatic moment between them when the family start their journey to safety, and although the book is unfinished, it’s clear from things said earlier in the book that there was a resolution.

The day was grey. I saw next to nothing through my gap between the tarpaulins and the trailer behind us. I heard motion on the streets, carts, cars, shouts, but I saw none of it. I saw a tiny section of the road driving past, the houses at about the level of the first floors, sometimes the tips of a fence if it was tall enough, tree trunks close below the leaves, bushes. But it seems as though I had seen everything precisely, and I still see it now.

Wolf’s writing is never linear or straightforward, but it’s totally engrossing and hypnotic; and in “Eulogy…” it completely draws you in, allowing you to see events entirely through the very singular narrator’s gaze. It also allows you the point of view of a German citizen, living under the Nazi regime, and having an ordinary life whilst ruled by someone we regard now as an evil dictator. Just goes to show that perspective is all, and that it’s not always easy to recognise the kind of country in which you’re living…

So “Eulogy…” turned out to be a wonderful choice for #WITMonth, and I’m glad I got the nudge to pick this up right now. As I’ve said, Wolf can be a more difficult read than some, but her writing is always very rewarding; and having enjoyed this so much, hopefully I’ll feel impelled to pick up another of her books sooner rather than later… 😀

As well as counting this one for #WITMonth, I shall also count it for All Virago/All August as Wolf is a Virago author!