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“She grieved for all her lost possibilities…” #WITMonth #ChristaWolf @seagullbooks

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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!

November Reading – To plan or not to plan?

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That is indeed the question! October was most unusual for me, in that I structured and planned my posts and reading quite strictly, owing to the 1924 Club. Normally, I rebel against that kind of thing; but maybe because the books were so appealing, or maybe because it just fitted in with my lifestyle and reading for that fortnight, somehow the reading and posting flowed beautifully for me. In fact, I could have read many more 1924 books – and perhaps November will see me doing this!

Some possibles for German Lit Month!

Some possibles for German Lit Month!

It’s German Literature Reading Month, hosted by Caroline at Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat and Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life, and there are many, many tempting titles calling to me – Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” is one of those (I won a copy from Lizzy’s lovely giveaway) and this would not only tick the German Lit box, but would also carry on the 1924 trend as it was published in that year. I have a number of reviews to catch up on, and there’s also Christa Wolf Week from 8th to 14th November. Whether I will get to all this remains to be seen, as I’m currently having a bit of a translated crime fiction fling. I’ve finished the next Penguin Modern Poets volume too, so there’s the next one of those to tackle.

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My Christa Wolf books.

So plenty of nice books in the pipeline – watch this space!

German Literature Month: A Multi-Layered Tale

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The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf

Alas, I haven’t managed to read as many books as I wished for German Reading Month, thanks to coming down with the dreaded lurgy (i.e. the worst head cold I’ve had in years followed by sinusitis and a chest infection).  It goes without saying, also, that the book I ended up reading wasn’t the one I planned…. 🙂 But I *have* wanted to read Christa Wolf for a long time, and so this seemed the perfect time to pull “The Quest for Christa T.” out from my Virago shelves.

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Wolf was an East German writer about whom Wikipedia says: “Christa Wolf (née Ihlenfeld; 18 March 1929, Landsberg an der Warthe – 1 December 2011, Berlin) was a German literary critic, novelist, and essayist. She was one of the best-known writers to emerge from the former East Germany. Wolf received the Heinrich Mann Prize in 1963, the Georg Büchner Prize in 1980, and the Schiller Memorial Prize in 1983, the Geschwister-Scholl-Preis in 1987, as well as other national and international awards. After the German reunification, Wolf received further awards: in 1999 she was awarded the Elisabeth Langgässer Prize and the Nelly Sachs Literature Prize, and Wolf became the first recipient of the Deutscher Bücherpreis (German Book Prize) in 2002 for her lifetime achievement. In 2010, Wolf was awarded the Großer Literaturpreis der Bayerischen Akademie der Schönen Künste.”

That’s an awful lot of awards; but Wolf was also the subject of controversy, for her left-wing views after German reunification, and also during the Cold War for her criticism of the GDR ruling regime. I’ve tried to start her books before, and struggled – maybe a case of the right book at the wrong time, because this time reading Christa Wolf was a joy.

On the surface, and from the blurb, the tale is a simple one: Christa T.’s friend tells the story of their friendship, her life and her death. They met in school at the tail-end of the Second World War, both ended up in the portion of Germany which ended up under Soviet control, met again, went to University, worked, married, had families, and then Christa died young. That in itself is movingly told, but is a complete simplification, because there is layer upon layer of meaning in “The Quest for Christa T.” and it’s wonderfully constructed.

Firstly, there is the way of telling. The narrator, Christa T.’s friend, is elliptical and elusive, much as is Christa herself. She tells the tale at her own pace, often slipping backwards and forwards in time; and there are encounters with other friends and colleagues which you’re never quite sure have actually taken place. She has access to her friend’s papers, handed over by her widower, Justus, and these reveal much about Christa as well as throwing up more questions. This leads the narrator to constantly question what is reality and what is the real Christa, so much so that by the end we seem to be slipping from reality to imagination without even noticing it.

The paths we really took are overlaid with paths we did not take. I can now hear words that we never spoke.

What is pertinent here is the era in which the girls grew up to become women. They experienced the end of the War, fleeing the oncoming Russian soldiers, and we never really find out how they survived. But they grow up in an increasingly totalitarian regime and reading between the lines, studying the sometimes a little obscure narrative, you realise that they have to be careful what they say or do as every action can be misinterpreted. And even the narrator has to be careful telling her tale here – the book was first published in 1968, behind the Iron Curtain and during the Cold War – and so her criticisms of the regime have to be carefully made.

For the new world that we were making and making unassailable – even if it meant building ourselves into the foundations of it – that world really did exist. It exists, and not only in our heads; and that period was for us the beginning of it. But whatever happened or will happen to that new world is and remains our affair. Among the alternatives offered there isn’t a single one that’s worth a nod in its direction…

Initially, the girls are committed and enthusiastic about the new way of life; even rejecting the values of the West on a rare visit to Justus’s cousin on the Other Side, despite the obvious differences in their material standards. And even late on in the book, when it has become obvious that the girls’ Utopian dreams have failed, they are uncomfortable with the concept of actually owning a house of their own – “all property is theft?” You could almost dig deeper and say that Christa T. herself represents the new regime and that it’s the failure of this world that causes her death – I wouldn’t be surprised if a writer as complex as Wolf intended that level of meaning.

Sometimes they travel far, sometimes ‘druben’ – over there. The trip there is unusual enough to make your heart beat faster: over there is where the opposite ideas for living are produced, where everything is the reverse – people, things, and thoughts; that’s the real reason why you feel uneasy when you turn the next corner, full of weird expectations, to find always only the same smiling traffic policeman. But one might just as easily catch oneself napping: this is a twofold country and, what’s more, everyone in it is twofold, one part possibility and the other its refutal. One gets rid of the feeling of confusion at times by doing something violent. She spits on the memorial to ‘the stolen territories in the East.’ Memory’s colour is greenish-gold, it mustn’t go black, mustn’t go dry: black is the colour of guilt. She spits on this black stone.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-B0509-0010-006,_Christa_Wolf

All the way through the book, as you look for the meanings, it is the things unsaid or implied that come across powerfully. The language is beautifully poetic and evocative, bringing alive vividly the lives of Christa T. and her friend, so that even if the narrator is unsure if she has really caught and portrayed her friend’s character, the reader can see them both quite clearly – and it is a tale of two people, not just the one named in the title.

The translator, Christopher Middleton, is a poet himself and his wonderful work here shines.

At night she has dreams. She glides into sleep as if descending in a cage to the sea floor, only the water becomes brighter, not darker, and finally bright as day, like liquid air. One gives a kick and is floating. It’s too beautiful to be sleep. She decides, while still asleep: I’m not sleeping. To float like this isn’t surprising if one has wanted it for so long.

The quest for Christa T. is in the end a quest for truth, full of phrases and sentences that pull you up with their brilliance. The narrator questions her memories, reminding us what fragile things they are, easily confused and falsified. Whilst trying to pin down the life of her friend, fix her for future generations to understand, in many ways she tells the story of the life of any woman living through those times. Wolf’s compelling book is a beautiful, lyrical exploration of existence which in many ways defies description; it would simply be better if you went and read it yourself! Christa Wolf was a remarkable and individual writer and I really can’t wait to explore more of her work.

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