Christa Wolf: Nachdenken über Christa T. – The Quest for Christa T. (1968)

The Quest For Christa T.

I’m fond of paper weights. Especially those with a delicate glass ornament inside. Now imagine such a paper weight. Maybe there’s a fragile, colourful butterfly trapped in its centre. Take that paperweight and smash it against a wall. What you’ll be left with are shards of glass, splinters, some larger fragments, and maybe half of the butterfly will still be intact. That’s exactly what Christa Wolf seems to have done when she wrote the The Quest for Christa T. – Nachdenken über Christa T. What the narrator displays, is the fragmented story of her friend, who died too young, leaving behind a pack of notes and letters, and people who remember her, or think they remember her. The narrator sets out to capture her friend, an elusive woman, and piece together the story of her life and their friendship.

Remembering is complicated. We add, we subtract. Our memory plays tricks on us. The narrator goes back and forth between what Christa T. wrote down and what she thinks she remembers. The notes are not exhaustive. A lot has been left out. In order to capture her friend, the narrator deliberately adds, exaggerates, or embellishes.

Like the smashed paper weight, the story we read has beautiful broken parts; some are pieced together easily, others stay fragments.

The story has one chronological line, from the girls childhood, to the death of Christa T., but each chapter jumps back and forth on smaller timelines.

I really liked reading some of the passages of this book, but most of the time, I found it tiresome. And I wasn’t really interested in Christa T. I didn’t get what was so special about her. The narrator mentions rebellion and nonconformism, but on the outside her life didn’t seem rebellious or nonconformist. Are we meant to believe that having doubts, questioning the regime of the GDR was a rebellion in itself? I suppose so.

The most interesting aspect of the novel is how it shows the elusiveness of memory and of understanding another person. That’s quite well captured in the title which also evokes a central image that we encounter again and again. Sadly, the complex meaning of the title is lost in translation. “Quest” is much more active than the German “Nachdenken” – which means to think about something. A quest is a search, thinking however, can be done without moving. And then there’s the element of “nach” – which means “after” . In the image I mentioned before, we see Christa T.’s back, moving away. Very often we have the impression, all the narrator sees with clarity, is Christa T. walking away, disappearing. This is alluded to in the word Nachdenken – which sounds a bit like following someone in your thoughts.

As a whole, this book was frustrating but the different shards and pieces were beautiful. A lot is well said, subtly and brilliantly described. Many fragments are moving, especially those that deal with the loss of Christa T. The end is so sad. Not only because she is ill and dies but because they all lie to her. Doctors and friends alike. It doesn’t really allow them to say goodbye.

Another reason why I found the book frustrating is because it is muted, toned down. It seems to contain a lot of deliberate confusion. Maybe because Christa Wolf couldn’t write an unambiguous novel about a rebellious woman, without getting into trouble. Probably this might have been one reason for choosing such a fragmented, modernist approach.

I will return to Christa Wolf again but not very soon. I saw some reviews of this book. Three were more enthusiastic: HeavenAli here and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings here Tony’s Reading List here. Booker Talk shares my frustration.

29 thoughts on “Christa Wolf: Nachdenken über Christa T. – The Quest for Christa T. (1968)

  1. My post (which you commented on three years ago!) is much more positive; I could definitely see what Wolf was trying to do and how she wanted to disorientate the reader to make them focus on Christa 🙂

  2. The paperweight analogy is great! The book felt quite daring to me at the time – the questioning, the never quite getting to the truth, the doubts – it felt both political and personal.

  3. It *is* a difficult book, and thinking about it now I feel that Wolf was perhaps writing in a kind of code, reflecting the way that so many communications had to take place in the GDR. I felt that the structure was meant to mirror that kind of life, the fragmented analogy you use, because it was impossible to communicate in a straightforward way under that regime. A complex book and not for everyone, no.

    • No, it’s not for everyone but it’s a great book. Code, is a good way to describe it. I felt stifled much of the time while reading it because being direct, honest, straightforward, it’s so importnat to me and here, they just can’t.

  4. Wonderful review, Caroline! Loved your comparison of the paperweight to the book. I didn’t like reading such disorienting books for a long time, but these days I don’t mind. Glad to know that there are beautiful passages in it. I loved your description of the word ‘Nachdenken’ – it looks like it means ‘contemplating an image which is receding away’ – that is a word with a beautiful meaning. So much gets lost in translation. Sorry to know that you didn’t like this book as much as you had hoped to. Hope you like your next Christa Wolf book more.

    • Thank you, Vishy. I’m not sure I didn’t like it but it was hard work. I don’t think “Quest” captures it at all. Not sure why they chose this title.
      Nachdenken is a nice word, with much more meaning, more contemplative.

  5. The paperweight analogy sounds spot-on. I’ve been looking forward to reading your review of this novel as the premise appealed to me when you mentioned it last week. It’s a pity it didn’t quite work for you in the end…I can understand your frustrations with it. Probably not the best place for me to start with Wolf, especially as there are other works you would place ahead of Christa T. Is there one in particular you would recommend?

  6. I love your review! I did give this a try but it didn’t appeal to me at the time. I shall have to make another effort, because it does sound worth reading. Sometimes when books are ‘clever’ it can feel like too much effort for too little pay-off to wade through all the intellectual shenanigans and jump through all the hoops and spend a lot of time deciphering the text. I think we have to be in the mood, otherwise it can all seem too tiresome. Good on you for ploughing through and coming up with that fabulous analogy. 🙂

    • Thanks so much, Violet.
      Reading it was really tiresome but the more I think about it, the cleverer I find it. You can feel what it must have been like to live under a regime like this. To want to speak your mind but to know it would be dangerous. But doing it nonetheless, just in an indirect way. But, yes, you have to be in the mood for it.

  7. This is the only Wolf book I have to hand so I was thinking about reading it for GLM but it doesn’t look like the sort of book I’d particularly like. What Remains really appealed to me but it was unavailable from the library and very expensive to buy.

  8. You did far more justice to this novel than I did – love your analogy of the paperweight. I won’t give up on Wolf yet but need to find something that is going to appeal more

  9. Great analogy, Caroline. Doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, but I do like the idea of piecing together memories. I was with childhood friends this summer and was greatly surprised at what different things we remembered. Stuff that was vivid to me was gone for them.

    • Thanks, Carole. I liked that aspect of the novel but it was hard work. 🙂
      Sometimes when I pick up an old diary I’m more than a luttle surprised as well. And when you discuss things with friends and family . . . Memory’s a strange thing.

  10. Have you read Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World? Only that has a similarly fragmentary structure but uses it to very good effect and is more straightforwardly political. I haven’t read Christa T but I suppose I did imagine it to be a proto-feminist work, but it doesn’t sound like it manages to do that?

    • No, I wouldn’t call it feminist. Or, I don’t think that was her main concern. It’s much more about political versus individula or satete versus individual.
      An interesting book but not entirely enjoyable. I’ve read most of Hustvedt’s books but not that one yet. I someohow think, I’ll like it more.

  11. Pingback: German Literature Month V: Author Index | Lizzy's Literary Life

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