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.

Christa Wolf Week 8 – 14 November 2015

Christa Wolf Week

Today begins Christa Wolf Week and I’ve already spotted a few posts here and there. Christa Wolf was one of the most important writers from East Germany. Huge crowds came to her readings. She was considered controversial after the unification because she never openly criticized the values of the regime. She was also accused of having been a Stasi informant. It seems however that she wasn’t collaborating the way the authorities wanted and that she was closely watched herself. Given the complexity of the subject, I’m grossly simplifying here.

I was hoping to review at least two of her books but I won’t manage much more than The Quest for Christa T., which I find beautiful, fascinating, and annoying in equal measures. It doesn’t have a lot in common with the other books I read by her and which I liked, or even loved. The first book by Wolf I read was Cassandra and I still think it’s one of her greatest books and one of the greatest retellings of a myth. I also liked They Divided the Sky because it allows us the see the former German Democratic Republic through someone’s eyes who really stood behind its ideals. The one I truly loved was No Place on Earth that tells a fictitious meeting of the writers Karoline von Günderrode and Heinrich von Kleist, who both committed suicide a few years after the imagined meeting took place.

Other books by her that are important are Medea, A Day a Year and A Model Childhood.

What are you reading this week? Do you have a favourite Christa Wolf book?

Wednesdays Are Wunderbar – German Literature Month Giveaway – August by Christa Wolf

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It’s Wednesday again and you already know what that means. We’re hosting a giveaway. This week’s copies are from Seagull Books (University of Chicago Press).

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For this year’s German Literature Month I have the opportunity to give away two copies of Christa Wolf’s August, translated by Katy Derbyshire. Since I’m hosting a Christa Wolf week this year, I’m particularly pleased about this giveaway.

Christa Wolf Week

Here’s what the editor writes about August:

Christa Wolf was arguably the best-known and most influential writer in former East Germany. Having grown up during the Nazi regime, she and her family were forced to flee their home like many others, nearly starving to death in the process. Her earliest novels were controversial because they contained veiled criticisms of the Communist regime which landed her on government watch lists. Her past continued to permeate her work and her life, as she said, “You can only fight sorrow when you look it in the eye.”

August is Christa Wolf’s last piece of fiction, written in a single sitting as an anniversary gift to her husband. In it, she revisits her stay at a tuberculosis hospital in the winter of 1946, a real life event that was the inspiration for the closing scenes of her 1976 novel Patterns of Childhood. This time, however, her fictional perspective is very different. The story unfolds through the eyes of August, a young patient who has lost both his parents to the war. He adores an older girl, Lilo, a rebellious teenager who controls the wards. Sixty years later, August reflects on his life and the things that she taught him.

Written in taut, affectionate prose, August offers a new entry into Christa Wolf’s work and, incidentally, her first and only male protagonist. More than a literary artifact, this new novel is a perfectly constructed story of a quiet life well lived. For both August and Christa Wolf, the past never dies.

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If you are interested in winning this book, leave a comment, telling me why you’d like to read it.

The competition is open internationally. The winner will be announced on Saturday October 31 2015, around 18:00 Central European time.

Initiating German Literature Month or 14 German Women Writers You Shouldn’t Miss

Welcome to German Literature Month or Herzlich Willkommen zum Monat der deutschsprachigen Literatur 

I thought it might be a good idea to start German Literature Month with a post that I had promised to write on some of the most important women writers of German language. German literature is often perceived as being dominated by men.

As you know the first week of German Literature Month is dedicated to German literature. The second will be focussing on crime novels, the third on Austrian and Swiss writers, week number four is Kleist and/or classics week and during the last days of the event you can do as you please. Maybe those who don’t know what to read yet, will find something in the list below.

I’m reading an excellent anthology right now which is called Wenn die Worte fliegen  (When words take flight). The book is out of print but cheap used copies can be ordered. It’s a compilation of 30 German women writers and poets. Some of them have written books I like a lot. I was quite excited and thought it would be great to pick 20 of them and introduce their writing but when I started looking them up, I saw that it was pointless. Not even 50% of them have been translated. Maybe some of you would have been interested anyway, especially those who read German, but for the others it’s a bit pointless. The book focuses mainly on writers of the 20th century and that is no coincidence. There are not a lot of women writers before that.

Finally I decided to introduce 11 writers who have been translated into English – with the exception of Lena Christ and Brigitte Reimann – and to add three earlier authors.

When I was reading the compilation I found it interesting to see how the topic’s change. I think you can find four main currents. Before WWII – war literature – post-war and finally post-wall literature. We shouldn’t forget that until 1989, there were not three countries producing literature written in German, but four. The literature and authors of the Former Democratic Republic of Germany (ex DDR) are quite unique. Their choice of themes is different from the West, they are often far more political and they didn’t have the same freedom of expression. Their books circle around topics that are important for them, like living in a communist state. Their characters question their country and it’s politics, many books describe people who are tempted to leave or who leave.

Sophie von La Roche’s (Germany 1730 – 1807) Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim. Von einer Freundin derselben aus Original-Papieren und andern zuverläßigen Quellen gezogen (1771)  aka The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim: Extracted by a Woman Friend of the Same is the first German novel by a woman and as such foundational. It was very successful and widely read, although, it seems, very often misunderstood. Von La Roche, who was the grandmother of Bettina and Clemens Brentano, always had an educational aim when she wrote. He writing belongs to the Enlightenment and Sentimentalist (Empfindsamkeit) movement, a precursor of romanticism.

Annette von Droste-Hülshoff ‘s (Germany 1797 – 1848) Die Judenbuche  – The Jew’s Beech (1842) is very mysterious, eerie and highly readable. It is an early crime story and has also a very Gothic feel. Droste-Hülshoff however marks the transition between romanticism and realism. When I read this book I was surprised how well-written and truly suspenseful it is. Here is an online version The Jew’s Beech.

Johanna Spyri (Switzerland 1827 – 1901). Her most famous work Heidi (1880) is also one of the most famous Swiss novels and one of the most famous children’s books. It’s the tale of the little orphan girl Heidi who has to live with her cold and distant grandfather, high in the Swiss mountains. This is a tear-jerker that has also been made into movies and TV series. It’s still widely read to children in Switzerland and Germany. I might not have included it, if it hadn’t been so difficult to find another Swiss author who has been translated. For those who read German I would like to recommend the novels of Eveline Hasler. In each one of them she explores the life of a famous woman. Her style is noteworthy and the stories are thought-provoking. Here are links to German books. Anna Göldin. Letzte Hexe, Die Wachsflügelfrau. Geschichte der Emily Kempin-Spyri.

Lena Christ (Germany 1981-1920). Lena Christ was a successful writer but is best known for her autobiographical novel Erinnerungen einer Überflüssigen (Memoir of a superfluous woman). Her books have not been translated but I found this interesting analysis of her work and the works  of authors like Asta Scheib that are based on her life: The Passion of Lena Christ. Lena Christ’s story is famous because it is so tragic. It’s the story of a toxic mother-daughter relationship that ultimately seems to have killed the daughter. Lena Christ committed suicide in 1920. Reading her book is very painful. It’s the story of a sensitive and emotional girl who was crushed by a mean domineering mother.

Anna Seghers (Germany – German Democratic Republic 1900- 1983) This is one of Germany’s most accomplished writers. Her writing during and after the war circles around Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Seghers was Jewish and fled from Germany. She lived in the Caribbean for a while. Later she settled in the DDR and wrote novels with a distinct socialist theme. Her most famous book Das siebte Kreuz aka The Seventh Cross is a must-read. One of the best books on Nazi Germany. Her short-stories are outstanding as well.

Irmgard Keun (Germany 1905 – 1982). Irmgard Keun’s novels are as interesting as her life. She entered the literary scene early with The Artificial Silk Girl that was a huge success (not her first novel but her biggest success). When the Nazi’s came to power her books were banned and she fled from Germany. After Midnight captures the mood of pre-war Germany like no other. Prone to drinking and self-delusion she often spent long stretches in psychiatric hospitals. The last twenty years of her life she didn’t write anymore and just vegetated in a home. I love the voices of her heroines who capture the pre-war atmosphere and uncover the most terrible things with utter naiveté.

Marlen Haushofer (Austria 1920-1970) has written a few novels but the one that really stands out is The Wall. I have read this book a long time ago but it is still haunting me. This is such a powerful story and I would like to recommend it to all of you who haven’t read it yet. It’s been called dystopian or feminist ecological and whatever not. All wrong. This is an absolutely uncanny look into the frailty of human existence. The protagonist wakes up one morning to find herself totally isolated from any other human being and separated from the rest of the world by an invisible wall. She struggles hard to survive. She isn’t completely alone, she has her animals, one of them a dog. It’s fascinating to see how resourceful she is and after a while her life seems almost normal until the day she senses someone else’s presence…

Ingeborg Bachmann (Austria 1926 – 1973). Bachmann is one of the most interesting German writers. There is nothing she couldn’t write marvellously well. Poems, short stories, a novel. They all contain a rare and savage beauty, something raw and refined at the same time. Her only novel Malina aka Malina (German), which is part of the Todeasartenzyklus (The Cycle of Manners of Death), contains a very uncanny element. I’m not going to reveal it but if you read it and read her biography you will see what I mean. Her books circle around death and different ways of dying. It’s eerie to know that she died a particularly strange death. She was smoking in her bed in Rome and because of the high amount of pain killers she took, she burned alive without realizing it.

Brigitte Reimann (German Democratic Republic 1933 – 1973). If I had studied German literature and had to choose a research topic it would have been her. If I had studied psychology, I would have chosen her as well. Reimann was an amazing woman. She wrote a few novels that are highly engaging, although flawed. I know of no ex DDR writer who was so much in favour of her country and still managed to analyze it in-depth, to show the difficulties, the contradictions. On the other hand she was an excessive woman and an addict like no other. She had probably more lovers than any other writer ever, was married at least four times. She drank excessively and smoked too much. She was only 40 when she died of cancer. What makes her so fascinating is that she kept a diary and reading it is mind-boggling. This was such an intelligent and intellectual woman, yet she didn’t get how unfree she was, unfree through the state she lived in and through her way of life. Her life has been made into an interesting TV movie starring beautiful Martina Gedeck Hunger auf Leben (not sub-titled).

Christa Wolf (German Democratic Republic – Germany 1929 –  ). She doesn’t need a lot of introducing as she is probably one of the best know German women writers. Her oeuvre is interesting and captivating. Some of the early books are easily readable and so are her short stories. Some are complex and almost experimental. I couldn’t recommend one single book as she has written so many and in so many different styles that I would need to know someone to know which one to pick. I personally like No Place on Earth aka Kein Ort. Nirgends that explores the tragic lives of Karoline von Günderrode and Heinrich von Kleist but I would also recommend her Cassandra aka Kassandra which stunned me and her more famous ones A Model Childhood aka Kindheitsmuster and The Quest for Christa T. aka Nachdenken über Christa T.

Monika Maron (German Democratic Republic – Germany 1941 – ) Like Christa Wolf, Monika Maron was born in the former German Democratic Republic and many of the novels she wrote circle around themes related to her home country. Flugasche aka Flight of Ashes is one of the most famous ones and tells the story of a journalist uncovering the environmental pollution stemming from a coal-fired power pant. I like Maron’s later novels a lot. They all explore the inner lives of women and are very subtle and engaging. However they are not translated with the exception of Pavel’s Letters that I haven’t read yet.

Elfriede Jelinek (Austria 1946 – ) Nobel Prize winner.  The Piano Teacher aka Die Klavierspielerin is an unpleasant book. It’s fantastic but I didn’t like it. The story of the piano teacher whose dominant and dysfunctional mother crushes her and turns her into a being torn between masochism and sadism and who tries frantically to repress her own sexuality, is hard to take.

Herta Müller (Romanian born German 1953 – ) Nobel Prize winner. Being awarded the Nobel Prize seems to help you getting published. Most of Herta Müller’s books are available in English. I’m puzzled about the English titles.  The Land of Green Plums  aka Herztier (Heartanimal) The Appointment – Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet (I would have preferred not to meet myself today), The Passport aka Der Mensch ist ein grosser Fasan auf der Welt (Man is a large pheasant in the world). Herta Müller was born in Romania and her novels all explore life under a communist regime. She wrote novels, poems and essays that all deal with the aftermath of terror, violence and cruelty.

Judith Herrmann (Germany 1970 – ). If you would like to read a contemporary author who has so far refrained from writing about WWII or history in general but prefers to explore her characters interior lives and how they are rooted in our contemporary society, then you should read Judith Hermann. I’ve hardly been as impressed by a collection of short stories as by her Summerhouse, later. She has since written another collection Nothing but Ghosts and a novel Alice. This is contemporary German writing at its best. Poignant and poetical.

I could add a lot of other names. Especially in the last few years there have been a lot of new voices, some of them great. Lizzy will focus more on newer books and will also review the one or the other younger author, like Alina Bronsky.

Please, don’t forget to leave a comment with a link, should you have written a post and also hop over to Lizzy who starts German Literature Month with The Magic Mountain of German Literature.

All the posts will be compiled in the German Literature Month November 2011 Participants – Links – Giveaways Page

Joseph Roth, Irmgard Keun, Christa Wolf Giveaway -The Winners

It’s my pleasure to announce this week’s winners who have been drawn by random.org list generator.

The winner of Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March is – megan

The winnder of Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight is – Susanna P. from Susie Bookworm

The winner of Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth is – Litlove from Tales from the Reading Room.

Happy reading, megan, Susanna and Litlove!

Please send me your contact details via beautyisasleepingcat at gmail dot com.

The giveaways are part of Lizzy and my German Literature Month in November.

The next giveaway will take place on Wednesday 2 November.

Should anyone want to participate in the organized Effi Briest readalong, please leave a comment or sign up here and we will send you the questions for week 1. 

Wednesdays are wunderbar – Joseph Roth, Irmgard Keun and Christa Wolf (English or German) Giveaway

Today we have a different kind of giveaway. The books are personal contributions and that is why you can win them either in English or in German. The giveaway is part of Lizzy and my German Literature Month in November.

The books I selected are the following:

Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March (1932).

The Radetzky March is one of the very great novels of 20th century literature. It’s a swan song, a melancholic depiction of the end of an era.

The Radetzky March can fairly claim to be one of the great novels of the last century. Its theme, beautifully articulated, is the end of an era. His anthem for a vanished world has the intense, fleeting beauty of a sunset’ Sunday Telegraph ‘He saw, he listened, he understood. The Radetzky March is a dark, disturbing novel of eccentric beauty… If you have yet to experience Roth, begin here, and then read everything’ Eileen Battersby, Irish Times ‘The true reading pleasure afforded by the rich environment Roth captures may well have increased over time, while the schisms at the heart of Europe continue to fascinate. It seems that we are rediscovering in twentieth-century Central European literature classics for a new millennium.”

Book number two is After Midnight (1937) by Irmgard Keun.

Keun was a very successful writer until the Nazi’s came. Her novel After Midnight and all of her other works (the most famous is The Artificial Silk Girl) were confiscated and banned. She flew from Nazi Germany together with her lover Joseph Roth. Keun is a tragic figure. In and out of psychiatric hospitals, alcoholism… Her biography is as fascinating as her novels. There is a lot of her own life in the novels too.

What I like a lot about her writing is that it seems so deceptively simple while in reality it is full of explosives. In After Midnight a young woman with the voice of a child describes the most upsetting things. It’s a lucid depiction of the ascent of Nazism and shows, like not many other novels, how and why the Nazi’s were so successful. The fact that a very simple, almost simpleminded girl tells the story makes it an uncanny read.

In 1937, German author Irmgard Keun had only recently fled Nazi Germany with her lover Joseph Roth when she wrote this slim, exquisite, and devastating book. It captures the unbearable tension, contradictions, and hysteria of pre-war Germany like no other novel. Yet even as it exposes human folly, the book exudes a hopeful humanism. It is full of humor and light, even as it describes the first moments of a nightmare. After Midnight is a masterpiece that deserves to be read and remembered anew.

The third book is Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth (1979).

No Place on Earth is a special book for me and a special book for this event. It is my favourite Christa Wolf and its topic fits nicely into our event as it depicts an imaginary encounter between Heinrich von Kleist and the poet Karoline von Günderrode. Von Günderrode is hardly read anymore although she was very influential. She was the friend of Bettina von Arnheim (born Bettina von Brentano, sister of Clemens Brentano) who wrote a book about her which is really wonderful. Von Günderrode and von Kleist never really met but – that’s what Christa Wolf imagines – if they had…. Who knows, they might not have ended their lives. Both authors committed suicide at an early age and are seen as victims of the circumstances in which they lived. In Wolf’s novel they are given the opportunity to meet and to find that they are kindred spirits. It’s a very poetical novel and I would wish that whoever wins it will like it as much as I did.

This fictionalized account of an encounter in 1804 between the poet Karoline von Gunderrode and writer Heinrich von Kleist is pieced together from extracts of actual letters. In real life, both committed suicide some years after the events in this book.

If you would like to win one of those books, or enter for more than one, please let me know which ones you would like and why you would like to win them. Also indicate if you would like the book in English or in German. There is only one little condition – you should be a participant of German Literature Month.

The giveaway is open internationally, the books will be shipped by amazon or the book depository. The winners will be announced on Sunday 30 October 18.00 – European – (Zürich) time.