Christa Wolf, City of Angels or, The Overcoat of Dr Freud (2010; translation from German by Damion Searls, Farrar Straus and Giroux 2014)
The cover blurb describes this book as a novel, and it’s obviously so. But at the same time this is so convincingly not a made-up story that when the narrator says of an extraordinary coincidence that it wouldn’t work in fiction, the reader (this one at least) forgets to scoff at the double bluff.
The narrator, whose name we never learn, is somewhere in Germany in the early 21st century surrounded by pieces of paper that relate to several months she spent in Los Angeles as a resident scholar some fifteen years earlier. The book is what she makes out of those papers: there are moments of reflection in the present time, but mostly the book is made up of conversations, dreams, movies, news items, phone calls to home, bits of writing done – a mass of detail from her stay. There are touristic observations (the size of the portions, the relentless US cheerfulness, the surfeit of material goods), political debates, gossip about the other scholars at THE CENTRE, recollections of the narrator’s earlier life, and some fascinating history of German intellectuals living in exile in Los Angeles during the 1930s and onwards.
The narrator is from East Germany, a country that had ceased to exist at the time of her residency but was still named on her passport. She had lived through the Nazi years, been an idealistic Communist and then an outspoken critic of the Soviet and GDR regimes. She had recently seen her Stasi files and been appalled by them. All this is also true of Christa Wolf. An older friend back home had recently died and bequeathed to the narrator a bundle of letters from a woman who signed herself only as ‘L’. The narrator’s nominal project during her time in Los Angeles was to discover the identity of her friend’s correspondent. But she mainly spent her days documenting her stay in Los Angeles in meticulous detail – hence the piles of paper in the book’s present time.
The back cover blurb spoilerishly reveals that there is a further reason for her trip to the US. I advise, therefore, against reading that blurb. This other element, which emerges at about halfway mar, may not surprise people who are familiar with Christa Wolf’s life and work, but it was a huge twist for me. Without it the book is engaging enough as a detailed account of some months in another country, describing consumerist capitalism from the perspective of someone recently arrived from the Soviet bloc, reporting conversations among writers from many different nations and social contexts, exploring the complex emotional state that results when an oppressive regime one has opposed finally comes to an end, but that ending means the loss of one’s political home. It continues to engage at those levels, but now the narrator finds herself the subject of vigorous (mostly offstage) attack, and is plunged into a deep puzzlement about herself.
I was so engaged in the diary-like elements that I didn’t much care when the mystery of ‘L’ was resolved, and though the big puzzlement was resolved to my satisfaction I can’t tell if that satisfaction is peculiar to me. I’m waiting for the Emerging Artist to finish reading the book so we can discuss it.
Perhaps because I read City of Angels just after leaving the morally clear-cut world of All the Light We Cannot See, I loved it for its complexity, its ruthless self-questioning, it’s commitment to the life of the mind. The book was published in Germany in 2010. Christa Wolf died in 2011, aged 82. The narrator writes at one point of feeling the end approaching, and says explicitly that she means the end of life as well as the end of the book. If Christa Wolf intended the book as a farewell statement, it’s a powerful goodbye, hardly optimistic but not without hope for humanity.
A note on Damion Searls’s translation: It reads very naturally and as far as I can tell, it’s brilliant. I want to mention two clever solutions. One: because the narrator is in English-speaking Los Angeles, the original German text was sprinkled with English words and phrases – like ‘scholar’, ‘office’, ‘How are you?’, ‘Can you spare some change?’ The English text gives these words in italics, an elegant and unobtrusive way of reminding us that we are seeing this world through a non-English-speaking lens. And Two: when she is a deeply troubled state, the narrator spends a whole night singing in her room, and several pages are taken up with a list of the songs she sings. We are given the names of the songs in German without translation. In my ignorance I recognised only a handful, but that was enough to be able to tell that her singing was a way of reaffirming her belonging to German culture – not just some small part of it, but the deep, wide history. If we’d been given the titles in English (‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’ rather than ‘Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott’, for example), that would have been lost.