Tag Archives: Christa Wolf

Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year 2001–2011

Christa Wolf, One Day a Year 2001–2011 (2013, translation by Katy Derbyshire, Seagull Books, 2017)

In 1960 the Moscow newspaper Izvestia invited a number of writers, including East German Christa Wolf, to describe one day in their lives, 27 September that year, as precisely as possible. Christa Wolf accepted the invitation and found the project so interesting that she did the same for that date every year for the rest of her life.

She didn’t necessarily intend this writing for publication, but at the turn of the century she decided to compile the 41 pieces into a book, saying in her preface (reprinted at the start of this book):

I see it as a kind of professional obligation to publish them. Our most recent history seems to be at risk of being reduced, even now, to easily manageable formulae. Perhaps messages like these can play a part in keeping opinions on what has happened in flux, re-examining prejudices, dismantling hardened views, recognising our own experiences and gaining more trust in them, allowing unfamiliar circumstances a little closer to ourselves.

That book is a compendium of detailed accounts of a single day for each year, coming very close to the primary classroom concept of a ‘recount’ as opposed to a shaped ‘narrative’, beginning in East Berlin before the Berlin Wall was built, ending long after the unification of Germany, and traversing on the way the massive social and political changes of the 1960s to 90s, as well as huge changes in Wolf’s personal life.

The book I’ve just read is not so much a sequel as an addendum. The German original, titled Ein Tag im Jahr im neuen Jahrhundert (literally One Day a Year in the New Century) was published in 2013, nearly two years after Wolf’s death in December 2011. The changes it charts are not as momentous, at least not on the world stage – at the personal level these pages are overwhelmingly aware of the approach of death – but nor is it as dauntingly huge.

I found the book fascinating. Each day is full of detail: the dream from which Wolf wakens, a list of newspaper headlines, the meals her husband prepares, crime shows on television, her current reading, her current writing project, gossip, calls on her to appear in the media, invitations to gallery openings (most of which go straight to the bin), news from her family (one of her daughters has a birthday on 28 September, so family always looms large), reflections on the big events of the day (German elections seem to happen in September), correspondence. It’s not that all these things are presented as of equal value: Wolf knows that her reflections on, say, the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC, will be more interesting to her possible readers (including her future self) than what she had for lunch. But there’s a wonderful sense of the broad sweep of history enmeshed in the minutiae of life as each entry ‘interrogates the bejesus’ out of its day (the phrase is from Phillipa McGuinness’s The Year that Everything Changed, which did for the year 2001 what Wolf does for her days – the link is to my blog post).

I imagine that every reader will find her or his own personal points of connection. Here are some of mine.

On 9/11, the perspective of a former East Berliner stands as something of a challenge these days to those who urge the primacy of ‘western civilisation’:

Why did it seem to me – precisely sixteen days ago it was – as though those two towers were crashing directly into the empty centre of our civilisation, the alleged target of the attack? Everyone appeared to know what our civilisation is. […] So it’s Greek philosophy, the monotheistic religions, the Enlightenment’s belief in reason … And what if they had all lost their effectualness in the Occident under the ‘terror of the economy’ and lived on only as a chimera inside us? And have not more and more people sensed that this civilisation of ours is hollowed out and empty?

(page 11)

(Incidentally, that ‘the Occident’ makes me wish I could read German so I’d know if it was Wolf or the translator Katy Derbyshire who decided to use it rather than the more usual ‘the West’. Given the general ease of the English elsewhere, I’m assuming it was Wolf: she tends to use ‘the West’ to mean West Germany, and Katy Derbyshire has honoured her usage.)

In the period covered by this book, Wolf completed the only other book by her that I’ve read: City of Angels or, The Overcoat of Dr Freud. That book deals in part with a moment in 1985 when it was revealed that she had been an informant for the Stasi – something she had completely forgotten. There are some interesting footnotes to that book – she mentions in passing the difficulty of writing it, of dealing with editorial changes and then, in 2010, readers’ responses. This passage makes me resolve to tell writers when their work means something to me:

Then a quite long, intense letter from a woman from Berlin, prompted by City of Angels, which she calls a ‘captivating and liberating’ text. My books, she writes, have accompanied her for more than half her life (people often tell me that now). She goes on to thank me for staying ‘in this part of the country’ […] I could cite more of this letter, which is typical of a large number of letters I’ve received since City of Angels. More from the East – but not only from there – more women than men, more older than very young people. Testaments of personal concern, which push aside my doubts over whether I ought to have published the book in this form.

(page 145)

The book is probably an example of ‘late style’, as discussed in Edward Said’s On Late Style, a book that failed to impress me much when I read it last year, but which seems to be relevant to almost everything I’ve read since. Like Said’s book, this one was published posthumously. Unlike his, it’s explicit about the writer’s physical condition. This moment from 2007 strikes a chord with me, though the pain in my joints is a trivial shadow of hers:

From the living room window I see a young blonde woman walking past, in a white jacket and black trousers; I watch enviously as she walks without effort, as if that were the most natural thing in the world.

I console myself – when I was her age I could do that too.

(page 110)

The final entry – just two pages of notes she managed to scribble two months before she died – is an extraordinary testimony to her dedication to the life of the mind, and to this task in particular: among the notations about the struggle to find a position for sleeping that won’t be in pain, her medication, difficulties with eating and going to the toilet, she mentions her reading:

I read a few pages of [Estela Canto’s] relationship to Borges, which Ellen sent me. Didn’t know B. was infertile – for mental reasons, not least due to his domineering mother.

(p 149)

In the middle of it all, there’s always something new to learn.

I don’t suppose this book is everyone’s cup of tea, but it makes me glad to belong to species that has included such an individual.

Christa Wolf’s City of Angels

Christa Wolf, City of Angels or, The Overcoat of Dr Freud (2010; translation from German by Damion Searls, Farrar Straus and Giroux 2014)

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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.