Tag Archives: Phillipa McGuinness

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.

Phillipa McGuinness’s Year Everything Changed

Phillipa McGuinness, The Year Everything Changed: 2001 (2018)

Phillipa McGuinness reminds us in her preface to The Year Everything Changed that in 1988, the bicentenary of James Cook’s visit to Australia’s east coast, a number of substantial books called ‘slice histories’ were published: each of them dealt with a single year, a slice of Australian life taken every 50 years starting with 1788. ‘You take a single year,’ McGuinness writes, ‘and interrogate the bejesus out of it.’ This book interrogates the bejesus out of 2001.

The Australian Bicentenary project isn’t the only precursor. Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947: When Now Begins, which I read last year in Fiona Graham’s translation, is a brilliant example. Pip McGuinness’s book is also brilliant, but in a very different register: more intimate for one thing, given that one of the key events of her year is intensely personal, and the events she describes, and has researched prodigiously, are part of her living memory, whereas Elisabeth Åsbrink wasn’t yet born in her chosen year.

The book’s structure looks straightforward: a chapter for each month. But actually, at least at first, each chapter takes an event from its month and uses it as a springboard to a general theme. So:

  •  January has great fun with the fizzer celebration of the Centenary of Federation, and its more sombre in its account of the inauguration of George W Bush and dick Cheney. Both events allow for quick sketches of the Story So Far.
  • February saw the death of Don Bradman and the divorce of Nicole Kidman. There’s a delicious exploration of the differences between the historical Bradman and the way his image was used to represent something about Australia – the icon Bradman. And there’s a list of heroes and icons that were big that year, most of whom are now forgotten.
  • In March the iPod came into existence, and OMG how all that has changed!
  • April saw the first edition of Black Inc’s Quarterly Essay, Robert Manne’s The Stolen Generations and the Right, and the chapter ranges over the policies and debates around human rights. In Australia that means the treatment of Aboriginal people and asylum seekers. Elsewhere in the world, same-sex marriage, euthanasia and the death penalty were in the news. Later in the year, the US would officially sanction torture, kidnapping and indefinite detention.
  • In May, George Pell became Archbishop of Sydney. The chapter deals mainly with the connection between religion and politics, clerical child abuse in Australia and, inevitably, Islam and violence (including violence against Muslims) everywhere.
  • June is the money chapter. ‘Were it not for Tampa and 9/11, in Australia we might remember the year as one of corporate catastrophe.’ One.Tel, insurance company HIH and Ansett all collapsed. Elsewhere Bill Clinton cleared the legislative way for the Global Financial Crisis, and Enron, the seventh largest corporation in the US, went bust. I was reminded that I went to the US that year when the exchange rate was down to just over 48 US cents to our dollar. 
  • July was the Australian census, and McGuinness and her family went to live in Singapore. The chapter deals with Australia’s changing demographics, the expat experience, and the twentieth anniversary of AIDS, in 2001 the number one cause of death by infectious disease in the developing world.

I had approached the book expecting a Before and After narrative, with turning points of Tampa, 9/11, and the devastating event in McGuinness’s personal life flagged in the Preface. By the end of July, I was engrossed enough to be no longer reading it that way. Then comes the opening of the August chapter:

We’ve come to the part of 2001 where so much happens that were it a novel, its author would be criticised for over-plotting. Cut out one terrorist attack, one election, one war, one maritime crisis, please, pleads her overwhelmed editor. There are so many villains, where are your heroes? And why don’t you consider a happier ending? But, I counter, facts lined up on my side, all this happened. It’s part of the story. I too wish I could rewrite events, tweak history, even – especially – my own. But I can’t so, cue the high-drama chart-stoppers of 2001. We know the words to the chorus, but let’s pay more attention to the verses.

(Page 173)

And so it goes: the August–November chapters pretty much draw our attention to the verses of songs we kind of know: in August it’s the Tampa, in September 9/11, in October the invasion of Afghanistan, and in November elections – especially those that were won by John Howard and George W Bush.

These chapters are fine examples of narrative history, telling the story in terms of what people knew, suspected or feared at the time and illuminating it with later knowledge only as needed. Although they tell stories that have been told many times, it’s a very personal telling, with odd facts and interesting angles, and oddly refreshing to be reminded of what it looked like back then – before Trump, Iraq, Manus Island and Nauru, but well on the way to all of them.

December is a harrowing account of giving birth to a baby who has died in utero. It might seem that such a chapter belongs in a different book. But in a way it’s what brings this whole book together. Big picture events can make the lives of individual people seem trivial, but that’s an illusion created by distance. All of who lived through those times had big things happen in our personal lives, some connected to the big events (like the casualties of war and terrorism or sacked employees of Ansett, whose voices we hear in their chapters), others not so much, but equally weighty. And anyway, the whole book feels personal – which is no mean achievement given the enormous amount of research that went into it. I don’t know Phillipa McGuinness, but as I’ve been writing this blog post, I’ve had to struggle every time I’ve written a version of her name: I want to call her Pip, which is how she refers to herself in one wry aside, not because I have trouble with the spelling of her personal name, but because by the time I reached the list of friends on page 326 I felt as if I belonged there.

The Year Everything Changed is the second book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. It was a loan from the Book(-swap) Club.