I love the premise of Christa Wolf's One Day a Year, 1960-2000. She, along with a number of other writers, was invited by the Moscow newspaper Izvestiya to describe the events of her day on September 27. This was in 1960. It was meant to be a revival of Maxim Gorky's "One Day in the World" which he began in 1935 but was not continued. Wolf wrote about her day as a diary entry and continued to do so for the next four decades. She did so for a variety of reasons, one of which I understand only too well--her horror of forgetfulness.
"I wanted to write in opposition to that inexorable loss of existence. One day a year, every year, should at least be a reliable buttress for the memory--describe purely, authentically, free of artistic designs, which means: left to and at the mercy of chance. I could not and did not want to control what those chance days brought to me; thus apparently insignificant days stand next to 'more interesting' ones. I could not avoid the mundane, nor seek or even stage 'significant' things. With a certain measure of excitement I began to anticipate what that 'one day a year,' as I soon called it, would bring me in the current year. Keeping the records became sometimes enjoyable, sometimes burdensome duty. It also became an exercise against blindness to reality."
Wolf, who passed away in 2011, was an essayist, literary critic and novelist. She was born in Landsberg an der Werthe, which is now Gorzów Wielkopolski, Poland in 1929. I don't know much about her--yet, though I hope to learn more about her life in the process of my reading this month. The biographical blurb on the back flap notes that she is one of the best known writers to emerge from East Germany and was one of "contemporary literature's most important authors." At least one of her books is a Virago Modern Classic, The Quest for Christa T., which I have somewhere on my bookshelves. I also have Patterns of Childhood, which is a fictionalized account of growing up in Nazi Germany. Both look interesting, and I plan on pulling both out to at least peruse this month. Both seemed a little formidable when I first bought them, but sometimes timing is everything and now might just be the right time.
My hope in reading One Day a Year is to learn more about life in post-WWII Germany and particularly in East Germany for which I have had a long fascination. If I can read one or two entries daily I should easily keep on track for finishing the book by the end of the month. So far I've managed the first four entries. They average in length from just a few pages to more then twenty, and they are literally (first impression tells me anyway) just meanderings (though thoughtfully put down) on her life--be it about her family, her writing, her marriage, or the political climate of the times.
She moves from topic to topic, but the segues are so smooth you don't even realize that the subjects she brings up may not necessarily be related. However random her thoughts seem, I think everything is actually quite carefully planned out. In the introduction she talks about her personal diary, which was never intended for publication and this one day a year project in which she sees the "narrative potential to be found in almost any arbitrary day."
Her younger daughter Tinka (she has two daughters--Annette the elder and Tinka, and a husband named Gerd) celebrates her birthday on the 28th of September so it tends to be a topic that comes up in her writing. Although she talks about her experiences as a writer, it seems she had been working in a railroad car factory in the town of Halle, though just a few years later she has moved with her family to Berlin. Although it's been easy so far to orient myself to the people she mentions, particularly her family (and there is an appendix in the back of the book listing her family members), other people and historical events might prove to be more challenging to place.
Her writing is engaging and it's easy reading, but my only disappointment so far is a lack of editorial introduction (Wolf did write a short introduction) that orients the reader--giving historical background. I am only peripherally knowledgeable about the time and place and would have been very happy with some sort of historical/political context. But you have to start somewhere, right? I will be writing about Vasily Grossman's book this week and have been thinking about it in reference to my reading choices for the German Literature month.
One thing I love about reading is when books cross paths and I am finding that with the Grossman (who wrote about Post-WWII Russia during--and after--Stalin's dictatorship) there are and are likely to be more parallels with the Wolf. East Germany was behind the Iron Curtain for at least half of her "One Days" and she mentions Lenin and Russia. I think in the end there are going to be a number of books that offer some small (or big) glimpse of this particular place and era that help paint a picture. I've been listening to my audio books by and about Kafka and am finding some parallels there, too, so I am feeling slightly immersed (and this is a good thing) in German Literature and history.
I'm not sure what form my weekly posts on this book will take. Until I started writing this post I wasn't sure how much I had to say about my reading (especially as I am not far into the book yet), but in thinking about the reading there are a number of things that have caught my attention and are noteworthy. Alas, I'll have to save some of them for next weekend (or maybe a second post this week? Would that be too boring for you?) as I don't want to let this get too long. I will end with an interesting quote (expect a lot of them in the following weeks) to give you an idea of the things on Wolf's mind and obstacles she met in her career as writer, but a writer who had a family and other work:
"There really is something to the idea that if she has children a woman in the 'arts and sciences' cannot accomplish what it is possible for a man with the same talents to accomplish. An issue that I have often thought about, one that leave behind a bitter residue and that makes Gerd furious. But the children are growing, and someday concentration will really have to come into my life again--if I have not already unlearned it by then."
More later about (and by) Christa Wolf and One Day a Year.