I could easily make my reading of Christa Wolf's work into a little project. And I might just do so in a very loose, unplanned and unstructured way. I've been reading the yearly entries of One Day a Year: 1960-2000 daily in the hopes I can read my way through forty years of Wolf's life during the month of November. It's not been hard going, though I do sometimes feel slightly adrift in her essays which are peppered with people and events in Wolf's life and milieu of which I am often unfamiliar--this week's reading has taken me from 1963 through 1969. Strangely, though, I don't mind so much. I don't expect to get all the references, but I still get a sense of personality and place, bits about politics and society (though much of it over my head). And it will be a basis on which to build more later.
I know that any work of fiction (and nonfiction, too) should be able to stand on its own. An author's life should be separate and in most cases I pay little attention to a writer's biographical details when I pick up a book. But sometimes life and work seem inextricably linked and knowing something more only adds to the experience. I am coming at Wolf's work from an unusual angle really. I think she was fairly prolific. She was a famous East German writer and made a living from her work. It seems she lived and breathed the writer's life and was quite solidly (and popularly) an important part of that world.
So I am trying to piece together just who was Christa Wolf, and what her world was like. I am reading her perspective in these essays, which is fascinating, but I am also looking at other sources to fill in the rest of the picture and place her somewhere more solid, so I feel as though I am on more even ground. Fiction may well stand on its own, but in terms of diary-writing, I feel as though the more known the better. To that end I've been looking at other books and reading what I can find online about Wolf.
I've started with Twayne's volume on Christa Wolf by Gail Finney. I'd love to read it cover to cover, but for the sake of time (and my piles of 'in progress' books), I'll be using the index a lot and just skimming the subjects that seem most pertinent. It's interesting reading the essays and then filling out the picture more in my other reading. It all seems to come together, or else the repetition of facts and information makes everything feel much more familiar.
Christa Wolf is considered one of the best known and important women literary figures from Germany (east or west). "She did more than any other writer from the former German Democratic Republic to place the literature of that country on a global stage."
" . . . like many of her literary colleagues, she began writing with a deep commitment to the new socialist state and followed the tenets of socialist realism, then subsequently broke with this political and aesthetic program. Yet she branched off in experimental directions of her own, so that a good deal of her work emerges as extreme or even unique in GDR fiction. And, although like many of her fellow writers in the German Democratic Republic she eventually became highly critical of the regime, her criticism has been founded throughout on a doctrine that can best be described as utopian humanism."
It's noted that much of her work is autobiographical, and in One Day a Year Wolf writes about her family, work and interactions with friends, family and colleagues. In the latter entries of this week's reading she talks about a book she has been working on, The Quest for Christa T., which was published in 1968. The heroine of the novel shares a name and youth similar to that of the author's. It sounds as though, like Vasily Grossman and his work Life and Fate, Wolf had difficulties in getting the censor's approval in publishing the novel.
Wolf writes about about all the many concerns big and small in these essays--her younger daughter's birthday, the illnesses of friends, social events, her work on The Quest for Christa T. A name often pops up that I am familiar with and whose work I have read not very long ago--Anna Seghers. My reading continues to cross paths with other books and the topics that are central in those works. Wolf quotes Seghers, whose comment mirrors the things I have been reading about elsewhere.
"There have been worse things. Under Stalin the people where put up against the wall--not any longer. Is that perhaps not progress? Besides that, it will pass. Or it will remain the same. Then we will have to adapt to it." (Anna Seghers).
If you are interested in reading more (and briefly) about Christa Wolf, the New York Times's obituary offers a broad overview of her life. A few interesting things I have noted (and see reference to in her yearly entries):
"Chance, and the power of political systems to shape the course that lives took, were two themes she explored relentlessly. The Nazi legacy was also formative: In the early post-war years, as the Nazi crimes came to light, the young Wolf suffered an existential crisis. She tried religion, but it didn’t take, and settled instead on socialism, finding in its theories a means of countering the despair of the Nazi period. At twenty, she became a member of the Socialist Party."
"Her impact was the result of a confluence of politics—only in an authoritarian state are writers so important—and an ear for the issues and concerns of the day, be it the building of the wall, the pain of the Nazi past, the search for a new and better society, women’s rights or environmental problems. Her readings—often held in churches, one of the few places in the GDR where dissidents could meet freely—drew hundreds, even thousands, both before and after the wall came down."
And she does write about the politics and leaders who were ever present in her life.
"But by 1965, Wolf had grown disillusioned with the regime. Frustrated by the state’s refusal to allow artists to portray the problems faced by the East Germans realistically, she spoke out strongly. If she had not, she said later, she would no longer have been able to write."
"Her disillusionment with the state, coupled with the early death of a friend, sparked her next novel, The Quest for Christa T. The government denounced the book as 'an attempt to replace Marx with Freud.' It tells the story of a young mother who rejects the shallow, capitalistic West, but can’t make a satisfying life under the political conditions in the East, and dies of cancer. Wolf saw it as the first book in which she found her voice."
It's a pity there is no introduction or afterword in the book to help put Wolf and her writing into some social context, but the Twayne and another book of criticism of her work goes a long way to offering a little more insight into the woman. I'm curious to see how much her life changes once the wall comes down. It sounds, too, as though she has been criticized and accused of being complicit in "reporting on fellow authors" to the GDR government. Life is messy and I don't know enough about her or the social environment to make any judgements (it's still early days, too, in reading about her).
More later about this very intriguing life, an ordinary one in a most extraordinary time and place.