The famous “German-German literary debate” (deutschdeutscher Literaturstreit) on the political function of literature was sparked in the Summer of 1990 following the publication of Christa Wolf’s Was bleibt (What remains). The mere fact that a short narrative by a single—though established—author could provoke such a widespread debate involving a substantial number of German intellectuals is a sign of Wolf’s importance. The question arose as to whether and to what degree Wolf had supported the East German government and, as a consequence, whether or not her writings should be taken seriously. The debate was an indication of how intellectuals on both sides of the iron curtain found themselves disoriented in the face of German reunification and the termination of the Cold War. Even today, many of these uncertainties remain unresolved, and Wolf continues to symbolize those controversial questions that reach beyond the ethical and aesthetic dimensions of literature and seek instead to find a new direction and orientation in a world where the idea of political utopia has fallen into disrepute. Though Wolf has often been accused of aligning herself with the restrictive socialist government of the GDR, her essayistic writings do contain critical elements which stretched the limits imposed by the censors.
In her early collection of essays, Lesen und Schreiben (1972; The Reader and the Writer), Wolf, a trained Germanist, reflects on the role of literature. The introductory essay, “Lesen und Schreiben” (1968; “Reading and Writing”), explains that the prose genre is in particular danger of becoming obsolete in an ever-changing world filled with scientific innovation, where it is increasingly difficult to reserve time and space for dreams and fantasies, vital for the development of the individual in society. She concludes that the task of the author as individual creator is to support and facilitate the tradition of human interaction by writing prose: “Prose can expand the limits of what we know about ourselves. It keeps alive in us the memory of a future which we cannot disown, on pain of destruction.” This memory of a future is what has made Wolf’s essayistic writings relevant for political as well as literary debates to this day, well beyond the restrictive label of “GDR literature.”
In her detailed essay on the almost forgotten Romanticist, Karoline von Giinderrode (1978), Wolf describes Romanticism as a movement of change that reached “a new way of looking at things” by overcoming “dry rationalism.” Wolf thus goes beyond describing the problems of a female author in a time of uncertainty and turmoil. “Günderrode’s generation, like all who live in transitional periods, had to create new patterns which later generations would use as models, stencils, warnings, slogans, in literature as in life.”
Wolf identifies with many of the ideas of German Romanticism and considers herself as one of those later generations who would use the patterns developed by the Romantics.
Her narrative Kein Ort, Nirgends (1979; No Place on Earth) investigates the lives of Romantic writers including Giinderrode and sets up a clear parallel to her own time. This work is a critique of the Enlightenment that deviated from the traditional Marxist- Leninist interpretation of intellectual history. In contrast to the Marxist critique of Romanticism, evident for instance in much of Georg Lukács’ writings, Wolf does not consider Romanticism to be an escapist movement leading to irrationalism, decadence, and fascism. Rather, she echoes the disappointment in the “totalitarian” nature of the Enlightenment, as suggested in 1947 by Max Horkheimer and Theodor W.Adorno in their Dialektik der Aufklarung (1947; Dialectic of Enlightenment), though with a different outcome. Wolf describes the writings and the early death of Giinderrode—an icon for other Romantics—as a result of the repressive society she had to endure. In light of the expatriation of East German poet Wolf Biermann in 1976 by the GDR government, which Wolf perceived as a serious crisis for the role of the artist in the GDR, her depiction of Giinderrode can be seen as Wolf’s self-censored but critical assessment of contemporary GDR society.
Wolf’s essays also include treatments of various authors from different times, such as Schiller, Georg Buchner, Thomas Mann, Max Frisch, and Anna Seghers, as well as numerous lectures on her own experiences as an author, and even one on psychosomatic medicine. The recent Nazi Germany past, which Wolf experienced as a child, is embedded in many of her essays. When writing on other authors, she is generally more interested in the personal side of their writings, their emotions, and the nuances to be found between the lines, rather than in an abstract interpretation of their works. This approach is reflected in the style of her essays, a unique mixture of contemplation, linguistic force, self-confidence, and questioning, and distinguishes her from other essayists of her time.
Wolf often responds to questions others have posed or are likely to pose, perpetuating a dialogue with society. The most significant example of this tendency can be found in the essays accompanying her successful novel Kassandra (1983; Cassandrd). Despite the somewhat misleading subtitle of the German edition, “Poetik-Vorlesungen” (Lectures on poetics), which suggests normative instructions on writing, Wolf wants her readers to witness the process of reflexive thought that led her to the creation of an aesthetic entity.
By allowing the reader to participate in such an intimate process, Wolf retains the Marxist desire to reduce the alienation between art and recipient, as well as between individual and society. It is this keen interest in the individual readers themselves that marks Wolf as an outstanding critic and essayist of this century.
Born 18 March 1929 in Landsberg an der Warthe, Germany (now Gorzow, Poland).
Secretary to mayor of Gammelin, 1945–46. Studied at the Universities of Jena and Leipzig, 1949–53, diploma, 1953. Member of the Communist Party, 1949–89 (resigned).
Married Gerhard Wolf, 1951: two daughters. Technical assistant, East German Writers’ Union, 1953–59; editor, Neue deutsche Literatur, 1958–59; reader for Mitteldeutscher Verlag publishers, Halle, 1959–62, and Velag Neues Leben, Berlin; resident writer in a freight car manufacturing company, 1959–62; candidate member of central committee, SED, 1963–67.
Awards: several, including Heinrich Mann Prize, 1963; National Prize,
1964; Raabe Prize, 1972; Fontane Prize, 1972; Büchner Prize, for essays, 1980; Schiller Prize, 1983. Member, Academy of Arts, Berlin.
Essays and Related Prose
Lesen und Schreiben: Aufsätze und Betrachtungen, 1972; as The Reader and the Writer, translated by Joan Becker, 1977
Fortgesetzter Versuch: Aufsätze, Gespräche, Essays, 1979
Lesen und Schreiben: Neue Sammlung, 1980
Voraussetzungen einer Erzählung: Kassandra (includes the novel Kassandra and four lectures on the novel), 1983; as Cassandra: A Novel, and Four Essays, translated by Jan van Heurck, 1984
Die Dimension des Autors: Essays und Aufsätze, Reden und Gespräche, 1959–1985, 2 vols., 1986; part as The Fourth Dimension: Interviews with Christa Wolf, translated by Hilary Pilkington, 1988
The Author’s Dimension: Selected Essays, edited by Alexander Stephan, translated by Jan van Heurck, 1993
Auf dem Weg nach Tabou: Texte 1990–1994, 1994
Other writings: seven novels (Nachdenken über Christa T. [The Quest for Christa T.],
1968; Kindheitsmuster [A Model Childhood], 1976; Kein Ort, Nirgends [No Place on Earth], 1979; Kassandra [Cassandra], 1983; Störfall: Nachrichten eines Tages [Accident: A Day’s News], 1987; Sommerstück, 1989; Medea, 1996), novellas, and short stories.
Geist, Rosemarie, and Maritta Rost, “Auswahlbibliographie,” in Christa Wolf: Ein Arbeitsbuch: Studien-Dokumente-Bibliographie, edited by Angela Drescher, Frankfurton- Main: Luchterhand, 1989:415–536
Fries, Marilyn Sibley, editor, Responses to Christa Wolf, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989
Kuhn, Anna K., editor, Christa Wolf’s Utopian Vision: From Marxism to Feminism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988
Love, Myra N., Christa Wolf: Literature and the Conscience of History, New York: Lang, 1991
Smith, Colin E., Tradition, Art and Society: Christa Wolf’s Prose, Essen: Die Blaue Eule, 1987
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