A Short Life in Detail

The famous (East) German writer Christa Wolf passed away in December last year, and sadly that was the event which pushed me into trying one of her books for the first time.  I was supposed to have read Kein Ort, Nirgends (Nowhere on Earth) at university at one point, but as I recall I didn’t even get around to buying it (which says less about Wolf than about my efforts at university…).  This time, however, I managed to both buy and read one of her works – and, more importantly, enjoyed it as well.

Nachdenken über Christa T. (usually translated as The Quest for Christa T.) is an intriguing, at times confusing, story of the short life of a young woman living in the former German Democratic Republic.  Our narrator meets Christa T. at school during the Second World War, and bumps into her again when studying at university a number of years later.  The narrator uses the book to relate selected details from Christa’s life, from the moment of that first meeting until her untimely death from leukaemia at the age of thirty-six.

So far, so normal, you may think; however, this book is anything but.  It consists of a series of anecdotes from the narrator, who has been given a box of documents by Christa’s widower and is determined to lay bare her friend’s life in an attempt to explain to the reader what kind of woman she was and how she lived her life.  But why should we care?

This is a question which is (deliberately) never satisfactorily answered, and it’s not the only ambiguous part of the story.  As the narrator relates events from Christa’s life, the point of view slips back and forth between the first- and third-person, at times making it difficult to tell who is meant by ‘ich’ (‘I’).  In any case, the reader suspects that this issue of identification is complicated further by the temptation to throw a third speaker into the mix – Wolf herself.  Towards the end of the novel, the narrator sympathises with Christa’s tendency to slip into the third-person, citing “...die Schwierigkeit ich zu sagen.” (“…the difficulty of saying I.“, p.201)***.  So just who is speaking here?

Knowing that the book is set in East Germany, it’s difficult to avoid reading certain things into Nachdenken über Christa T., even though Wolf was one of the writers who stayed and defended her mother country.  Christa is shown to be a free spirit who refuses to be tied down by the expectations of society, waltzing in and out of lectures, not caring if her marks drag down the average of her study group, running off with any man who takes her fancy.  At one point, the narrator says:

“Kein Verfahren findet statt, kein Urteil wird gesprochen…” p.68

“No trial is taking place, no judgement is being made…”***

However, it is difficult to take this at face value; there is a pervading sense that the free-spirited Christa is somehow letting the system down by doing exactly (and only) what she wants to do.  Mind you, the state censors let it slip through, so I won’t labour the point 😉

This book, with its emphasis on examining a person’s life in detail, enabling a portrait to be painstakingly built up, reminds me in many ways of another classic German novel, Heinrich Böll’s Gruppenbild mit Dame (Group Portrait with Lady).  Böll also used third-party sources to slowly develop his main character, avoiding having her appear in person until late in the piece to heighten the effect of the puzzle.

However, a major difference is that where Böll’s Verf., the man engaged in building up a picture of Leni Pfeiffer, roamed far and wide interviewing people to get his information, Wolf’s narrator refuses to ask others for help, preferring to rely on her own memory and the scraps of paper she has been given.  At times, she even imagines conversations and scenes which may have taken place, filling in certain gaps for herself.  When events start to become blurred later in the piece, this gives us even more reason to be suspicious of the facts – and of her motives…

Of course, we are given clues of this ‘blurriness’ early in the novel, when the narrator discusses the difficulties of ever getting a clear view of events, using clever word play related to poetry.

“Dichten, dicht machen, die sprache hilft.  Was denn dicht machen und wogegen?” p.24

“To write poetry, to seal off, language helps us.  Seal off what and from what?”***

Here Wolf is playing on the sounds of ‘dichten’ (to write poetry) and ‘dicht machen’ (to seal off) to explain that the role of poetry and literary writing is to obscure, just as much as it is to reveal.

This idea of ‘defamiliarisation’ would be a familiar(!) one to anyone who has studied literary theory, and while it may sound perverse, there is actually a kind of twisted logic in it.  By defamiliarising an object and rendering it difficult to make out, the writer forces us to concentrate our attention much harder on it.  In this way, we find something new in mundane objects which we don’t really see properly any more.

And this is what Wolf does in Nachdenken über Christa T. – she takes an ordinary life and, through her smoke and mirrors, produces the story of a life less ordinary, a life spent trying to avoid being pigeon-holed, trying to find out what she actually wants from her time on earth.  The narrator has used this opportunity in an attempt to show us, just one time, how Christa T. really was, not how people saw her.  Why?

“Wann, wenn nicht jetzt?” p.219

“When, if not now?”***

 *****

Page numbers are from the German Suhrkamp Taschenbuch edition (2007).
All quotes marked *** are my attempts at translation 🙂

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6 thoughts on “A Short Life in Detail

  1. Great review, Tony and how glad I am I have the book already. This sounds as if I should read it very soon as she examines things I'm interested in at the moment, how to capture a life etc. I find the parallel you draw with Böll interesting, as his narrator seems to draw from the outside of a person while Wolf, constructs from the inside. I've read many of her books but kept this one – as I so often do with books I think I will like a lot – for later.
    One of these days I will have to start reading them.

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  2. Great review and it sounds as if your becoming more & more confident in your ability in this language, is it something you'd like to pursue maybe at some doing something with the translation?

    PS. That was a quick flight, is the bus parked close?

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  3. Caroline – It's always best to read the books you're going to like first 🙂 The Böll parallel is one I thought of several times while reading this (I think this one came first though…).

    Gary – Translation? Erm, no 😉 I definitely have become better at reading German over the past year or so though, simply through constant exposure to the written language 🙂

    And as for the bus, let's just say it's bigger on the inside than on the outside…

    Emma – I'd go more for something in shadows, black and white, images half-grasped but not clearly seen 🙂

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