The Tortured Artist

We’ve had writers from Austria, Switzerland and Germany so far this month, but now it’s time for one from a country which no longer exists – East Germany (AKA the GDR/DDR).  Christa Wolf is one writer who stayed on her side of the wall despite the constraints this put on her art – and one way writers throughout the ages have dealt with this problem is by projecting their thoughts a long way away…

Kein Ort. Nirgends (translated as No Place on Earth) takes us back to a part of Germany we visited not so long ago.  It’s 1804, and we find ourselves in a large house in the village of Winkel am Rhein, privileged (and hidden) spectators at a tea party.  A group of upper-class Germans are laughing, joking, talking and sipping tea; generally having a wonderful time.  Yet two of them, a man and a woman, appear to be a little distanced from the others, both pretending to enjoy the company while actually lost in their own worlds – now, who could they be?

We quickly learn the identities of the two outsiders.  The woman is Karoline von Günderrode, a German romantic poet; the man is Heinrich von Kleist, one of the most famous playwrights and prose writers of the early nineteenth century.  In Kein Ort. Nirgends, Wolf has created an imaginary (if plausible) meeting between two spirits who have a lot in common.  Both are creative talents; both suffer for their art; both are to later take their lives…

Kein Ort. Nirgends is a short work, barely reaching a hundred pages, and the story is divided into two parts.  The first is set in the house, where the two main characters gradually become aware of each other’s presence and start to want to get involved in a conversation.  They both sense that the other is an outsider: in her mind, Günderrode sees the small party as interconnected lines on a page, with a space around the point denoting Kleist; Kleist, likewise, sees an imaginary space around Günderrode, a protective buffer against the real world.

The second part, when the group goes out for a post-dinner walk, gives Kleist and Günderrode the opportunity to find out more about each other, allowing them to explore their thoughts on art and life.  As the two walk along the river, lost in a world they share, things get a little more abstract and philosophical.  Perhaps it is apt that they often managed to shake off this reader…

It’s certainly not a book for someone wanting a quick, fun read.  The style is dense and deliberately confusing, switching rapidly between the two main characters, intermingling thoughts and words with little but context to tell you which are which.  In addition, there is little action, just discussion, and the topics are, on the whole, not the easiest to follow.  The two artists are mainly concerned with the nature of art and the toll it takes on the artist, as well as the dilemma of how to be yourself, yet live in the society you have been born into.  It’s not a dilemma the others at the party share, and Kleist recognises this, asking his friend:

“Wie soll der Gesunde den Kranken verstehen?”
p.39 (Suhrkamp Verlag, 2007)

“How can a healthy person understand a sick one?”

That very fine line between genius and mental illness was obviously of concern a long time before we started tweeting about it…

Of course, other factors contributed to this feeling of uncertainty.  The story is set at a time of great upheaval in Europe, with fear of Napoleon and his ambitions dominating politics (and life in general) all over the continent.  Chronologically, this piece actually falls nicely between Goethe’s Hermann und Dorothea, an early paean to a united Germany, and Heine’s Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen, where the poet takes a satirical look at what the Prussians have done with the idea of a German state.  Kleist himself was Prussian, fighting in the army and working within its bureaucracy, and this conformity is one of the factors slowly driving him mad.  Another of the (real-life) characters, Savigny, is described as forcing a decision between following science and art, his entweder…, oder… (‘either…, or…’).  In the end, our two friends take the third option…

When we start discussing the story in terms of artists struggling to reconcile their art with everyday life though, especially under a bureaucratic regime centred on Berlin, it becomes very tempting to shift our attention from the early nineteenth century to the second half of the following one.  In many ways, it appears that Wolf is alluding to her own situation, cunningly highlighting the pressures on writers in East Germany.  In which case, should we be visualising Wolf when Kleist and Günderrode bemoan their plight?

“Können Sie sich einen Menschen vorstellen, Doktor, der hautlos unter die Leute muß; den jeder Laut quält, jeder Schimmer blendet, dem die leiseste Berührung der Luft weh tut.  So ist mir, Doktor.  Ich übertreibe nicht.  Das müssen Sie mir glauben.” p.40

“Can you imagine a person, doctor, who must go forth with no skin amongst people; whom each noise tortures, each gleam of light blinds, whom the merest breath of air causes pain.  That is how it is for me, doctor.  I’m not exaggerating.  You must believe me.”

Poor Heinrich.  Poor Karoline.  Poor Christa…

9 thoughts on “The Tortured Artist

  1. Thanks for a wonderful review of one of my German favourites. I read this when I was 18 or so and it affected me deeply. I read a lot about Karoline von Günderrode, also Bettina von Arnim's wonderful “Die Günderrode”. I thought it was an incredibly interesting idea to imagine a meeting between them.
    I find Christa Wold such an interesting author, she's writte a lot, they are never quick reads but very rewarding. Is it your first? Will you read more?


  2. I didn't know that Christa Wolf had written a novel on Kleist and Karoline! Wow! This looks like a wonderful book – especially for literature lovers. I liked very much what you said about how what the main characters said in the story could apply to Christa Wolf's own time. Thanks for this wonderful review, Tony! One more addition to my already tall and toppling 'TBR' list 🙂


  3. An Austrian woman writer who I've read two of her works ('Malina' and 'Three Paths to the Lake') which were excellent is Ingeborg Bachmann. Coincidentally she commited suicide at age 47 in 1973. I don't think I've read Christa Wolf.


  4. Caroline – This is my second (I've also read 'Christa T.'), and I've enjoyed them both – but, yes, they're not exactly light reading.

    I actually meant to mention 'Christa T.' in my Herta Müller post as I think there are many parallels between that book and 'Herztier' (especially if Lola had survived more than a couple of dozen pages!).


  5. Tony S. – I haven't read anything by Bachman, so thanks for the tip. Wolf is well worth a read, especially if you're interested in the former East Germany.


  6. Bachmann didn't really commit suicide but she died under mysterious circumstances, read – burned alive because she took too many pain killers at the time and while smoking in bed didn't feel herself burn… She lived in Rome then. Some of her books are grouped under name “Todesartenzyklus” and Malina has elemenst which are beyond eerie as her own death is sort of foreshadowed. Creepy.
    She is even more interesting than Christa Wolf and she is excellent as poet, novelist and short story writer.


  7. This was one of my favourite books by Christa Wolf when I was younger (Christa T. is probably better, but I never really quite 'got' Kassandra). Growing up in a totalitarian Communist regime myself, I absolutely read it as an artist's struggle for expression under censorship, so you make a very valid point there, Tony. I've also been very moved by her memoirish recount of life in East Germany 'Was bleibt'.


  8. Marina Sofia – I can imagine that this would strike a chord with someone who grew up behind the Iron Curtain. As I said, I think there could be similarities between her work and that of Herta Müller.

    I'd like to try more Wolf, and 'Was Bleibt' and 'Kassandra' seem like good ones to try 🙂


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