I haven’t checked (I’m far too lazy for that), but if I had to guess as to which author has featured most often in my German Literature Month reading over the years, I’d probably go for Christa Wolf. Admittedly, that has partly been to offset the gender imbalance a little, but I do enjoy her books, and I haven’t yet stumbled across one I didn’t enjoy. Luckily enough, both of these trends continue today; this post looks at another of Wolf’s works, and once again it’s one I’d heartily recommend.
August is a collection of three short stories in one of those wonderful pocket-sized Suhrkamp editions with photos of the authors on the front cover (I’ve got a lot of these now, mostly with Wolf or Thomas Bernhard gazing back at me…). There is an English-language edition from Seagull Books (translated by Katy Derbyshire), but as far as I’m aware, only the title story is included, so if your German is good enough, you might like to try this version and be rewarded for your bravery with a couple of extra pieces 🙂
The first of these is ‘Blickwechsel’ (‘Altered Perspective’), a story dating from 1970 but set in the final days of the Second World War. The action follows a family hurrying westwards, trying to keep ahead of the advancing Russians while watching out for attacks from American planes. There’s a palpable sense of the absurd at this sudden disruption of life, and we see it through the eyes of the teenage girl trying to come to terms with it all:
Sie spannt sich vor den Wagen, mein Bruder und ich schieben an, der Himmel gibt unheimlich Feuerwerk dazu, und ich höre wieder das feine Geräusch, mit dem der biedere Zug Wirklichkeit aus den Schienen springt und in wilder Fahrt mitten in die dichteste, unglaublichste Unwirklichkeit rast, so daß mich ein Lachen stößt, dessen Ungehörigkeit ich scharf empfinde.
‘Blickwechsel’, p.47 (Suhrkamp, 2014)
She positions herself in front of the cart, my brother and I push, the sky provides eerie fireworks, and once again I hear the subtle sound with which the good train reality slips its tracks and races headlong into the densest, most unbelievable unreality, causing me to let out a laugh, the inappropriacy of which I feel only too keenly.
*** (my translation)
Sadly, what’s happening around her is only too real – danger is everywhere, and not everyone will make it to safety.
This is an excellent look at the last days of the war as seen by a young woman whose world has been torn apart. We are shown people diving into ditches to avoid the machine-gun fire of enemy fighters and burying the fallen in shallow graves afterwards. Peace approaches, and the Americans finally arrive – but what difference does that make? For those on the losing side, the end of the conflict simply brings different problems and emotions, with the real struggle only just beginning.
The 1971 story ‘Zu einem Datum’ (‘On a Certain Day’) happens a little later, showing scenes in a small community after the war. The first pages have the narrator thinking back to wartime betrayals, but the main focus here is on her school life, featuring young love, abortions and students fainting from hunger. A strange little piece, pervaded by post-war blues, it’s all a tad confusing until we learn more about this ‘certain day’. While it’s an average school day for the writer, the 21st of April 1946 was slightly more momentous for her young country…
The main story is a longer, very different affair. The August of the title is an elderly bus driver on the verge of retirement, in the middle of one of his last trips from Prague to Berlin, and as he drives along the dark, rainy streets, he’s overcome with memories of his childhood. These take us back to the end of the war and the time he spent at a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, an old castle by the coast called Mottenburg by its inhabitants (for the ‘Motten’ – moths – that serve as a visualisation of TB).
The focus of his memories is Lilo, a teenage girl who stands out from the crowd of sickly patients. Exuding an aura of competence, she becomes an assistant to the nurses, a mother to the children and a comfort to her friends, and the young August very quickly attaches himself to the older girl. What we are experiencing over the course of the long journey is not just childhood nostalgia, but the bitter-sweet memories of a first (impossible) love…
‘August’ is a beautiful story, written shortly before Wolf’s death, in which she produces a sketch of a woman, a loving one, and the impression she makes on a ten-year-old boy:
Vielleicht hat er das wichtigste für sein ganzes Leben so früh gelernt, mit Hilfe einer Person, für die er etwas empfand, für das er keine Worte wußte. Auch heute, so viele Jahre später, würde er das Wort dafür nicht aussprechen, nicht einmal in Gedanken.
Perhaps he learned the most important of all lessons relatively early in life, with the help of someone for whom he felt something, for which he knew no words. Even today, so many years later, he couldn’t say the word, not even in his thoughts. ***
The time spent at the institution is engraved on his mind, even sixty years later, and Lilo, too, remains in his memories in all her glory.
A major aspect of the story is the way it intertwines past and present. As August drives through Germany, we see the signs of the country’s recovery, both the bad (ugly shopping centres and fast-food joints) and the good (the rebuilt Frauenkirche in Leipzig). There’s also the personal side to the modern half of the tale, as we learn that the old man is now alone, his wife having passed away a couple of years earlier. His simple, good-natured character, as recognised by Lilo decades before, has helped him lead a happy life, but he’s always been a loner, and the story is suffused with a sense of melancholy, building to his arrival at an empty house.
In the afterword by the writer’s widower, Gerhard Wolf, the pieces are enhanced by learning about the autobiographical elements of the stories. Lilo, unsurprisingly, is a fictionalisation of Wolf herself, and August was a real boy, one she encountered during her own convalescence from TB. This fitting finale to the collection also includes a beautiful, poignant note, the writer’s dedication of the story to her husband. She intended it as a gift of a memory from before they met, one of the rare moments of her life that they hadn’t shared. However, Gerhard Wolf explains that ‘August’ was the first, and last, time his wife wrote using a male voice, and ‘August’ was perhaps also her way of remembering the little boy she once knew and breathing new life into him…