‘Sommerstück’ (‘Summer Play’) by Christa Wolf (Review)

As mentioned in a post earlier this week, a large part of German Literature Month hereabouts this year will involve serialising my translation of Ricarda Huch’s 1899 novella Fra Celeste, but before that, I do have a few reviews to share with you all.  The first of these involves a writer who has become a GLM regular.  In fact, of the seven books of hers I’ve read over the years, six were reviewed in November, with today’s choice adding to that number.  It’s time, then, for a trip to the country in an attempt to get away from it all.  Sadly, though, despite the relaxed atmosphere, it’s hard to forget about everything when you live in a country where freedom is something of an illusion…

Christa Wolf’s Sommerstück (Summer Play) takes place somewhere in the German countryside and is the story of a group of friends who decide it’s time to get away from it all.  Initially, it’s the writer Ellen and her husband, Jan, that take the plunge, buying a big farm house in a small northern village, with their friends Luisa and Antonis later joining them.  When another couple, Irene and Clemens, eventually buy their own house in the village, the group is complete, and most of Sommerstück focuses on one summer, a couple of years after their arrival, where the three couples, their children and a few visiting friends enjoy a blissful time in the fresh air and sunshine.

As wonderful as this all sounds, though, it wouldn’t be Wolf without a cloud hovering over the whole affair.  The friends may be close, but that’s not to say that there’s never conflict, particular between the withdrawn Ellen and the sardonic, and slightly jealous, Irene.  More importantly, however, as the story progresses, there’s a growing sense of unease as we start to shift our attention from admiring the beauty of the friends’ new home to wondering why they wanted to move there in the first place – or, more accurately, what they were moving away from.

In Wolf’s brief note at the end of the novel, she warns against identifying the characters with real-life figures, or imagining that these events really happened.  However, you can’t really take authors exactly at their word, and a quick browse of the book’s German Wikipedia page will provide lots of information about Wolf and her circle of friends.  In essence, Sommerstück is a fictionalised account of one hot summer in the north of Germany in the late seventies, and while it’s obviously not a recount of Wolf’s summer holiday, there’s probably far more truth there than the writer was willing to admit.

On the surface, especially in the first half of the book, Sommerstück can come across as a Germanic version of A Year in Provence (although A Year in Mecklenberg-Vorpommern doesn’t have quite the same ring).  Once the couples have settled into their old farm houses, the pages abound with sunny days of idyllic charm, with Antonis visiting neighbouring towns on a quest for antique furniture and frequent appearances from Ellen’s granddaughter Mary, dubbed ‘Littelmary’, who delights in nature and is usually to be found messing about outside.  The al fresco theme continues thanks to the many dinners the group enjoys together, with plenty of wine, seafood and laughter ringing out into the evening.  Even working around the house seems more worthy and enjoyable in the country:

Wie merkwürdig, daß solche Arbeiten ihnen hier sinnvoll erschienen und ausführlich beredet wurden.  Was war mit ihr, war sie denn ganz und gar benebelt, daß sie hier alles gutheißen mußte. Daß ihr alles hier wirklicher vorkam als in der Stadt?
p.40 (Suhrkamp, 2013)

How strange that such tasks seemed meaningful here and were discussed at such depth.  What was up with her, was she so completely befuddled that she felt the need to approve of everything here?  That everything here seemed more real than back in the city? ***
(my translation)

Yes it seems *everything’s* better in the country 😉

Sommerstück would be a fairly weak book if that were all it had to offer, and it’s the slightly darker turn the story takes that makes it worthwhile.  From the very first pages, we’re told that we’re looking back at a distant past.  The houses have long gone, and several of the characters portrayed here have moved on, or died, and the work is steeped in this sense of nostalgia.  Even on the sunniest of summer days, there’s a distinct tinge of sadness, and as enjoyable as the events are, they’re overshadowed by the knowledge that there’s no going back.

Of course, the good old days aren’t quite as good as I’ve made out so far, and part of the beauty of Sommerstück lies in how Wolf has her characters acting up and subtly jabbing away at their ‘friends’, achieving this by switching points of view.  The focus is very much on the women, with Ellen tending to withdraw inside herself, the sunny Luisa suddenly afflicted by bouts of sadness in private and as for Irene – well, she can be a nasty piece of work at times, a passive-agressive rain on the group’s parade, prone to sarcastic remarks and low-grade self-harm.  Basically, Eeyore without the ears.

As is always the case with Wolf’s work, though, there’s an even greater shadow hanging over the group than a bit of infighting.  The political side of life in the GDR is rarely mentioned here, but is palpably present in the background, and our apparently carefree city folk let slip several times hints that their tree change is not entirely voluntary:

Was ist mit mir los, fragte sie sich.  Ein Gefühl, das sie vergessen hatte.  Was schmerzt mich eigentlich.  Daß ich mich gewöhnt habe, wie alle, niemals genau das zu tun, was ich tun will.  Niemals genau das zu sagen, was ich sagen will.  So daß ich wahrscheinlich, ohne es zu bemerken, auch nicht mehr denke, was ich denken will.  Oder denken sollte.  Vielleicht ist es das, was man Kapitulation nennt, und ganz so dramatisch, wie ich es mir früher vorgestellt habe, ist es nicht mal. (pp.108/9)

What’s wrong with me, she asked herself.  A feeling she’d forgotten.  What is it that’s really paining me.  That I’ve become accustomed, like everyone, to never doing exactly what I want to do.  Never saying exactly what I want to say.  So that I probably, without even noticing, never think what I want to think anymore.  Or should think.  Perhaps this is what people call surrender, and it’s nowhere near as serious as I used to imagine it would be. ***

It isn’t hard to read between the lines and see that these are people who have chosen exile, inside their own land, rather than toeing the party line or raging against the machine.

All in all, Somerstück is another excellent book by one of my favourite German-language writers, but sadly there’s no sign of a translation into English out there, at least not that I’ve been able to track down.  The translated title, then, is my own, and it refers to the ‘play’ the friends pretend to be working on while preparing for their private summer festival.  It’s all a bit of fun, but the piece is actually fairly representative of the book itself.  We see the group having fun in the country, but knowing that they’re all playing a part in a brief diversion from their lives.  The joy is tinged with the bitterness that comes from realising that, sooner or later, they’ll have to leave their roles behind and return to the real world…

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