My first book by a female writer for this year’s German Literature Month may have introduced me to a new author, but today’s choice allows me to reconnect with an old friend, one whose work I’ve enjoyed many times before. You see, it wouldn’t really be GLM without a book by Christa Wolf, and the 2021 edition is no exception. However, there is a slight difference in today’s review as the focus isn’t the usual one on the issues of life in East Germany. Instead, we’re taking a look at affairs post-Wende, and even heading off to California to see what the writer makes of life in the capital of capitalism 🙂
Mit anderem Blick (From a Different Perspective) is a collection of pieces mostly written in the 1990s, years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wouldn’t describe it as a short-story collection as such, although there’s certainly a fictional element here, as many of the pieces draw on Wolf’s experiences, with insights into her travels and her home life. The book consists of nine texts, ranging in length from a few pages to almost forty, divided into four thematic sections, each of which has a different focus.
While the blurb draws attention to Wolf’s time in the US, only one of these sections, albeit the longest, really addresses this adventure, with the others covering rather different issues. The first part has three stories that read almost like writing experiments, with Wolf playing on words in light, meandering texts. In ‘Nagelprobe’ (‘Acid Test’), the writer muses on the word Nagel (‘nail’) and runs through a series of idioms and mentions in fairy tales, before ending up at the Crucifixion. Meanwhile, ‘Assoziationen in Blau’ (‘Associations in Blue’) takes a quotation from Pablo Neruda and runs with it, again creating a text spinning around a key word, this time blau (‘blue’).
Perhaps the most successful piece here is ‘Im Stein’ (‘In Stone’). Again, it’s a story built upon word play, but this time set against a background event. The narrator/writer is emerging from a post-operation anaesthetic sleep, and what we get is the stream-of-consciousness tale emerging from her addled mind:
Mein Kopf eine Schutthalde für unbrauchbare veraltete abgenützte Wortverbindungen unrecycelbar schadstoffbelastete Versatzstücke Löschen löschen, dachte ich um neuen Platz zu machen…
‘Im Stein’, p.22 (Suhrkamp, 2007)
My head a dump for unusable outdated worn-out phrases unrecyclable contaminated paragraphs Delete delete I thought to make more space…
*** (my translation)
Wolf treats us to a string of stories dreamed up while she’s under the knife (we even get occasional interruptions from the surgeon and nurses!), with more related idioms and stories ranging from Medusa and Sisyphus to Virginia Woolf (whose connection to stones some readers may remember…).
Another section has two pieces devoted to Wolf’s husband, Gerhard. ‘Er und Ich’ (‘He and I’) is a lengthy character analysis focusing on the differences between Wolf and her man(n), especially on how they complement each other, both at work and at play. By contrast, ‘Herr Wolf erwartet Gäste und bereitet für Sie ein Essen vor’ (‘Mr. Wolf is Expecting Guests and is Preparing a Meal for them’) is a fun, rambling piece in which the couple simply try to decide on what to serve their friends for dinner. The pair, in particular Mr. W, have some rather ambitious plans – if only he could stick to them.
A slightly more serious piece on the home front forms the closing section, ‘Donnerstag, 27. September 2001’ (‘Thursday, the 27th of September, 2001’). This piece is a continuation of Wolf’s project, contained in the book Ein Tag im Jahr (One Day a Year), in which the writer writes a piece on whatever is preoccupying her on the same day each year. As you may have guessed, the 2001 contribution is a rather gloomy reflection on a post-9/11 world:
Ich erwache von einer Stimme, die laut sagt: ein Riß im Gewebe der Zeit.
‘Donnerstag, 27. September 2001’, p.171
I am woken by a voice that booms out: a tear in the fabric of time. ***
From this dark start, the writer goes on to think about wars past and potential, with the Afghanistan invasion just around the corner. Of course, time has a funny way of changing how we read texts – reading this mini-essay was poignant given the very recent developments in that particular conflict…
In truth, though, the American stories are what make Mit anderem Blick, and these three pieces, taking up close to half the book, are great fun, and provide fascinating insights into the writer’s experiences. The first of these, ‘Begegnungen Third Street’ (‘Encounters on Third Street’), is an intriguing ramble through Wolf’s thoughts and impressions. For almost forty pages, we shift from memories of visits to Moscow to a trip to a Polish deli in LA, from conversations back in the DDR to scenes from the LA riots. There is a method to the madness, but it can be hard to discern at times, even if it’s always intriguing.
More focused, and funnier, too, is the shorter piece ‘Fototermin L.A.’ (‘Photoshoot L.A.’). Here the writer looks back good-humouredly at a rather lengthy day spent having photographs taken for a magazine article. All plain enough, you might think, but this is L.A. Her chauffeur turns out to be a wannabe movie star with a poor sense of direction, and the rather meandering drive through California is just the prelude to many hours of encounters with a make-up artist, a wardrobe manager and a star photographer…
The undisputed stand-out of Mit anderem Blick, however, takes the humour of ‘Fototermin L.A.’ and runs with it for a good while. ‘Wüstenfahrt’ (‘Desert Trip’) prepares us from the beginning for what we’re about to experience:
Merkwürdig, daß wir auf unserer Wüstenfahrt öfter schlechte Laune hatten, daß wir aber später jedesmal Lachkrämpfe bekamen wenn wir davon erzählten.
It’s strange that we were often in a foul mood on our trip to the desert, but that we later went into hysterics every time we told the story. ***
I’m sure you’ve all had a similar experience, a trip that just wouldn’t go right, but which is now a staple anecdote at parties (I have quite a few…), and this is Wolf’s party piece, a lengthy tale of what can go wrong when you rely on a rich, absent-minded Californian to organise the trip.
‘Wüstenfahrt’ is one of those enjoyable tales where you’re not really sure how much is real and how much is embellished, but the truth is that it doesn’t really matter. The story follows a couple of carloads of middle-aged travellers as they go off to see the moon rising over the desert before heading back for a nice meal at a restaurant – at least that’s the plan. What actually happens is a series of chaotic misadventures involving a sprained ankle, a missed rendezvous, a broken headlight and a rather annoying yappy dog. All excellent ingredients for a wonderful story, and in Wolf’s masterful hands, that’s exactly what we get.
Overall, Mit anderem Blick is slightly up and down, and it certainly has the feel of a collection of odds and ends rather than of a true collection. Still, I wouldn’t say there were any disappointing pieces, and a couple of these are worth the effort on their own. Alas, that’s of no help to those without a sufficient level of German to try it as I don’t think this one has made it into English yet. Of course, I may be mistaken, so if anyone knows better, please leave a comment – I’d be more than happy to be able to point those interested in the book in the right direction 🙂