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21/12/2005

The quest for Christa Wolf

Author Christa Wolf talks to Hanns-Bruno Kammertöns and Stephan Lebert about politics, literary personalities and her life behind and after the Berlin Wall.

Pankow district in Eastern Berlin. The way to Christa Wolf leads up a staircase with a red carpet to the first floor of an apartment building where she has lived with her husband Gerhard wolf since the mid-eighties. Black and white photos on the wall show her children and grandchildren. Her study lies at the end of the corridor, the desk with the computer is directly at the window with a view of the gardens of the neighbouring houses. The oak shelves full of books reach the ceiling, sorted by subject, here German, here Russian literature, lexicons a bit further on, then crime novels. Her answers are ready for print. She tries to be as precise as possible, she says as we talk, which is why she has a pen and a pad of paper next to her cup of tea. Just in case she forgets something and has to send it in later. But she doesn't forget. The pages remain empty to the end.



Christa Wolf. Photo © Helga Paris


Die Zeit
: Frau Wolf, what is your opinion on the recent general election, in which neither of the two major parties scored a victory?


Christa Wolf: I think that the results of this election are a portrait of the country as it sees itself at the moment: the Germans are at a loss.

For years now you've written a detailed minutes of the day on September 27th. What did you note down this time? Was it especially political because of the election?

Don't be so inquisitive! I read the paper and thought about the political reports, particularly those concerned with the outcome of the elections. The result seems to me to be absolutely symptomatic of the situation in which this country finds itself: check mated.

But we are inquisitive. On the shelf next to your desk is a photo of Heinrich Böll. Do you know why the Sermon on the Mount played such an important role in Böll's life?

Absolutely. Böll once said to me that anyone who had ever been a communist or a Catholic could never get it out of his system.

Did he say that with regret?


No. As a simple statement.

Are you a religious person, even if only from a distance?


No, if you mean a church religion.

Never tried to be, not even in times of crisis?


Oh yes. One tries. My parents were never religious. The place where I grew up, Landsberg, is in the Neumark, which was colonised by Old Fritz (Friedrich the Great). The area was Protestant, and there were only very few Catholics. We were always told to beware of the Catholics, that they were two-faced. Of course I had to attend confirmation classes as the date of my confirmation approached. It was with a priest I loathed and who seemed to loathe us. That's why I really didn't want to get confirmed, but my mother said we had to do it for my grandmother's sake.

And after the confirmation...


... the topic of religion was over for me then for a while. After the war, when everything I believed in had collapsed, I tried hard to look for a new belief, first of all in the Church. Later – oh, you know, there was just too much that didn't make any sense to me: Maria's immaculate conception for example, or the resurrection of the dead. It all seemed too irrational.

Max Frisch was a long standing friend. How did you get to know him?


On a boat trip on the Volga in 1968 that latest several days. An event held in honour of Maxim Gorki. Artists from all around the world were invited. I still remember clearly how Max Frisch approached me and introduced himself. He was obviously assuming Ingeborg Bachmann would be on board, but as it turned out she never turned up. I didn't understand at the time, I didn't know about their personal history. As I later discovered, this would have been their first meeting after they broke up.

So everything went smoothly?

Yes and no. On the ship there was a programme of seminars and events which my husband and I tried our best to avoid. We spent most of the days standing at the railing, and in the evening we drank vodkas and talked with Max Frisch. At one point we started arguing. The next morning Frisch came up and asked if we were all still on speaking terms.

What was the argument about?


We believed that in spite of its shortcomings, socialism was still the better, more future-oriented way of living. Frisch concentrated on the shortcomings and we found this very closed-minded. Years later, when Willy Brandt resigned because of the Gunther Guillaume spy affair, we happened to be in the USA, in Ohio. Frisch called us up from his apartment in New York. He insulted us outright, saying we "Ossies" had sent the spy and were thus responsible for Brandt's ruin. But then he said we should use his apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York. I was very close to Max Frisch, and was extremely fond of him, precisely because of his ruthlessness and inconsistency. After Wolf Biermann was denaturalised and had to remain in the West, when we were in a difficult position (Christa Wolf was thrown out of the East German writers association after she and other leading East German intellectuals protested against the cancellation of Biermann's East German citizenship -ed.), he came to visit us. We never never forgot that.

After his death you wrote: "A post is vacant." Has it been filled in the meantime?


That's the beginning of the last verse of Heinrich Heine's poem "Enfant perdu". It begins "Verlorner Posten in dem Freiheitskriege... " (vacanted positions in the war of freedom). No one talks like that any more. I think these "posts" no longer exist. The times and people's objectives have changed.

Frau Wolf, recently a woman in Brandenburg made the headlines for having allegedly killed her nine babies and buried them in her garden. The political comedian Harald Schmidt says that when he heard the news he blanked it out immediately: "I don't want to know anything about it."

I reacted the opposite way. I think about this intensely. I want to know everything about it. I read every article I find on the subject, and all the background reports about why women kill their children. My first thought was that it must be a poor, mentally confused person. But that doesn't seem to be the case. I'm interested in the crossover point of subjective pathological behaviour and the pathology of society, where one perhaps determines the other.

Would this sort of material interest you as a writer?

No. I wouldn't be able to describe psychopathic characters.

Would it frighten you?


You know, I go through bouts of reading crime novels with a strong psychological undercurrent. I've just finished a very good P.D. James. Sometimes my grandchildren tell me to write a crime novel myself. I think, why not? But it doesn't work. You have to start with a murder, otherwise it won't work. But I can't describe a murder, I can't describe a person that murders. Even as a child I had a strong fear of being physically wounded. I think I try to suppress the absolutely irrational element which to some extent rules our world, especially in my writing. I try to create a room where the irrational, when it has power like in "Cassandra" and "Medea", is counterweighted by, yes, humane values.

Do you believe that the power of the irrational is increasing in our time?


I'm afraid it is. With the wild growth of technology and global networks, it seems to me that the power of systems is on the rise. And these are becoming independent, it's no longer possible to ascertain which people carry responsibility. Rational counterweights, like democracy for example, seem to have been hollowed out, and their influence is declining. This is not only regrettable, it also makes you fearful of what our grandchildren's generation will have to cope with.

Brandenburg's Interior Minister, Jörg Schönbohm, said that the nine-baby murder raised anew the question of whether the proletarian education in GDR had brutalised the people in East Germany. Did this make you furious when you heard it?

I wasn't absolutely furious but I didn't smile either. My reaction was something in between. It really just confirmed for me that people like Schönbohm really do think like that, only now they also voice their opinions. I thought Schönbohm, and Edmund Stoiber, (who recently called the East Germans "frustrated") were smarter than that, with all their political experience, and just before the elections. He must have felt a real need to get it off his chest.

What's the most unpleasant thing about these remarks?

All the material repercussions of German unity, particularly of course the high unemployment level, have left many people in the East feeling inferior, and - this is important - the people in the West see us as inferior and look down at us. That's why what Stoiber and Schönbohm said was so catastrophic, because they rubbed salt on the wound and made it sting all the more.

Now there's a new party in parliament, the Linkspartei, or Party of the Left, with Gregor Gysi and Oskar Lafontaine. Has this given you some hope?


Hope is going too far, but I understand why this party is so popular in the East. It has to do with everything we've been talking about, particularly the social situation of a lot of people in East Germany. I also think it's important to have a power left of the SDP in parliament. And it's equally important that critical movements exist outside government.

You have a house in the countryside in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. What is everyday life like there 15 years after German reunification?

Lots of people have left, mostly young people, mainly because of the lack of jobs. With the exception of a few big cities you get the impression the whole country is leaking away. The new people who come and buy up the empty houses are townies who go out to the countryside on weekends. That's why you see young children on the village streets again, which hasn't been the case for a long time. It's true that the level of alcohol consumption is high in the countryside, and that older people are in the majority. But it doesn't mean the outlook is bleak. There are groups of young people, and middle-aged people, who are determined not to let their lives just drone on. They have plans, and they're resourceful and dedicated enough to put them into action – even if it's restoring some local barn for cultural events. What's encouraging is that these activities come "from below". And another thing: plenty of West Germans have moved here and are getting involved as well.

Were people on either side of Germany ever genuinely interested in the other half?


Of course lots of people were, on both sides. Recently it's mostly "Wessies" that have joined my circle of friends. But in the country as a whole you have to say, really, there wasn't much interest. The West felt no need to learn from the others, from us. They were too superior. The two sides still don't know each other.

In your village are you a sort of covert mayor?

Goodness no! I don't have that kind of competence, and I go there to relax. To enjoy the wonderful landscape and the nature – and to write.

What do call home, Mrs Wolf?

My home was on the other side of the river Oder, and that home is long lost to me. I now live in Berlin. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else, not in the countryside either. I've lived in this city since the fifties. My life, my entire development is bound up with Berlin. I've lived through good and difficult times here. When I drive through the city with my husband, we often come across things that trigger off memories. Look, here's the cultural house where that crazy reading took place. Of course things like that no longer take place. Other buildings spark off unpleasant memories, for example the former Central Committee, which you can't see from the street any more, today it's the Foreign Ministry.

What was it like to be in the same room as Erich Honecker? It must have been pretty dull.

It didn't happen that often, mostly at large events, where he often, in fact most of the time, gave boring speeches. He used to just rattle off what he had to say. Once he sent me a personal invitation. That was after the denaturalisation of Wolf Biermann and our protest against it, and after a bunch of my fellow artists had left the GDR. He wanted to sound out whether we wanted to go too. I went to see him on behalf of four younger writers who'd had the most absurd charges hung on them, to see if I could help them in any way. We were sitting in the corner of his office and Honecker said: we can talk openly here. So I did just that and was absolutely frank in my criticism of the cultural policy and its catastrophic consequences. Then I broached the subject of the four writers, saying that if as a writer in East Germany you would be locked up because of what you stood for, then of course you'd have to leave the country as fast as possible. Honecker listened to all of this and tried to conciliate me. And indeed all four of them were released.

Your memories of Walter Ulbricht?


Ulbricht liked to invite intellectuals and artists to visit him, and he made a big show of it. Once, and I've told this anecdote many a time, he invited a group for the inauguration of the new State Council building. There was a room full of tables for four, and Anna Seghers was sitting at Ulbricht's table. At that sort of occasion he liked to lecture about what he thought art should be. On this evening he spoke candidly, which was very rare. He was complaining that art in the GDR was lagging behind production and the development of society. That was the favourite criticism at the time, that artists were not keeping pace with progress. So Ulbricht called upon us to finally create a classical socialist hero, a socialist Faust, a socialist Egmont. To which Anna Seghers replied, interrupting him, with this inimitable expression on her face: Comrade Walter, I can imageing an Egmont. But with Faust – what would we do about Mephisto? Ulbricht was taken aback and replied: Well, we'll come up with a solution to the problem of Mephisto too.

And how did the others react?


Laughter all round. Ulbricht considered it a victory. Someone said then that there was still no history of socialist literature in the GDR. That's right, said Ulbricht. We've got to lock all the Germanists in a room and only let them out once they've got it done. I was sitting beside his wife, Lotte, and said to her: For goodness sake, talk him out of it. A hundred zeros doesn't make a number. She thought about it and said: you're right. He went on to write the history of the workers' movement himself.

*

The second interview with Christa Wolf takes place in her country house, a former red brick parsonage near Güstrow in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Two hours out of Berlin the roads narrow and a bumpy drive veers off through rolling meadows. Christa and Gerhard Wolf spend two to three months each summer in this house with a big garden that surrounds it like an island.

*

Frau Wolf, let's talk about some of the sentences in your books. Your novel "A Model Childhood" starts: "The past is never dead; in fact, it's not even past. We separate it from us, putting a distance between us." How long did it take to get that sentence down on paper?

A long time. The first part is by Faulkner, by the way. With "A Model Childhood" there were a lot of starts, 38 in all. I just kept tossing them in the bin. I tried to write in the first, then in the third person. Finally at one point it came together. The difficulties had to do with the four levels that intertwine in the book. The formal problem came from the content. The book is about a family's trip to Poland. Then there are basic reflections about memory, and at another level memories of the time when the narrator was a young girl in the now Polish city. That's the way it always is, I always start with a certain content.

Content is truth?

More than that. The content is first and foremost your material. And that material has to be worked and reworked. Of course it's silly to say the material is lying on the street. The material doesn't lie on the street. Rather, each author has a specific material at a specific time. And the key is to hit exactly that point of strongest affinity, of inner necessity, at the right time. That's what defines the narrative tone.

In your book "Mit anderem Blick" (from another point of view), you have a lot to say about your time in California at the beginning of the 90s. At one point you visited a doctor who asked what you do to be a successful author. What did you answer?

That I try to approach myself through my writing, to come as close as I can, and as pitilessly as I can.

What do you see as the decisive stages in your career?

Career? I'd rather say "development". Certainly "Divided Heaven" was important. It's still my book with the highest run. One of the official reproaches in the GDR, apart from criticism of its content, was to say that it was written in too "modern" a fashion. I can't say it still corresponds to my idea of literature at its best. But after that I wrote a story called "Juninachmittag" ( An afternoon in June). That was when I became filled with a new desire to write, that's when my brand of realism emerged, and my courage to write that kind of realism. If you like, the result was my formula of "subjective authenticity". Of course in the GDR that was a bone of contention because it didn't correspond to the vulgar realism that was being propagated, and because at the time no one understood what I was doing. But it was clear to me I'd found my direction. Everything else was out of the question. The next thing I published was "The Quest for Christa T".

In that book you write about the late Christa T.: "Lament, tears, accusations remain behind uselessly. Definitively snubbed, we seek consolation in the forgetting we call memory." A brutal, angry sentence.

When someone dies, everything dies with them. Everything they've experienced and thought, everything. I find that inconceivable. It doesn't help to forget as little as possible. That doesn't stop the person from being gone. Especially people who lived a full, rich life, who gathered so much inside them and then took so much of that with them to the grave. I can't help it, that's when I find death especially unacceptable. It's terrible, everything that dies with a person. Maybe writing is the only thing you can do against it.

You don't like forgetting?

Good question. Yes, sometimes I do "like" it, but I want to forget as little as possible. Without forgetting we couldn't live, that's clear.

In "Christa T." one sentence is repeated again and again: "When, if not now?" Does that sentence refer basically to death?

No. It refers basically to life. All of my books we're now talking about, all those that appeared in the GDR, that is, came into being in the context of the GDR. They're a result of those times, and above all of the intense atmosphere of conflict I experienced there. That's what I was saying before, I felt that in writing I was opening myself up to conflict, and producing new conflicts with every new publication. But I couldn't do otherwise. The sentence "When, if not now" is the compressed expression of the knowledge that every day is precious. It colours the entire book, which I wrote after the death of my close friend. The GDR continuously postponed everything, the realisation of a perfect society, of new, contented people. We missed out on the present for the sake of a shining future. The sentence also refers to that.

Aside from your minutes of the day on September 27th, you also keep a diary. Is it meant for publication?

If at all, then long after my death. There are a lot of personal things in it about people I'm close to. And judgements that aren't meant for the public.

What do your diaries look like?

Mostly I use a sort of oilcloth notebook, green, red or black. Always lined.

Do you write at specific times?


It depends. I try to put in at least a couple of hours a day. When I was very young I liked to write in the evening and at night. But then my children were born, and that became impossible. The ideal workday? Four hours of writing in the morning, lunch, a nap, then in the afternoon another go at the manuscript or my correspondence. But that ideal tends to slip behind the horizon. My problem these days is that I'm too easily distracted. I always know what day it is, and what time. My husband can concentrate much better than I can. He forgets everything around him, I envy him for that.

When do you know you're on the right track with something you're writing?


Once my husband's read it. I have to write a whole lot before showing him anything. He knows exactly what I want, and spurs me on in that direction. He's got a very accurate feel for my manuscripts. If I haven't done the best I can, he says it.

Does that annoy you?

And how! Not so much nowadays. Earlier it used to rile me no end. We'd argue. Now things have settled down. I let the manuscripts lie for a while. At one point I can feel them working in me again, even at night. Then I pick up where I left off. Everything takes so long with me.

*

Christa and Gerhard Wolf met as students in Jena and have been married for 54 years. She still clearly remembers their first meeting, on the cafeteria stairs. He was wearing air force auxiliary pants and jacket and a Basque cap. She was wearing a pleated skirt and a jacket made from a hospital blanket. Their first shared literary experience was "Arc de Triomphe" by Erich Maria Remarque, which they read to each other over a long night.

Gerhard is a publisher, author, gallery owner and script editor. The many professions suit this spritely, small man with tufts of white hair. During our talk in Berlin, Christa Wolf stands up at one point and says she has to check if her husband has left all the doors open "as always". For over fifty years she's been trying to make him see that it gets on her nerves, she says with a trace of a smile. The author Brigitte Reimann once noted after a visit to the Wolfs that the harmony there was "almost unbearable".

Christa Wolf was severely reprimanded when the couple signed a declaration of protest against Wolfgang Biermann's being stripped of his East German citizenship in 1976. Later she said she should perhaps have reacted differently and left the Party. "But at the time my husband and I thought if we left the Communist Party, we'd have to leave the country. And we didn't want to do that."

After our second interview in Mecklenburg, we all sit together in their big kitchen. Herr Wolf has prepared soup with fish from the nearby lake. "Do you admire your wife?" we ask. Christa Wolf says: "Woe betide you if you open your mouth now." He smiles and is silent.


*

Are there books that are particularly important to you, that have accompanied you throughout your life?

I have a small blue book of Goethe's poems that means a lot to me. When I was 17 or 18 I was quite ill after fleeing from East Prussia, and had to spend a few months in a sanitorium. The poems were given to me by a teacher of mine, and gave me incredible joy. They were a revelation to me, and still are.

Do you keep them near you at all times?

Yes.

Are there books you read more than once?

Oh, yes! I've just finished rereading Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann. A great story: the devil allows this "composer" to create a work of genius at the price of not being able to love. Leverkühn agrees. Behind it lies the basic question: what price does an artist pay for his work? I know people who couldn't love, but who wrote fantastic books.

Like who?

I'm not going to name names.

What price did you pay?


I tried to keep the price as low as I could. It was always clear to me that if I had to choose between have children and writing, for example, I would always choose my children. I'm sure some women authors wouldn't understand that, but I could never understand Simone de Beauvoir when she said a woman writer shouldn't have children. I was never ready to renounce life. Perhaps I lack a certain rigour in that regard.

Do you think you've exhausted your potential?

I can't answer with yes or no. Maybe it sounds funny coming from someone my age, but I don't think I've finished developing as an author.

In your latest book "Mit anderem Blick" you write about eating and travelling, and you make whimsical remarks. Would it be wrong to say this book is lighter than your previous works?

No, that wouldn't be wrong. That was even intentional. I simply wanted to show some things people don't necessarily associate with me. Those include humour and whimsy. I like to laugh, contrary to what some people might think. We laugh a lot in the family, and we value irony and self-irony. I just wanted to let a little more of that out of the bag.

Have you become wiser with the years?


Wiser? More serene, maybe. At this age you've seen a lot, some things more than once. A certain structure of experience repeats itself. I can't say I've become thick-skinned. Not at all. But a lot of the time you know from experience that sooner or later everything comes to an end. That makes you a little more serene.

At the beginning of the 90s a debate flared up in the German cultural pages with you at its centre. The gist was: Christa Wolf is a state author of the GDR, her literature is overrated. Did this attack surprise you?


Yes. I wasn't expecting it because I'd been very well known in the West for a long time, as a "German" and not merely as an "East German" author. And suddenly the media started treating me like a GDR author, and still does. State author? Anyone who says that hasn't read my books.

Günter Grass said the attack wasn't against Christa Wolf personally, but against everything that came from East Germany. Is that how you see it too?

I think that's how it was. Whether I wanted it or not, I was a kind of focal point in the East. It was this stature, this role, that had to be taken down a peg or two. Just like the entire GDR, it had to be "delegitimated", as one high-level West-German politician put it. While they were at it, the papers tried to discredit all realist literature, even by West-German authors. Today it's clear they didn't succeed. This kind of literature is alive and well. And my readers have stuck with me.

Another attack said not only were you spied on for decades by the East German secret police, you yourself were also an unofficial informer for the Ministry for State Security for a short period at the end of the 50s. You wrote reports, albeit harmless ones. Have you forgiven yourself for this error?

Of course it's nothing to brag about. But with time I've also come to see that too with more serenity. I've honestly endeavoured to confront this episode of my past. I published my State Security files as a book because I felt my readers had a right to know about them. Of course the media hardly took any notice of it.

For months you were the target of public attacks. How did you cope with the pressure?


It was a difficult time. I was portrayed as a sort of monster. I had to learn who my true friends were, and who weren't. My husband and family helped me a lot, without them I'd never have made it through. It was also a great help that I was in Los Angeles on a nine-month Getty Foundation stipend at the time. I was together with a whole group of artists and scientists from all over the world. They did a lot to stop me overreacting, with their realistic approach to the overheated events in the newly unified Germany. I met a lot of very interesting people there, especially the second-generation Holocaust survivors.

For example?

One Jewish woman who had been hidden by her parents in a convent as a child when the German army marched into France. She couldn't get over it, even though it saved her life. Her parents came back for her once they'd found a way of escaping to America. Of course in rational terms she could understand them. But emotionally she just couldn't accept they'd given her away. I was very moved by her story.

Frau Wolf, looking back, what would you say was really good about your time in the GDR?

It's hard to answer just like that, because later assessments tend to cloud your initial memories. I'll try to put it like this: Maybe it was the mood of enthusiasm in the fifties, the feeling that here in the GDR a better, a more socially equitable state was being created. It was in those years that we got our anti-fascist mindset. I came into contact with leftist authors who'd returned from emigration to the GDR: Louis Fürnberg, Anna Seghers, Willi Bredel, F.C. Weiskopf, KuBa, Alex Wedding – and many more. We read their books and shared their conflicts. I still think today that those were the most interesting people in Germany at the time. Meeting them made you feel you were in the right place. In a way it was a Utopia, which the "real existant socialism" gradually replaced. But a Utopia can continue to effect you for a long, long time.

Did you like Brecht?


As an author, of course. And also as a thinker and director. I'll never forget his early works at the Berliner Ensemble – also a Utopian place. But I had problems with Brecht the man. It seemed to me he demanded too much selflessness from his women.

When did you bid farewell to the GDR?

It was a long farewell, that started in the 60s. 1968 was the last time it would have been possible to change the GDR through reform. But then the Russians crushed Prague Spring and it was over. After the reunification there was a brief period of phantom pain, among other things because I found it too simple just to label the GDR a dictatorship. But even that pain is gone now.

Autumn 2005, 15 years after German reunification. How do you view German society today?

It's a society in crisis. Its population groups are drifting apart and it's increasingly losing its power of integration. Large numbers of "superfluous" people are being created, and that's dangerous. Our society is starting to abandon its humanitarian value canon in favour of neo-liberal "values". Many individuals first of all have to fight for a place in society, then they have to fight to keep it.

And they suffer in the process?


I think so, yes. The most important thing people should do is support and encourage one another. And that's exactly what's not happening – or at least not enough.

*

The interview originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on September 29, 2005.

Translation: lp and jab.
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