Second Thoughts: Christa Wolf’s “Nachdenken über Christa T.”

Wolf, Christa (1999), Nachdenken über Christa T., Luchterhand
ISBN 3-630-62032-9
[Originally published in 1968]

This is Christa Wolf’s second novel, published in 1968, which established her as a major writer of the GDR, and made her world famous. Nachdenken über Christa T. has been translated into several languages, the most recent translation into English is Christopher Middleton’s, which is titled Quest for Christa T. (not a good title for various reasons. We’ll return to this later). Christa Wolf, born in 1929, is one of the best prose writers in the German language after WWII, and, at least in Germany, among the most popular, judging from the fact that all her books (for someone who has been writing with success for such a long time she has a surprisingly slim body of work, in more ways than one; she has not written awfully many books and the books she’s written are rather thin, for the most part) after the reunification have been bestsellers.

Her popularity is puzzling inasmuch as Wolf is one of the darkest and most disturbing of German writers, and clearly one of the most idiosyncratic. It’s not often that you could take any paragraph from someone’s work and be sure to be able to pin it on that writer. Christa Wolf’s voice is unmistakably strong in the face of an intense hurt. Her books are equal portions cerebral and emotional. She is an exceptional writer and Nachdenken über Christa T. is my favorite novel of hers, although Kindheitsmuster (Patterns of Childhood) comes close and some of her novellas are considerably more powerful. Together with Sarah Kirsch and Irmtraud Morgner she can be said to belong to a trias of visionary and effervescently original GDR writers (incidentally, in 1980, they came together to publish a collection of novellas (Geschlechtertausch) to which each contributed one; I can only recommend their work inasmuch as it has been translated and published in English (or French, as it is, dear Fausto)).

This is one of Wolf’s most conventional books. It basically traces a nameless narrator’s reminiscences of a woman named Christa T., who has died, at 35, of leukemia. The way this idea is realized in the novel is hinted at by the title, which would be translated as “Thinking about Christa T.”. It is a quest to find out about that elusive strange woman who died so early, but not in the way that a quest is supposed to work, hence the inappropriateness of Middleton’s choice for a title. The original title is more to the point: the novel traces the narrator’s process of thought. The novel may, on the surface, be about Christa T., and to a large extent, it is, but on a second, just as important level, it is about the narrator figuring out her world as she tries to make sense of Christa T.’s making sense of it. The most significant factor here is that the narrator has little personal memory of Christa T., so she’s not scouting the dark hallways and alleys of her memory: instead she’s thinking by writing.

Thus, the extent of our knowledge about Christa T. is subject to most of the known vicissitudes of biographical writing. We see the narrator trying to figure out Christa T’s thinking by reading her journals and stories: how reliable are written accounts? To her credit, the narrator doesn’t buy into a simple concept of knowledge. We don’t get a Dan-Brown-esque examination of records, no semiotic analysis. The narrator’s approach is more old-school, so to say. I’m talking hermeneutics here, the Schleiermacher approach. Reading a text and intuiting the intention. As Schleiermacher pointed out, predating modern reception theories by roughly 150 years, this is extremely dependent on the reader. Thus, following the traces of Christa T., we watch the narrator’s mind unfold. This way of reading does not only concern the written legacy of Christa T., it also concerns the narrator’s actual memories and her trying to make sense of those periods where she has neither actual memories not written testimony. She not only tries to fictionalize situations that were roughly related to her by Christa T., she also invents possible discussions she herself could have had with a classmate whom both of them had known, playing off her own opinion of Christa on what she thinks is a so-called outside opinion.

This unfolding of the narrator’s mind involves three parameters, roughly. The first is cultural: the book is as much informed by literary history and tradition as it is by original, personal thinking. Wolf’s great novel about WWII and the Third Reich, Kindheitsmuster (Patterns of Childhood) starts with a loose translation of Faulkner’s famous dictum “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (from Requiem for a Nun, if I am not mistaken). Nachdenken über Christa T. frequently echoes other texts. Among many other references, we have a phrase echoing Melville’s “Call me Ishmael”. This, a classic reference for narrative unreliability, is one of many such references shaking our confidence in whatever truth the narrator’s search dredges up. It is typical of Wolf’s work that her references glitter through the different languages that make our understanding of literature. The second parameter is political, which is also typical of Wolf’s oeuvre in which everything personal is also, as the quip would have it, political.

Christa Wolf is highly sensitive to the extent that language, culture and other aspects of our lives are permeated by politics. Generally, sex and gender are one of her major preoccupations and on this field her work yields interesting and frequently apposite insights. This is not the case in this novel, however, which takes up a different topic. As I have frequently mentioned elsewhere, the greatest GDR novels are often torn between two extremes. There’s hope and enthusiasm on the one hand, which are fueled by a passion for a communist paradise. These passions are buttressed by visions from young minds who had no problem getting fired up about the idea of a country free from oppression. Small wonder the young GDR literature was so dominated by brilliant women such as Wolf, Morgner, or Reimann. After having lived through the Third Reich, which was, in a way, the apotheosis of oppression, they smelled spring, especially for the ongoing process of emancipation. It was clear, soon after the WWII, that West Germany, i.e. the BRD was not going to go the way of freedom, taking up many age-old tropes of repression (see how people were cheated when they were handed “anti-discrimination” for “emancipation”), but the GDR explicitly promised to provide a society free from oppression; then, within a few years, everything went sour on them.

This change is at the center of the novel which starts with childhood under the Nazi banner and ends with death in the early 1960s (not entirely sure. I’m bad with details), as most people’s dreams of a better society slowly died a sad death as well. Christa is teacher, first, who then turns into a student of German literature, who then returns to being a teacher. Her understanding of what it means to teach rests on a solid moral foundation that is informed by humanism and Marxism. As mentioned before, she has learned from the inhuman behavior of her fellow human beings during the dark decades. And she expects as much from the younger generation. So when she watches students from her class rob a bird’s nest and throw the young against a wall, or bite the head off a toad she is so shocked by this petty display of brutality that she sits down to cry. The revelation that human nature has not changed even in the young generation is terrible. How is a society to change if even the children are damaged?

As Christa T. grows older, the situation grows steadily worse as her environment starts to put increasing pressure on her to assimilate. To become one of the many. A turning point is reached when a former student of Christa’s reproaches her for having taught idealism to her students, for not having prepared her students sufficiently for “the real world”. This is eerie since it comes right on the heels of a discussion that Christa T. and friends had in West Germany, where they encounter the typical inane comments still rampant today when talk turns to Socialism and/or Communism. We see arrogant, well-fed, self-satisfied people talking about how the Socialist state has robbed its citizens of a desire for freedom and how cute its citizens’ idealism, considering how the real world is in need of real thinking. We are clearly told that this society is no alternative. Christa T. and the narrator are both aware of the fact that any change would have to come from within the system. This is the world’s pitch for a better life. And both Christa and the narrator sense that this project is not going well. Here’s where we enter into the third parameter: personal. What we watch is the narrator’s sense of a world imploding on itself.

By monitoring Christa T.’s life and death, the narrator appears to try to hold the pieces of her disintegrating world together. She does this, paradoxically, by using a writing that is disintegrating itself, that is filled with insecurity about all sorts of truth and narrative. As the novel progresses, however, we feel the tension mount; as Christa T. slowly gives up on herself, becoming a veterinarian’s wife &c, the narrator is more and more forced to rely on her own means. Consequently, she tightens the narrative, trying to squeeze as much as she can from her subject. And at this point, all she has to turn to is Christa T.’s sickness and death.

Sickness is not a metaphor here, not in the way that it is the case in her weaker, late novella Leibhaftig (2002). Christa T. is actually sick, the novel involves Christa’s body in other ways as well. Christa succumbs to leukemia twice, bearing a child between recovering and falling sick again. It is frequently speculated that she may be guilty of her own death in the sense of precipitating it. This does not, however, make of the sickness a metaphor. She has the same sickness as everybody else, the sickness is not the nexus to her emotional state of well-being. It is her weakened resolve that leads to her ‘decision’ to drop out. The last section, which details her sickness is complex in that it allows for both of these readings at the same time. Make no mistake, I am not talking alternative readings here: both of these readings are equally important. Wolf makes sure that the sickness is always just that: a sickness, which is likely why it’s shuffled to the end as it is.

I have talked about many aspects of the novel so far, but it is a marvel. There’s infinitely more and as you will read it, as I urge everyone who read this to do, you will see how crude my summary is of this short but incredible novel. The title “Nachdenken über Christa T.” is ambiguous. On the one hand, as I said, it is a reflection of the way the book is constructed. On the other hand it is a description of what is wants its readers to do: think about Christa T. See, I have met a few guy online, who glibly talk about a “percentage” of the population that is “just bad”, and which it would be better to murder via devices such as the death penalty. If thinking about Christa T. can make you see the problems in such an assertion, much is achieved. It is a grand book. Read it.

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10 thoughts on “Second Thoughts: Christa Wolf’s “Nachdenken über Christa T.”

  1. I’m very interested and wholly absorbed.. One observation in respect of the title as translated in to English. I think that in such a context, “quest” might be intended to mean something more than search.

    something akin to a meditative thinking whilst still(in both senses) in the presence of threnody

    “i have my dead and i have let them go, and was surprised..”

    something like that anyway, an apprehension, i think

  2. Thank you, I didn’t know that. “Nachdenken” is a really simple German word. There is no conceivable reason not to translate it as “THinking about”, because that is its most accurate translation. The register of thinking about and quest is a very different one, no?

    • ‘Nachdenken’ is quite different from ‘denken.’ After all, German has these two words for a good reason, don’t you think? ‘To think about’ is ‘denken ueber’. ‘Nachdenken ueber’ means ‘to think about in order to understand fully, to fathom the significance of.’ As synonyms of ‘nachdenken’, i.e. translations in German of ‘to fathom’ I would like to suggest ‘ergruenden’ and ‘durchschauen.’

    • Yes, German has these two words for a reason. “denken” means “to think”, “to reflect”. Nachdenken means “to think about”. The easiest way to see this is by examining everyday situations. “Have you thought about our offer” would be “Haben Sie über unser Angebot nachgedacht?” I think a simple word such as “nachdenken” also fits Wolf’s writing. Her work is full of these situations of thought, not abstract thought, but remembering, thinking about situations in context.

      That said, these two words don’t correspond exactly, which is as expected of two words in different languages.🙂

  3. yes it is, though the thinking about almost demands of a different register within the thinking about, i think *smile*

  4. Thank you for suggesting this book, Shigekuni. I hadn’t heard of it and because of you it’s going onto my TBR list.

  5. Having been thoroughly impressed by Irmtraud
    Morgner’s _The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice_, I am anxious to read a book by another one of the ingenious female authors who dominated young GDR literature. An insightful review, which has convinced me that this novel will prove to be every bit as intriguing as it sounds.

    ~Alexis

  6. Pingback: Remarks on Christa Wolf’s “New Life and Opinions of a Tomcat” « shigekuni.

  7. Pingback: Werner Bräunig: Rummelplatz « shigekuni.

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