Werner Bräunig: Rummelplatz

Bräunig, Werner (2007), Rummelplatz, Aufbau Verlag
ISBN 978-3-7466-2460-0

Generally, I’m fond of complaining about fine German books that have not been translated into English yet, especially those that have been out and available for a while. It’s somewhat different with Rummelplatz, Werner Bräunig’s famous novel, written 1965. True enough, Rummelplatz is a fine piece of work, one of the best books to come out of the tumultuous environment that was the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the 1960s; although Bräunig himself can scarcely be called one of the best writers of the period. Written in different voices, with varying degrees of success, this 600 page novel seems to be carved from a wealth of raw material, barely ordered and refined. To the unsuspecting reader, Rummelplatz can seem like a heavy freight train, full of impressions and ideas, full of precise observations and broad essayistic reflections, its characters flawed archetypes, ripped roughly from the thread of German literary tradition rather than sympathetically drawn and vivid literary creations. The whole of Rummelplatz seems to cohere only because of the immense will of its author. It is Bräunig’s vision that holds it all together, the whole vibrant, violent, passionate, amazing mess that is Rummelplatz, Bräunig’s first and only novel. Its achievement is all the more stunning, given how small, quiet, unimpressive Bräunig’s short stories are. Although their flaws are present in the novel as well, it succeeds on account of the energy and power that pulses through it. So why has it not been translated yet? Largely, one would have to say, because it has not been published until 2007. Excerpts circulated, rumors abounded, and in discussions of early GDR literature, Bräunig’s work always had pride of place because of the central role he played in the development of the so-called Bitterfelder Weg. Due to politically nocent developments, Bräunig’s manuscript for Rummelplatz had been suppressed in 1965, and subsequently swept under the rug, a lost, unpublished masterpiece. Until, that is, Angela Drescher and the East German publisher Aufbau Verlag decided to resurrect the book, edit and publish it prominently. The author never found out about the renaissance of his critical and popular reputation: he died in 1976 of a disease related to his alcoholism.

In the end, Bräunig fell victim to policies that he himself helped create, an aesthetic that is clearly instrumental in the way Rummelplatz was written. These policies are, as I just mentioned, commonly referred to as the Bitterfelder Weg, i.e. the ‘Bitterfelder way’, so named after a writer’s conference in Bitterfeld, a drab and dreary industrial town in Saxony-Anhalt (an eerily fitting place). The Bitterfelder Weg, a set of official directives, was a complex of ideas that sought to bridge the apparent gap between writers and workers. This was coupled with an appeal, which Bräunig was instrumental in writing, called “Greif zur Feder, Kumpel”, which could be translated as “Miners, take up the pens!”. In accordance with the tenets of the Bitterfelder Weg, dozens of writers went to work (or were made to work) in factories and in mines, in order to better understand the workers’ reality. The basic idea was that too many writers writing ‘what they know’ (to echo the old writing advice) led to a literature concerned with upper-class concerns, drawing-room intrigues, and elite discussions, in short, a body of work that workers could not relate to. The best way to amend this, officials thought, was for writers to get to know real workers, to understand how hands-on work was done (Ayn Rand’s odd phantasmagorias are a gruesome example of not understanding what modern day industrial work looks like on the factory floor). This generally sound idea was undermined by two things. First, the fact that it was often implemented by force, and second, the fact that instead of merely enlarging the ‘what they know” part of the formula (and thus encouraging writers to include everyday work experience in a meaningful and correct way in their prose), officials soon rather emphasized the ‘what’ part. The Bitterfelder Weg turned into the GDR version what has been known as socialist realism since the 1930s, an aesthetic that demanded of writers to only (or at least predominantly) write realistically (although that term isn’t defined as you’d think it’d be) and about everyday life. It was buttressed by the directives that were encouraging workers to write (which is the “Miners, take up the pens!” part of the whole construction). Within a few years, every sizable company had a writing collective and writing workshops.

These workshops were often held by some of the leading writers of the time, and could, sometimes, produce intriguing results. Traces of that interaction can be found in all kinds of works, but perhaps most noticeably in Brigitte Reimann’s brilliant novels (also, sadly, inexcusably, untranslated, including her masterpiece Franziska Linkerhand). The Bräunig-penned appeal was published in 1959, and on the plus side it led to a plethora of art from unexpected places. Details and descriptions connected to the everyday reality of workers came up in novels, stories and plays of the period. Quickly, however, the negative aspects of the doctrine were felt, especially two of them. One was the rising amount of indoctrinated literature. Workers in their writing workshops were gently guided in how to properly write, how to talk about workers, power and the bourgeoisie, how to talk about the party, and which theories to use, implement and cite. That was because those workshops that were not held by genuine writers, were held by people loyal to the socialist party, and they had a very definite idea of what kind of literature was worth writing (and reading) and which wasn’t. As a result of these indoctrinated workshops, professional writers were suddenly asked to also do as the workers did. After all, in the GDR, workers and peasants were, in theory, on moral high ground. They did the right thing because they were workers. Of course, this theory had little to do with actual workers, but party officials were often blissfully unaware of contradictions like that. In time, these contradictions and the ideological pressure on what kind of content was considered appropriate for literary production led to a very difficult situation. While officials said that they wanted writers to pursue a brand of realism, this realism did not in fact include intransigently negative depictions of everyday life on the factory floor. Literature, it was officially maintained, needed to teach people something, and help them understand their life, their country and most of all the revolutionary process better, but most of all, it was educational, supposed to make everyone involved into a better, more useful citizen. Being a communist was a good thing only if it meant you were uncritically useful. Books like Rummelplatz, with its searing (but fundamentally communist) criticism of the status quo, were deemed corruptive.

In the West, we like to read opposition against socialist regimes along anti-communist lines, which explains in part the perennial popularity of a royalist like Solzhenitsyn. But the sad truth was that the GDR government targeted passionate communists as well as the anti-communist opposition. Passionate communists like Heiner Müller, Christa Wolf or Werner Bräunig decried what they saw as perversions of a noble and magnificent ideal, and they were punished accordingly. One of the best examples of the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ communism is the difference between the novel Spur der Steine (~ Traces of Stones) and its film version. The novel, written by Erik Neutsch is a long, and ultimately dull affair. It starts off well, telling the story of an outsider and his adventures, but ends in a long coda of basically educational remarks. In the end, Neutsch’s protagonist sees the error of his ways and becomes a useful cog in the GDR machine. This doesn’t happen in Frank Beyer’s fantastic film version, also entitled Spur der Steine. The film is a stronger work of art because it’s more coherent and more loyal towards its protagonist. It was however this realism unsupported by an educational finish that earned the movie the ire of GDR officials, so that it was eventually banned, a ban that in the end included Neutsch’s novel. Both Neutsch and Beyer were passionate and outspoken communists and supporters of the German Democratic Republic, yet they failed what GDR officials saw as the main function of literature. If you look at the process that eventually led to such bans, you are likely to be surprised by the almost random nature of it. Sometimes writers appeared to be equally surprised or even blindsided by the sudden onslaught of official criticism and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways of repression that ensued. Writers like Bräunig did not write oppositional literature against a dictatorial regime. In 1965, before the erection of the Berlin Wall, many writers believed the party line which proclaimed that debate was integral to the young socialist republic. What they forgot was that the other party line was “the Party’s always right” (there’s actually an official hymn, the refrain of which is “the Party, the Party, the Party’s always right.” click here to listen and cringe) and highlighting mistakes impudently suggested that the Party may not, in fact, always be right.

This is a rather long introduction that leads us to Werner Bräunig’s excellent book, large portions of which take place among miners and in a paper factory. in the years leading up to 1953 Bräunig was not himself a miner or a paper factory worker by profession, but he did work as a miner for a year, and in a paper factory for two more years. Although he had embarked on a career in literature and academia when the Bitterfelder Weg directives were given out, Rummelplatz closely reflects the ideals that were behind the cultural policies decided in Bitterfeld. It is a story about the everyday reality of miners in the Wismut AG in Saxony and of paper factory workers in Chemnitz, and it’s painstakingly accurate about all kinds of details. My own grandfather had worked in mines for most of his adult life, two years of which were spent with the Wismut AG. I talked to him after reading the book and he corroborates all the details, down to even the smallest observations, of life in the Wismut mines. The Wismut mines were uranium mines, and thus of central strategic importance not just to the GDR officials, but also to the Soviet occupying forces. Daily life in Wismut meant having a Russian military officer as a boss, and seeing Soviet soldiers everywhere. Every miner leaving the mines at the end of the day was closely controlled and information about the mines operated by the Wismut AG, was slow in coming. On the other hand, of all the mining work in the GDR, the Wismut mines offered the best wages by far, and thus attracted workers from all over the Republic. A 1958 movie by Konrad Wolf, Sonnensucher (unreleased until 1972) is enlightening if you want to understand the heated atmosphere in the uranium mines where all kinds of people came to work. Bräunig’s potent mixture of characters is less a feat of imaginative invention than a reflection of the torrid reality of the uranium mine work. In his book, he assembles, among many other colorful characters, a brawler and misfit, a Party official, an alcoholic Soviet engineer, and a young man who works in the mines in order to ‘make up’ for his non-working-class background and be allowed to study at a university later on.

The central image of the Rummelplatz (~ fairground) is the place where the miners meet with the community around them; it is also the place where rules carry less weight, and people behave differently. The fairground acts as the outlet for all the trouble and annoyance and pain that accumulates during work. People drink, fight, fuck and socialize on the fairground. In essence, within the novel, the role of the Rummelplatz is similar to the role that Bakhtin attributed to the carnivalesque. The sobriety, accuracy and somber nature of the main narrative dissolves into a sensual, desperate frenzy on the fairground. This is also true for Bräunig’s writing. Mostly, Bräunig’s style is indebted to the Neue Sachlichkeit, a style current in 1920s Germany. Unlike the great new writers of his age, i.e. Uwe Johnson, Irmtraud Morgner, Günter Grass, Wolfgang Koeppen or Christa Wolf, Bräunig cannot escape the shackles of the style that dominated German literature up until the end of WWII. The moments of madness, of the carnivalesque, are the only instances of Bräunig giving his language freer rein, touching on something bigger; but even this loose, jacked-up language lacks originality: at his best, Bräunig (infrequently) manages to sound a bit like the Döblin of Berlin Alexanderplatz (which is of course high praise). On the other hand, since the whole novel is a mix of registers and voices, the style, which vacillates between Johannes Pinneberg, Hans Fallada’s hapless hero, and Franz Biberkopf, Döblin’s, does fit the overall structure of the novel very well. It is split up into smaller bits of story, each of which follows one particular character in his odyssey through post-war socialism. Some characters have two pages of text, others turn up all the time. This makes for a very fragmented, lively and exiting read. As the editor, disingenuously, explains in the afterword, the manuscript was actually even more fragmented, because it wasn’t arranged chronologically. Assuming this to be a mistake the editor re-arranged the chapters (only one of many questionable editorial decisions). But it’s not just the characters that alternate, it’s also the places. The three main places of action are the Wismut mines near Chemnitz, the paper factory in Chemnitz, and a paper factory in West Germany.

The part of the narrative that takes place in the Wismut mines especially follows the fates of three particular characters. There is Peter Loose, a disaffected, confused, but capable miner who likes girls, alcohol and bar fights. Eventually, his carefree ways will get him into conflict with the law, until his imprisonment for politically motivated reasons in the last third of the novel. There’s, Christian, the aforementioned young man who wants to study. He comes to mining wholly innocently, and his first weeks in the mine almost break his back, but through hard and conscientious work he eventually becomes a fine miner, earning more money than most older or established miners. The third is Fischer, an old Party official, who’d been imprisoned by the National Socialists during WWII, and who’s a thoroughly likable character, a ‘good’ communist, who believes that Marxism is supposed to serve the people rather than the other way around. His tragedy is that his reading of Marxism is on the way out, while mindless bureaucracy is in. His daughter is the main character in those sections that focus on the nearby paper factory. This factory lacks workers, because every able-bodied man on the factory floor is trying to get a job in the mines, and early in the book, she suggests that they could let women operate the machines as well. Eventually, she’s allowed on the factory floor and despite several struggles, she prevails, and earns the respect of her fellow workers. There are two noteworthy aspects about these stories. One is the absolutely soapy quality of these story lines. If the background had been drawn less urgently, and if the overall vision and coherence had been even just a tad less powerful, these stories would have sunken like stones into the muck of literary irrelevance. The other aspect is that all of these story lines can be used to extrapolate harsh criticism of the GDR. There are repressive bureaucrats, there is rampant sexism, and discrimination against white collar children. But it would be a mistake to jump from this criticism to an indictment of communism. As one character says:

[J]a freilich, das ist bei Marx nicht vorgesehen. Es ist vom Kommunismus das genaue Gegenteil. Aber leider sehen wir ja immer mal wieder, was einer in Marx’ Namen aus Marx machen kann, sofern er nur rechthaberisch und unfähig genug ist.

(~ Of course, this has not been intended by Marx. This is the exact opposite of Communism. But regrettably we keep seeing what people can turn Marx into in Marx’ name if they are dogmatic and inept enough)

It’s quite important to remember that socialist writers in the 1960 were faced with a disintegrating dream, as communism was slowly subverted, dismantled and destroyed by brutal, dull and single-minded officials. As I said, there is an easy narrative in the West that dissident literature in East Germany was engaged in a struggle against Communism – not so. Many of the people treated harshest by the system were ardent communist, struggling in a system that perverted an ideology these writers considered to be liberating. And Bräunig highlights this predicament with a sharp eye.

Although Christa Wolf’s spectacular literary work (see my review) is probably the best literary indictment of this change in German literature, Rummelplatz shows us what Bräunig might have achieved, as well, had he finished his work. Rummelplatz is the first book of a two-part work, and the most cogent remarks about communism crop up in the later sections of the book; one assumes the second volume would have explored that direction further, especially given Bräunig’s remarks about West Germany and its role in the predicament of the GDR after the Soviet occupation. Throughout much of the book, Bräunig’s imprecise with his criticism, preferring to explore individual stories and what they have to say about the relationship of individuals vs. society. The only exception, except for the portions about communism near the end, is his treatment of West Germany. Both in the way he describes events in West Germany as well as in the way he mentions it, we are witnessing a no-holds-barred approach to the topic. Big corporations, we hear, left the GDR and tried to entice capable talents of moving into the West, as well. He makes clear that people with Nazi pasts saw West Germany as a safe haven and tried to pool their funds into that country where they could continue to cohabitate with fellow Nazis. We might want to remember that, however problematic, negligent and complex the Nazi purges were in the GDR after the 1950s, West Germany had Nazi governors, chancellors and judges. In fact, as we learned late last year, the ‘Butcher of Lyon’, Klaus Barbie, hiding in Bolivia, had been on the payroll of the German government in the 1960s. Also, as if he’s been prescient, Bräunig has a reply to all those who today claim that socialist economics are bound to fail, using the GDR economy as an example (and comparing it with the West German one):

Nun, nach fünfundvierzig habe es in Westdeutschland 120 Hochöfen gegeben, auf dem Gebiet der DDR aber […] nur fünf. Und mit anderen Dingen sei es ähnlich. […] “Wissen Sie, sagte Bauerfeld, “bis fünfundvierzig war dieses Ostdeutschland nichts weiter als ein großes Kartoffelfeld.”

(~ Well, after forty-five, West Germany had 120 blast furnaces, but the GDR only five. With other issues, it was similarly. “You know”, Bauerfeld said, “until forty-five East Germany had been nothing but one big potato field.”)

That said, Bräunig cannot be read as an apologist for the status quo. He’s well aware of the problems. The bureaucracy, inherited from the Third Reich, and a country full of Germans, who clung to old stereotypes, old prejudices, old kinds of hate and resentment. At one point he has a character say: this country is bound to fail unless we pull together, unless we change, unless we move forward.

It would not be surprising if it had been this kind of criticism that caused the book to be banned. Alas, that was not the case. Bräunig found himself at the center of a large campaign against ‘wrong’ kinds of books, after an excerpt from his novel-in-progress was published that contained fairly little such criticism. It was one of his carnivalesque scenes. In it, he wrote about the hunger and despair of these early years, he wrote about sexual appetites, about small fry violence and large scale binge drinking. These scenes are among those that ring most true in the whole book, but despite asking for realism in the Bitterfelder Weg doctrines, this is not the kind of realism that was demanded. These workers were not brilliant noble creatures, they were flawed, sweaty, horny men and women. Ultimately, this was unacceptable; what made it worse was the fact that Bräunig wrote about the hallowed uranium mines, which were quite generally a thorny subject. The above-mentioned Sonnensucher had also been banned immediately. It was released later in the brief period of artistic liberalization between 1972 and 1976, but by then Bräunig had fallen apart as writer and man. He published an ok collection of stories in 1969 and worked on another novel, but according to his editor, there wasn’t much to be excited about in these drafts. The tragedy of Bräunig’s squandered talent is brutal. My grandfather, who worked in various mines in the area that Rummelplatz is set in remembers a time of excitement, of hopes, of possibilities. Workers often felt empowered, and skill was often more respected than seniority or clout. This is the time that Bräunig portrays and this is the energy that suffuses this incredible book. There are countless flaws, inconsistencies etc. in it, but it’s only a draft, after all, never readied for publication. Bräunig’s not one of the great writers of his time. But he could have been. Translate this book! I provided but a very poor summary of the book that crawls with ideas and teems with life. Rummelplatz has similarities to books by writers like Anna Seghers and is historically fascinating, but above all, it’s a feast of a book. Read it, translate it, buy it. Translation rights are listed here.

Update (Feb 25, 2011): Apparently, the book’s rights have been sold and it’s being translated as we speak. How’s that for great news?

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Remarks on Christa Wolf’s “New Life and Opinions of a Tomcat”

Wolf, Christa, “Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers”,
in; Wolf, Christa, Erzählungen 1960-1980, Luchterhand
ISBN 3-630-62034-5

This is not a proper review, more like brief remarks which own their brevity to the shortness of the text in question. It’s a story by major GDR writer Christa Wolf, written in the early 1970s, published together with two other stories in 1974 in a collection that was subtitled “Drei unwahrscheinliche Geschichten” (that is ‘three improbable stories’). All three of those stories are masterful, the best of the three probably the scintillating titular story “Unter den Linden”. “Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers” (New Life and Opinions of a Tomcat) is, technically, probably the weakest story of the bunch, but it’s still fascinating reading. It pretends to be a ‘continuation’ of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (my review here), but in many ways it just employs its satirical spirit, while actually departing quite a bit from Hoffmann’s text. Wolf is passionate and direct, bleeding commitment into her text, she has no patience for Hoffmann’s genteel games; in this and other stories and books she portrays the outcry of the soul against stifling, destructive structures.

“Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers” is a much more earnest and serious text, really, much more direct in its criticism of society and the direction its heading towards than Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr. What Hoffmann did was provide an oblique critique channeled through a literary maze. Instead of commenting upon an issue directly, he comments upon other texts, presenting a multi-pronged kind of criticism that is as readable and topical, really, as it was when it was first published. Christa Wolf’s story is much more directly relevant to the social, political and cultural context of her time, down to phrases that echo the peculiar kind of neologisms common in the GDR (and the Third Reich, curiously). Its connection to Hoffmann’s text is a small one, constituted by the title and the conceit of the text being written by a tomcat on pages from a manuscript. However, while Hoffmann invented this in order to construct an elaborate book of fragments and two separate stories running in parallel, it serves no other purpose in Wolf’s story but to create the link to Hoffmann’s novel.

Wolf does not have two story-lines but she doesn’t just throw half of Hoffmann away, either. Instead, she brilliantly injects the basic thrust of the Kreisler story, if we subtract the Gothic plot, into the cat’s narrative. See, in Kreisler, Hoffmann depicts a romantic subjectivity which is at odds with the society around him and instead of succumbing to ‘reason’ persists as artistic spirit and is almost broken due to that decision. Wolf’s story is about a similar problem. It is about a group of scientists and thinkers who want to create a system that will make mankind happy, a system that ensures a maximum of spiritual and bodily health. And wouldn’t we all love that. Their proposals are then fed into a computer who, however, tells them that their ideas won’t work out. The model human being that the system is based on and the actual submitted system do not fit, they have to change one or the other. During the following weeks they work on the model human being, slowly stripping it of all things that are incompatible with a smoothly running system like they envisioned it.

Things to go first are elements like artistic creativity but reason and sexuality are thrown off board as well, in due course, as the computer continues to hand back to them their proposal as flawed and wrong, but it keeps assuring them they are on the right path. The computer is basically a mechanism forcing the scientists to ‘think things through’. It’s a wonder this story got published at all, since it clearly constitutes a criticism of the socialist (not Communist, mind you) enterprise, the attempt to think up, construct and maintain a system that nominally has man’s best interests at heart but, in actuality, does not have much room for human beings in it, unless they conform strictly to the ruling ideology. Individuals, here as in other places in Wolf’s work, such as the Quest for Christa T. (my review here) are at odds with that restrictive society. Wolf does not damn the idea of Communism, per se, in fact, as her work repeatedly clarifies, she considers it necessary, it is also liberating, but it must revolve around the individual and not an idea. If you have to adapt something, adapt the system and not the individuals living in it.

It’s quite clear how this connects to the ideas that drive the Kreisler sections of Hoffmann’s novel. But what about Murr and his equivalent in Wolf’s story, Max? Both are first person narrators of their story, both are philistines of a kind, but while Murr’s story is basically Murr’s Bildungsroman (a parody, actually, of the genre), Max is just an observer of the events. While Murr is talking about his life and reflecting mainly on himself, and his pet friends, Max is almost exclusively focused on humans. Murr’s reflections were part of a complex metafictional web Hoffmann was weaving in his book, which largely references and targets other books, while Wolf is having none of that. She is focused on the message and delivers it with few distractions, and she largely references and targets real world life and politics. Her dismay with the inflexible society that she was living in, is plain, and she’s clear about the fact that she doesn’t pit creativity against reason, since ‘reason”s another property that is left out of the model character. Like Hoffmann, she’s very clear about her commitments and unlike him, she delivers a scathing critique of the socialist state.

It is not her best story but indicative of qualities all her stories have, qualities that make her best stories shine like they do. Hers is a literary sensibility that is upfront about her criticisms and concerns yet is able to weave a complex literary text, with a use of intertextuality that frequently reminds me of Genette’s idea of a “continuation infidéle”. In this case, Wolf took on more than she could handle, her grip on the source text is weak, and the simple structure is too simple to do any kind of justice to Hoffmann’s novel, which really hurts the impact of the story. In other texts, she is far more proficient in this. It is nevertheless recommended, like everything of hers. If you cannot read German, do not despair: the story can be found in a collection of her short prose, What Remains and other stories, translated by Heike Schwarzbauer and Rick Takvorian, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1995. Pick it up, why don’t you.

Bertolt Brecht: War Primer

Brecht, Bertolt (1994), Kriegsfibel, Eulenspiegelverlag
ISBN 3-359-00173-7

“Here, Kunert, look at this, see whether it’s publishable…”, Bertolt Brecht, the titan of modern German drama asked a young acolyte of his. That acolyte was Günter Kunert, a major GDR poet, and he recalls the request and the manuscript in question in a memorable chapter in his great autobiography, Erwachsenenspiele (Games for Grownups), which is still one of the best books about the life of writers in the GDR. The manuscript were a few cardboard pages on which pictures and poems were pasted by hand. These are what later became the Kriegsfibel, published in 1955/56. It has been translated by John Willet as War Primer. Since you might know that I am wary of any poetry translations, I cannot vouch for this one, especially since I’ve never seen it. The German book, though, is one of my very favorite books. It’s a huge black chunk of a book, and I have never moved without it, it’s really a book that affects me like few others do, and this is kind of surprising since it’s a rather simple affair. It consists of 69-85 (depending on the edition) newspaper cutouts, usually photographs with the caption that the newspaper provided. There is a picture of an American soldier cradling a dead Japanese soldier, and a picture of actress Jane Wyman, her crotch hung with military medals, and pictures of German helmets and many more. Brecht assembled those in his years in exile, mostly while he lived in the US. The history of his sojourn in the US is well known, I assume.

Each newspaper cutout was accompanied by a brief poem, four lines, basically two couplets, truly Brechtian in diction, rhythm and music. Brecht was a prolific writer, he wrote countless poems, there’s much in his work that doesn’t withstand closer scrutiny, but Brecht can be powerful, and he frequently is. He is a writer who fuses bawdy and political issues within single poems, he writes complex yet accessible tracts about political situations. The poems in the Kriegsfibel show him at his best. These are angry poems, funny poems, bawdy poems, almost all of Brecht’s range is in there, reduced to simple couplets. These are poems against the war, but they try not to make people oppose war by telling sob stories, by trying to make them feel sorry for the victims of war. Brecht shouts at you, in a musical, elegant, funny way, but he does shout, because what he has to say is important, it needs to be said. He tells people to consider the consequences of their actions. He tells us that a group of soldiers did not lose the war when their helmets were shot off their heads but when they put them on. Simple truths, truisms perhaps, simplistic truths, even, but Brecht is not trying to be an authority, he’s not trying to force us to understand His Truth. Brecht wants to make us think. To make us more aware of our actions. Of things.

In his autobiography, Kunert tells us of his enthusiasm for Brecht’s manuscript and of the trouble that Brecht had publishing it. It was too dirty, too pacifistic and other things, to go over well with those in power. This was, after all, after June 1953. Brecht assembled and pushed it through to publication and the world is richer for it. Kriegsfibel is a book that can set you right. It’s a masterful work of art and a burning black meteor of a book. It will always be with me.

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Volker Braun: Trotzdestonichts

Braun, Volker (2000), Trotzdestonichts oder Der Wendehals, Suhrkamp
ISBN 3-518-39680-3

Volker Braun is a master. He has written plays, poems and prose, and has excelled in every medium. His voice is recognizably his but at the same he’s part of the great generation of writers like Thomas Brasch and Christoph Meckel, all of whom were (are) successful in different kinds of media. Volker Braun’s still active and still an incredible writer. Like many great GDR writers, he was influenced by Ernst Bloch and his multivolume manifesto to utopian hope; like many great GDR writers, the attractiveness of socialist hope and the problems of the everyday reality of the socialist state they lived in (I talked a bit about that stuff here) provided two important parameters of his work. In a way, they still do. Trotzdestonichts oder Der Wendehals is a good example of this and it’s a whopping great read at the same time. As for the edition I read: The book on my desk (see bibliographical info above) has been published in 2000 (after Braun won the prestigious Büchnerpreis that year, I guess, which is still the most significant prize for German language literature). Two parts of it have already been published under the title Der Wendehals in 1995. For this paperback edition, a third part, written at the same time as the other two and sharing common concerns and characters, has been added.

Now, to clear up that strange long title: “Trotzdestonichts” is not an existing German word, it’s a neologism, derived by switching around the elements of the word “nichtsdestotrotz” which, roughly, means “nonetheless” in English. You might translate it with “lessthenone”, I guess. A “Wendehals” is a “turncoat”. Thus, the title might be translated as “Lessthenone, or The Turncoat”, but, of course, a few things would be lost in that translation. Volker Braun is, first and foremost, a poet. His language, playful yet precise, is testament to that. In a light and cumpulsively readable manner, Braun, especially in the middle section, which is titled “Der Wendehals”, piles on puns, jokes and the like, with such ease and slight of hand that it made me repeatedly squeal with glee. The word “Wendehals” is made up of the words “Hals”, meaning “neck” and “Wende”, which means “turnabout”, “turn” or “reversal”. There is, however, one specific historical meaning that the word carries: it can refer to the end of the GDR and the takeover by West Germany (BRD). And so we have, in the title, a pun that contains in nuce, already, the theme of the book. How people were affected by that specific historical “turnabout”, how some became turncoats, how it overturned and switched around meanings for people living there, how even everyday life had to be read anew, how old readings of one’s own history had to be reversed etc. But I make the book sound more serious and heavy-going than it is, really.

There have been many books written about the Wende, some good, some less so. My favorite is Günter Grass’ miraculous Far Afield (Original German title: Ein Weites Feld), that was panned by many critics when it was published but remains one of my favorite Grass novels, and it’s certainly one of the best books dealing with that period. Grass’ book is, as usual, a grotesque, heavy with pathos and symbolism. Grass blends the life of German canonized literary giant Theodor Fontane with the life of a bumbling GDR man, nicknamed Fonty. This allows Grass to spread countless layers of German cultural references, literary and political, over the events in 1989 and 1990. Every action taken, every sentence uttered thus takes on a special (double) significance. There is a lot of humor, too, but it’s Grass’ variety of humor, which I always find hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t read the man. Grass is almost never witty, in his best moments he’s either funny or ponderous, in his worst, well, let’s just pass over that. The difference to Braun’s book, which is infinitely witty and light couldn’t be more striking yet Braun’s take on that period is astonishingly good, too. The three texts, written in 1992/1993 make the best possible use of hindsight, they provide an assessment that still holds up today, 14 years after the book was first published, which is no mean feat.

As I said, Trotzdestonichts oder Der Wendehals consists of three parts, not of equal length. The first section, the aforementioned newcomer in this edition, is the shortest. It’s called “Das Nichtgelebte” (roughly “The Unlived”) and relates to us the events of that day in November 1989 as experienced by a character named Georg. We learn that he experiences the Wende as an end, in a way, of time, an end to life as he knew it. Early in his story, he tells us that he is a punctual man, who doesn’t have an appointment to go to, which is intensely alienating to him. He had, in the waning days of the GDR, an affair with a younger woman, which fails to take off; mostly, we suspect, because he isn’t able to warm up to her, he keeps a distance. In one memorable scene, he watches her sleep, slips into bed beside her, and keeps a distance from her, exactly the lenth of his erect penis’. He tells himself that it’s better that way: “He had only guarded her sleep, and this thought evoked a tenderness in him that he carried away from the cave like robbed goods.” (crap translation mine). In the final pages of “Das Nichtgelebte” we find out that this reserve of his is a national problem. As the GDR, the great hope of so many, crumbles around him, he has a few insights, among them this: “We did not want it, he mumbled. We did not want it, we did not want it. We were not serious about it. We had time enough.” (again, my translation) Time enough indeed. Now it’s all over, West Germany takes over the country and incorporates it into its own structures. The “unlived” of the title does not just refer to the chances George missed in his private life by being an anal reticent pedant. It also refers to the chances the whole country missed by not following up on Bloch’s Prinzip Hoffnung. Imagine there’s a revolution and the people bungle it, and the reaction takes up the remains. This is tragic, and the section, though replete with a quiet humor, does full justice to that feeling.

Of all the sections, “Das Nichtgelebte” is the most poetic, the one with the most arresting images and moving formulations. It also introduces Schaber, a former high ranking supervisor of some kind, who has now become a turncoat, working for a financial conglomerate in the West. He is the principal character of the second section, which is called “Der Wendehals oder Trotzdestonichts”. The second section is the longest one, at a hundred pages roughly four times as long as the other two. It’s basically a dialogue between “Ich” (I) and “Er” (He). These two characters could be Georg and Schaber, the author and Schaber etc. It doesn’t really matter, because what they really are, is Hinze and Kunze. Hinze and Kunze are the protagonists of Braun’s most famous novel (Hinze-Kunze-Roman) and most famous play. Hinze is a citizen of the GDR who manages to see through the faults and problems and structural issues of his society. He engages a bureaucrat, Kunze, in a discussion, which leads to dialogues that possess the precision of Plato’s dialogues and the concerns and humor of Brecht’s Keuner stories. The same happens here, but the parameters have changed. Kunze/Schaber now doesn’t have a bureaucracy to defend, or a country. He defends himself. After all, this is a new country, individualism is valued highly here. Schaber is a cynical opportunist who praises his own actions and the advantages of this new life. Hinze/”Ich” is a man whose hopes have been dashed, who is almost as cynical as his opponent, but his cynicism is born from disappointment.

As the two talk, the discussion picks up speed, the two opponents bouncing words, puns and phrases off each other. It’s quick, funny and makes countless excellent points about democracy, about the peculiar (West) German attitudes to work (in German, the employer “gives” you work; literally, the German word for employer means “Workgiver” and the word for employee means literally “Worktaker”. This is partly due to an ambiguity in the word “Arbeit” (Word), but it’s also telling as far as the German attitude towards employers is concerned), about emergent racism, about consumerism and about “thoughtcowardlyness” (Braun uses a neologism here as well). At the same time, the plot of this section involves an odyssey through Berlin at night, full of surreal scenes and images, most strangely, a stampede of prostitutes. In another scene, in a library, “Ich” throws volumes of Lenin at volumes of Stalin, in the middle of a discussion that touches on Marx, Engels, the two bearded Soviets and Hegel. It’s marvelously structured, very well thought and divinely well written. At the end of that section we notice a few catchphrases from the first section reappear, but turned, cold, opportunistic. The wasted life that Georg complains about, which means a committed life, reappears now as a zest for life, but in the sense of carpe diem, Just do it!, like many of these slogans completely divested of commitment. Commitment means accepting failure, not thinking in terms of success but in terms of process. In the turned version, this facet has vanished in favor of a far more sparkly: Don’t talk so much, live!. Watch out for opportunities and grab them!

Trotzdestonichts oder Der Wendehals, it turns out, provides a wide array of emotions, depending how you read the book. The last section more or less wraps things up. It consists of several very short prose pieces that focus on different aspects. It doesn’t add much more to the book in terms of idea, but it’s necessary in that it fleshes the book out a bit, broadening its message, and clarifying many hints and implications. There’s much to delight in, and the writing vacillates wildly between the poetical style of the first and the ribald style of the second function. So what about the book as a whole? It’s certainly a joy to read, but as for its ideas, for me, Braun was preaching to the choir, basically. I have no idea how the book appeals to people with different convictions. The thinking behind it is certainly lively and powerful, but as a whole the book seems a bit thin. Turns out, I could have used some more Grass here, to provide a punch. The execution of the text, as it is, is masterful. Braun’s immense gifts as a poet are in full display here, as Braun bends the language to his will, more unobtrusive than fellow magicians like Schmidt, Jelinek and Jirgl but with no less verbal energy and inventiveness. Nothing slips from his grasp, except for one thing. The whole comedy could have made the book a cold, distanced satire. It is part of Braun’s prowess, though, that he knows when to give the reins some slack. Now and then, the mask slips and we see hurt and disappointment and we are touched, moved, and saddened. And as the book ends on a note of hope, we close it smiling. Thinking, but smiling.

Trotzdestonichts oder Der Wendehals is not a masterpiece, maybe, whatever that means, but it is a delight, from the first to the last page. In 1989 and 1990, half of Germany was turned on its head, and for the second time, German citizens had to renege their beliefs and adapt to a new society. The GDR has left scars upon the German consciousness, partly, certainly, because of all the disappointed hopes and dreams that were invested into that country. Books like Braun’s provide an insight into the hurt and resentment of many former citizens of that strange country, who were told that everything they believed in was a wrong and flawed as the dictatorial bureaucracy that used to govern them and that the West German system was the only way to go. Volker Braun, evidently, doesn’t believe that, which leaves him in an intellectual state of inbetweenness and which makes this book so readable.

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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