Christa Wolf, tr. Ursula Molinaro and Hedwig Rappolt
FSG, 1984

Wolf’s style is linked in my mind to brutalist architecture or at any rate the built environments of socialist modernism. You feel like she could make a dialectical sentence with just one word. They have simplicity and coarseness, like exposed concrete, but the actual arrangement of shapes and ideas in the text remains super refreshing even today.

The first chapter of this novel is tres modern, taking up the beginning to ponder how to start. And that’s how she presents the frame story, visiting post-war Germany in the early 70s with her husband and teenage daughter. The patterns of childhood are in the third person, about a girl named Nelly.

All three Wolf books I’ve at least leafed through start with a plane ride. (CASSANDRA is tricky but in the original the essays come before the novel.) I guess it’s her preferred way to talk about multiple temporalities, either entering them by air travel in a globalized world, and also by missing your flight.

Ten pages of beautiful and enigmatic details, like stone steps, and outlines of all the fragmentary material, the limitations of realism.

Suddenly, a shock that penetrates even the roots of your hair: in the big room on the table lies the manuscript, with, on the first page, only one word, “MOTHER,” in large letters. She’ll read it, guess your purpose, and feel hurt.

(There’s your start, advised H. But you didn’t want that; let other people give themselves away. [10]

Everything feels too easy. The options are either classical realistic plotting and narration that for Wolf have no conviction left, or psychoanalytic cliches and gut-spilling. Wolf is too modern for confessionalism. Modernism kept what was worth keeping from Romanticism, like experimental forms, but raw subjectivity was not one of them. Too commercial, among other things.

Finally we get what we came in for: the memories start coming through, but in what order?

What next? The bead.

(The understandable but perhaps dangerous desire for associations, against which H. warned from the beginning, not in words so much as by the expression of his face. He distrusts anything that falls into place [21]

We can’t have “story” anymore. Likewise, neither can we have necessity. There can’t be an obvious order to the material, one that makes sense only because of the dominating consensus on how narrative should work.

It’s tempting to view the rationale for these modern devices through a liberal mindset: Wolf is simply a private woman, or her husband is controlling her aesthetic ideology. But this is a fictional memoir — an autofiction? — about growing up under the Nazi regime. There’s a political distaste for the subjectivity and coherent narrative of mainstream literature, because they better serve the totality, the conformity of taste and consumption, reproducing patterns of domination.

Wolf in these pages puts much of Adorno’s literary theory into practice, turning her work inside out so we can watch her own modernist totality that might pop the reader out of the false one of her social reality.

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