Unlivable Life: No Place on Earth by Christa Wolf

Christa Wolf stuns us with her literary prowess and creative genius in this novella by imagining two talented, tragic, nineteenth century authors meeting at an afternoon tea.  Heinrich von Kleist, who had a military career before embarking on a series of trips throughout Europe, is best known for his dramatic works and novellas.  Karoline von Günderrode, who lived in a convent for unmarried, impoverished, aristocratic women, is best known for her poetry and her dramatic works.  Both Kleist and Günderrode were unlucky in love, prone to depression and anxiety, and committed suicide at a young age. Through the meeting of these two tragic figures Wolf explores the complications that each gender encounters in relation to social pressures and self-identity.

Kleist is accompanied to this afternoon tea by his doctor, Wedekind, who treated him after the author collapsed from a nervous breakdown while he was living in Paris.  Wedekind takes Kleist into his home and attempts to alleviate his severe mental disorder which causes him to have social anxiety, panic attacks, stuttering and excessive sweating.  We are given the impression that Kleist’s outing with Wedekind is meant to serve as some type of therapy for Kleist so that he can practice staying calm and suppressing his anxiety in a social situation.  Kleist is a veritable bundle of nerves and Wolf, by writing the text from the point-of-view of her character’s inner monologue, creates a man whose anxiety is palpable.  Kleist’s thoughts are torturous and never ending:

If there were only some way to turn off the mechanism inside his head, which they had installed there instead of a normal memory, and which, no matter what he does, no matter where he goes or stays, and even during the night, when he starts bolt awake at 4 a.m., is incapable of doing anything but repeating the same train of thought over and over, the same everlasting tormenting monologue which he is forced to conduct on every single one of innumerable days in order to defend himself against invisible accusers.

The other attendees of the tea party attempt to engage Kleist in conversation but the writer struggles to relax and enjoy the party.  He doesn’t mingle with the other guests, but stays in the shadows, along with his doctor, trying to seem as invisible as possible.  Even when Wedekind encourages Kleist to tell a funny anecdote about the doctor’s dog, the exchange with the other guests ends in an awkward scene when the listeners attempt to ask Kleist additional questions about his story.  Kleist does, however, notice an unusual woman also lingering on the edges of the party who seems very different from the other guests, especially the women.

Karoline von Günderrode is invited to the party which is being thrown by a friend of her inner circle.  Wolf portrays her attendance at the tea party as a welcome break from the convent but she, too, is subjected to uncomfortable conversations and awkward exchanges with the other guests, especially the men. Friedrich Carl von Savigny, who is present at the party, has just broken off an affair with Günderrode who is still healing from the experience.  Savigny is there with his wife, the woman whom he chose to marry over Günderrode, and as a further insult and indignity he keeps referring to his former lover as “Günderrode my pet.”  She reminisces in her thoughts about the harsh things he said to her when he ended their relationship.  Savigny, in particular, is upset with the poem she had composed for him:

Undisciplined, unpredictable, inordinate, extreme.  Oh, Savigny.  After all , it was only a poem, even if, admittedly it was too rash, too ungoverned a gesture.  “The Kiss in the Dream.” What could that mean to you just two weeks before your wedding? “A kiss breathed into me the breadth of life…” And I was compelled to add that I no longer knew myself: that’s true.  This is the kind of thing little Günderrode-my-pet dreams about, and of whom does she dream?  Of someone who is very loving and is always loved.

When the members of the party take a walk outdoors, Kleist and Günderrode have already taken notice of one another and begin a conversation about identity and gender roles.  They recognize the struggle against societal expectations with which each contends on a daily basis.  Kleist can be a poet and writer but have no source of income, which is not considered honorable behavior for a man.  Or he can join the military, have a decent salary and deny his creative urges.

Günderrode, as a poor, single woman in 19th century Germany, doesn’t conform to the expectations of her gender any more than Kleist.  Her greatest ambition is to be a writer and when her poetry is published under a pseudonym, she is accused of being too masculine, too learned and arrogant.  Her romantic entanglements with Clemens Brentano and Savigny have also drawn accusations from other women in society that she is a coquette.  According to the expectations of her social circle, she is not acting as a proper female should.

Wolf’s prose is the most poetic and inspiring when she brings the authors together; in a moment of understanding and mutual compassion, they look towards each other and at this point in the text their inner thoughts become the same, they becomes “we”:

They examine each other candidly, without reserve.  Naked gazes.  Self abandonment, a tentative experiment.  Smiles, first hers, then his, ironical.  Let’s pretend it’s a game even if it’s deadly earnest.  You know it, I know it too.  Don’t come too close.  Don’t stay too far away.  Conceal yourself.  Reveal yourself.  Forget what you know.  Remember it.  masks fall away, superincrustations, scabs, varnish.  The bare skin.  Undisguised features.  So that’s my face.  That is yours.  Different down to the ground, alike from the ground up.  Woman.  Man.  Untenable words.  We two, each imprisoned in his sex.

Not long after their encounter Günderrode commits suicide with a dagger that she keeps with her at all times.  Wolf foreshadows the author’s sad end by using words from her own poetry in the text: “Ours is a sad fate.  I envy the rivers which merge.  Death is better than such a life as this.”  Kleist also seems to have had the same opinion about his own life because several years later he meets a sickly woman with whom he commits a murder-suicide.  If these two lost, and lonely souls did really meet, would they have found comfort in one another’s friendship?  Or would seeing and recognizing their own melancholy in one another cause them to run the other way?

17 Comments

Filed under German Literature

17 responses to “Unlivable Life: No Place on Earth by Christa Wolf

  1. It’s a series! I am impressed. I did not know about any of these books. Very interesting to read about Günderrode in these different contexts.

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  2. Well, clearly I need to be reading both Christa Wolf and Karoline von Günderrode. (I’ve been enjoying your reviews of her work too.)

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  3. Helen Wallimann

    Another interesting review! But Karoline von Günderrode (1780-1806), was a “poor, single (upper class) woman” in 18th rather than 19th century Germany. She was poor because her father died when she was 16, so she was taken into the care of a Protestant foundation for girls of noble birth (the convent you mention). For Karoline, who was influenced by the ideas of the French Revolution, this was like living in a prison. She committed suicide after being informed that the man who’d been her lover for two years, Georg Friedrich von Creuzer, had promised his wife to break off the relationship.

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    • I was thinking 19th century because her poems were published in 1804 and 1805 and she died in 1806. My previous two posts about her cover all of these biographical details in case you haven’t read them. She was heavily influenced by the ideas of German Romanticism which is covered a great deal in the new English translation of her Poetic Fragments.

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  4. Such an interesting review. I have a copy of this and now I have plenty of background thanks to your posts!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Enjoyed this review ! Have you read Fitzgerald’s Blue Flower, about Novalis?

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  6. I clearly need to read the Christa Wolf I do have (A Model Childhood) quickly!
    (Kleist has also been on my radar – at least there’s good Penguin Classics volume of his work).

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  7. Pingback: A Few Authors for Women in Translation Month – Book Geeks Anonymous

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