Tag Archives: Christa Wolf

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?

16 Comments

Filed under German Literature

Review: Cassandra by Christa Wolf

This title was published in 1983 in the original German and this English version has been translated by Jan van Heurck

My Review:
cassandraCassandra is most famous in Greek mythology for possessing the gift of prophecy but this unique gift came with one problem: no one ever believes her true predictions.  In Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, Cassandra says that she agreed to have sex with the God Apollo in exchange for the gift of prophecy, but when she went back on her promise and refused the Sun God’s advances, Apollo made sure that her prophecies would never be believed.  When she predicts the future her friends and family treat her as nothing more than a babbling and a raving mad woman.  I have a distinct memory of first translating the Agamemnon and how difficult Aeschylus’s Greek is to unpack.  But the parts in the narrative in which Cassandra is speaking were a nice break because oftentimes she just rants and raves; the various “oi” and “oimoi” noises she makes are a welcome respite from the complex grammatical structures of Aeschylus’s sentences.

Christa Wolf’s Cassandra is an ambitious novel in that it tries to cover the entire scope of the Trojan epic cycle by telling it through the eyes of this doomed and unlucky Trojan princess.  Priam, Hecuba, Helenus, Achilles, Aeneas, Troilus, Briseis, Calchas, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Polyxena and Paris, are just a few of the characters that make an appearance or are mentioned in Wolf’s narrative.  Cassandra, the narrator of this story,  is the daughter of Priam, King of Troy, and his first and most favored wife, Hecuba.  From a very young age Cassandra wants nothing more than to become a priestess of the God Apollo and possess the gift of prophecy.  But once she is given this gift she is subjected to a plethora of other misfortunes which lead to her tragic death.  Wolf’s narrative is so wide-ranging and covers so many characters and actions from the Trojan saga that it is impossible to mention everything she touches on in one review.  So I am going to write about the aspects of Wolf’s story that were the most striking and memorable for me.

In the original myths and stories involving the origin of the Trojan War, Paris, the prince of Troy, visits King Menelaus of Sparta and with the help of the Goddess Aphrodite, absconds with his wife Helen.  In order to get his wife back, Menelaus asks his warmongering brother, King Agamemnon of Mycenae, to help him get an army together, sack Troy, and find his wife.  Wolf makes her story less a matter of love, pride and recapturing a straying wife and instead makes the inception of the war more of a political issue.  Priam’s sister has been taken by the Greeks and there are three separate, and unsuccessful expeditions to bring her back; on the third and final ship, Paris sets sail with the other men and when he cannot get his aunt back he takes Menelaus’s wife instead.  Paris is portrayed as an arrogant and brash young man who uses the pretext of the expedition to take for himself a woman who is said to be the most beautiful in the world.  Christa’s Paris is much more bold than Homer’s Paris, but in both tales Paris has no forethought or concern for anyone other than himself.

When the Greeks attack Troy, Cassandra has already seen this event coming and predicted that it will destroy her home and her family.  She has a dream when she is a child that Apollo spits in her mouth and this is the sign that she can foretell the future but no one will believe her.  When she has one of her prophetic visions she foams at the mouth, has fits that mimic the symptoms of a seizure and drives everyone away from her because they think she is a babbling lunatic.  Cassandra’s narrative about her childhood, how she acquired her gift of prophesy, the destruction of Troy and its aftermath are all told in a stream-of-conscious narrative.  Wolf’s Cassandra constantly moves around between different time periods and this cleverly reflects the anxious ramblings of her tormented mind.  She oftentimes dwells on her earlier years when she was first given the ability to prophesy and became a priestess of the God Apollo.  She is King Priam’s favorite daughter and her position as favorite as well as her ability to predict the future cause her to have complicated relationships with her siblings, her mother, and other men in her life.

When Troy is sacked, all of the Trojan women who survive are divided up among the Greek Kings and taken back to Greece to become their household and sexual slaves.  Cassandra is taken back to Mycenae by King Agamemnon and her interactions with this narcissistic man cause her to reflect on the other complicated relationships she has had with men throughout her life.   Wolf portrays Cassandra as having a great desire to be a priestess of Apollo and remain a virgin, but even her desire to remain untouched is conflicted.  There is a strange scene that Wolf includes in which all of the young women in Troy are placed within the sanctuary of a temple and one by one they are chosen by Trojan youth for a ritual deflowering.  It is oftentimes the tendency for non-Greek, Eastern cultures to be portrayed as being more sexually open and even promiscuous.  In the Ancient Greek myths Priam is basically described as possessing a harem with multiple wives and fifty children. Even though this is not necessarily emphasized in Homer, Wolf seems to pick up on the sexual differences between the Greeks and the Trojans.  When Cassandra does finally become a priestess, she puts up with the head priest visiting her nightly for sexual trysts and she endures it because she pretends she is sleeping with Aeneas whom she loves very much.

Cassandra views Agamemnon as a self-centered, rash and dangerous man who is also sexually impotent.  In Cassandra’s eyes Achilles is not any better a man than Agamemnon and  she describes Achilles as a murderous, selfish brute who takes what he wants, including Cassandra’s sister Polyxena.  The only male in the story that Cassandra has any positive thoughts for is Aeneas, a Trojan youth who is the only hero to escape from Troy when it is burning.  In the ancient Greek myths Aeneas and Cassandra are cousins but they don’t have any real connections other than Cassandra’s prediction that Aeneas will escape Troy.  I am curious as to why Wolf chose Aeneas at the only male in the Trojan saga with any redeemable characteristics.  The depressed, hopeless, confused, Cassandra in Wolf’s narrative becomes a completely different person when Aeneas is around.  The only time when Cassandra has positive, loving thoughts are when she is around Aeneas:

At the new moon Aeneas came…I saw his face for only a moment as he blew out the light that swam in a pool of oil beside the door.  Our recognition sign was and remained his hand on my cheek, my cheek in his hand.  We said little more to each other than our names; I had never heard a more beautiful love poem.  Aeneas Cassandra.  Cassandra Aeneas.  When my chastity encountered his shyness, our bodies went wild.  I could not have dreamed what my limbs replied to the questions of his lips, or what unknown inclinations his scent would confer on me.  And what a voice my throat had at its command.

One final male in the story that is not portrayed in a positive light is Hector, the prince of Troy and first son and heir of King Priam.  In the Iliad he is, I would argue, the most heroic of the men on either side because he has a sense of honor and courage that no other warrior possesses.  So I was disappointed that Wolf refers to him as “Dim-Cloud” and Cassandra remarks, “A number of my brothers were better suited than he to lead the battle.”  To have veered so far off the mark from the Hector of the Iliad was disappointing to me.

When I teach about the God Apollo and Cassandra and her doomed gift of prophecy, my students always have a hard time with the fact that time and again Cassandra prophesies the truth but not a single person ever believes her.  My interpretation of Cassandra has always been that she represents that person who tells us the very thing we don’t want to hear about ourselves or our actions that we continue to ignore.  Cassandra is the classic case of being mad at and ignoring the person who tells us the truth and is honest but who we will cast aside anyway because the truth is too hard to bear.  Wolf writes a spectacular rendition of  Cassandra and brings to the forefront this allegory of ignoring our better judgement and the better judgement of others and suffering the negative consequences for it.

I could really go on and on about my impressions of Wolf’s writing and her exploration of the Trojan saga through the eyes of Cassandra.  I would love to hear what other readers have thought about this book.  What were the most memorable parts of the book for you?  Had you read any of the original myths before encountering this books?  Why do you think Wolf chose Aeneas as a companion for Cassandra?  What do you think of Wolf’s rendition of Cassandra?

About the Author:
c-wolfAs a citizen of East Germany and a committed socialist, Christa Wolf managed to keep a critical distance from the communist regime. Her best-known novels included “Der geteilte Himmel” (“Divided Heaven,” 1963), addressing the divisions of Germany, and “Kassandra” (“Cassandra,” 1983), which depicted the Trojan War.

She won awards in East Germany and West Germany for her work, including the Thomas Mann Prize in 2010. The jury praised her life’s work for “critically questioning the hopes and errors of her time, and portraying them with deep moral seriousness and narrative power.”

Christa Ihlenfeld was born March 18, 1929, in Landsberg an der Warthe, a part of Germany that is now in Poland. She moved to East Germany in 1945 and joined the Socialist Uni A citizen of East Germany and a committed socialist, Mrs. Wolf managed to keep a critical distance from the communist regime. Her best-known novels included “Der geteilte Himmel” (“Divided Heaven,” 1963), addressing the divisions of Germany, and “Kassandra” (“Cassandra,” 1983), which depicted the Trojan War.

She won awards in East Germany and West Germany for her work, including the Thomas Mann Prize in 2010. The jury praised her life’s work for “critically questioning the hopes and errors of her time, and portraying them with deep moral seriousness and narrative power.”

Christa Ihlenfeld was born March 18, 1929, in Landsberg an der Warthe, a part of Germany that is now in Poland. She moved to East Germany in 1945 and joined the Socialist Unity Party in 1949. She studied German literature in Jena and Leipzig and became a publisher and editor.

In 1951, she married Gerhard Wolf, an essayist. They had two children.

 

 

10 Comments

Filed under German Literature, Historical Fiction, Literature in Translation, Uncategorized

Review: Medea—A Modern Retelling by Christa Wolf

This title was translated from the original German by John Cullen.

My Review:
medeaI have to admit that as a classicist I try to avoid retellings of ancients myths and texts because they never live up to the brilliance of the original authors.  I had passed over Wolf’s Medea and Cassandra for this very reason, but a fellow bibliophile with similar reading tastes to my own convinced me to give Wolf’s books a try and I am so glad that I did.

Jason is portrayed as the archetypal Greek hero in the ancient myths; he has unusual circumstances surrounding his birth, he is not raised by his parents but instead by a Centaur, he goes on a quest during which his strength and intelligence are greatly tested, and he has a complicated relationship with women.  Although, in Jason’s case it is actually one very powerful woman named Medea.  While on his quest with his fellow Argonauts, to get the Golden Fleece from King Aeëtes  in the dark, unknown city of Colchis, he encounters Medea.  Euripides and Seneca both portray Medea as a sinister and violent woman who uses her magic arts to get what she wants and to exact revenge on her enemies.  As she is leaving Colchis with Jason on the Argo, she chops up the body parts of her young brother so that their father, the King, has to stop his ship and collect the pieces of his son.  And when Jason breaks off his marriage with Medea to marry the young princess in Corinth, Medea makes him pay the price by murdering their children.

Wolf’s Medea is an intense, passionate,  assertive woman who questions and even challenges the power of two kings.  At home in Colchis, there is a movement among the lower classes, which is supported by Medea, to invoke an old law that will force King Aeëtes to step down in deference to his son, the next in line for the throne.  It is Medea’s father who is responsible for her brother’s murder because in eliminating his heir to the throne he rejects the will of the people and retains his crown.  Medea is so sickened by her father’s choice to murder his own child that when the Argonauts arrive in Colchis she views her chance to help Jason as a means of escape from the King’s absolute rule.  Medea betrays her father, helps Jason capture the Golden Fleece, and on the way back to Iolcus on the Argo she scatters the bones of her murdered brother as a type of funeral service and tribute to him.

Wolf’s begins each chapter in her Medea with a quotation fitting for the character that is speaking;  many of the quotes that Wolf chooses are from the ancient plays of Seneca and Euripides.  But the quotations that are especially striking are those that Wolf borrows from René  Girard’s book Violence and the Sacred.  Leukon, an astronomer for King Creon who sympathizes with Medea and tries to warn her about the treachery of her enemies, has a speech during which he recounts seeing an angry mob of citizens who chase Medea through the streets of Corinth.  A rumor that has been started about Medea that she is the cause of Corinth’s misfortunes and that she was the one who murdered her brother.  Wolf quotes this fitting passage from Girard:

People want to convince
themselves that their misfortunes
come from one single responsible person
who can easily be got rid of.

The people of Corinth insist that, despite a lack of evidence, Medea is the cause of all their evils and she will be their scapegoat.  They distrust foreigners, especially the darker skin people from Colchis whose traditions and culture they do not understand.  The Colchians who came to Corinth with Medea are referred to as refugees, are marginalized and forced to live in poor conditions in a seedy side of town.  Medea is viewed as the leader of these unwanted refugees and so all of the Corinthians’ frustration is misdirected at her and they believe that by eliminating her that their city will once again be prosperous.

In addition, Wolf’s portrayal of Jason shows a man who is much more conflicted than the archetypal hero of Greek myth.  When Jason and Medea find themselves guests of King Creon there is a deep level of mistrust for Colchians, and Medea in particular with her gifts of healing and astrology.  King Creon ejects Medea and her two children from the palace and she is forced to live in a hut adjacent to the royal dwelling.  But Jason still loves her deeply and craves the physical and sexual attentions that he gets from Medea.  As Corinth begins to suffer a series of catastrophes such as drought, earthquake and plague, Medea’s enemies conspire against her to help make her the scapegoat for all of the evils that Corinth is suffering.  King Creon, who had secretly sacrificed his youngest daughter to keep his throne, is on the verge of being exposed by Medea’s questions and investigations.  In the end, Jason chooses to side with the King in order to save himself.  But Wolf shows us a Jason who is truly conflicted, weeps openly, and whose decisions do not come lightly.

Finally, something must be said about Wolf’s brilliant writing.  The book is a series of eleven monologues, each given my a different character who is involved in this series of circumstances in Corinth.  Wolf is a master at altering her writing to reflect the different characters which she is trying to portray.  Medea’s monologues, for instance,  are very eloquent and intelligent.  She understands the impossible circumstances that surround her and she is very reflective about what brought her to this place.  Jason, on the other hand, is brash and his dialogue has more short sentences and imperatives.  One of the other monologues that is masterfully written is that of Glauce, King Creon’s youngest daughter.  She is very naïve and immature and the run on sentences in her monologue reflect her confusion and misunderstanding about what is going on around her.

I can say that Wolf’s retelling of this ancient text has not only impressed me but has also given me a renewed interest in revisiting the original authors and viewing them from a new perspective.

About the Author:
c-wolfAs a citizen of East Germany and a committed socialist, Christa Wolf managed to keep a critical distance from the communist regime. Her best-known novels included “Der geteilte Himmel” (“Divided Heaven,” 1963), addressing the divisions of Germany, and “Kassandra” (“Cassandra,” 1983), which depicted the Trojan War.

She won awards in East Germany and West Germany for her work, including the Thomas Mann Prize in 2010. The jury praised her life’s work for “critically questioning the hopes and errors of her time, and portraying them with deep moral seriousness and narrative power.”

Christa Ihlenfeld was born March 18, 1929, in Landsberg an der Warthe, a part of Germany that is now in Poland. She moved to East Germany in 1945 and joined the Socialist Uni A citizen of East Germany and a committed socialist, Mrs. Wolf managed to keep a critical distance from the communist regime. Her best-known novels included “Der geteilte Himmel” (“Divided Heaven,” 1963), addressing the divisions of Germany, and “Kassandra” (“Cassandra,” 1983), which depicted the Trojan War.

She won awards in East Germany and West Germany for her work, including the Thomas Mann Prize in 2010. The jury praised her life’s work for “critically questioning the hopes and errors of her time, and portraying them with deep moral seriousness and narrative power.”

Christa Ihlenfeld was born March 18, 1929, in Landsberg an der Warthe, a part of Germany that is now in Poland. She moved to East Germany in 1945 and joined the Socialist Unity Party in 1949. She studied German literature in Jena and Leipzig and became a publisher and editor.

In 1951, she married Gerhard Wolf, an essayist. They had two children.

17 Comments

Filed under German Literature, Literature in Translation