Like it or not—and doubtless not many do—East Germany is arguably the most interesting and important country in Europe at present, and it doesn’t say much for the inquisitiveness of our cultural middlemen that the state of the arts there should have been so little explored. Brecht’s theater, yes, and the Berlin Komische Oper under Felsenstein; but the rest of the country’s theatrical life, its music, its painting and sculpture, most of its films: all these remain closed off. And the books? Though they are much more accessible (i.e., importable) than the products of the other arts, to a great extent they remain closed off too.
Ten years ago they were almost entirely so. In those days East Germany—nobody could call it the German Democratic Republic without showing disloyalty to Western principles—was a mystery country from which an intrepid Dutch explorer called Ad den Besten had just brought back a selection of geological specimens which he published under the title Deutsche Lyrik auf der anderen Seite, “German Poetry on the Other Side.” Apart from works by Brecht, hardly a book, not even by such excellent writers as Ludwig Renn and Anna Seghers, had appeared in West Germany, while at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair the GDR publishers’ stands were herded away into a ghetto. Even between 1953 and 1958, when the East German liberalization was at its (easily overlooked) height, this quite substantial sector of German literature seemed to be cut off by a wall.
Oddly enough, when the real wall went up across Berlin in 1961, the situation began to improve. Thanks to the enterprise of such West German publishers as Luchterhand, Hanser, and Rowohlt not only older and middle generation writers like Seghers, Lukács, Huchel, Strittmatter, and Kunert began appearing in the Federal Republic, where they were much more likely to be picked up by other Western publishers and their scouts, but the newer writers were being published too: for instance, Manfred Bieler, Wolf Biermann, and Christa Wolf. Throughout the 1960s this process developed, until today pretty well any self-respecting West German critic, publisher’s reader, or academic Germanist has to treat East German writing as part of his own increasingly open field.
One reason for this has no doubt been the very emergence of a younger generation who could no longer be ignored on the ground that their best work had been done before they had returned to the GDR (as could reasonably be said of Brecht, Seghers, and Renn, and all the older writers except Huchel). Another reason has been the role of Brecht himself, whose posthumous influence on poets on both sides of the wall created a new basis for mutual sympathy and understanding. A third has of course been the old red herring of political nonconformity, a nutritive but distractingly smelly fish whose traces became more detectable as writers concentrated more on the present-day German scene and at the same time came more closely and chafingly under party control. These factors also underlie the more recent Anglo-American interest, whose signs may be seen in the books reviewed here.
There is however also a fourth factor, which in the long run may seem the most important of all. This is the distinctive nature of the East German scene, which is like nothing else that I have ever experienced. It is not simply that the inhabitants of that embarrassing country were brought up on a different literary tradition from that of the rest of us after 1945 (no Gottfried Benn, no Lolita, no Kafka, and, for a long while, no crime stories), nor even that they regard the moral-social-political content of every piece of writing with a seriousness that right-minded Western critics since the turn of the century have found suspect. Rather it is the scene itself, both social and physical; and a good part of its distinctiveness has nothing to do with the political differences but is built into German geography and history.
For this, traditionally, is the Protestant, socialist, more industrialized half of the country, an area of brown-coal mining, of flat, sandy land where the big estates with their forests and lakes once were, of early factories, such as one still sees in Berlin, with their elaborate ironwork and variegated yellow brick chimneys. It is a solemn part of the world and a bleak one, gray in its over-all tone, and wide open to the East.
To this basic character can be added the outward visible effects of Germany’s division since 1945, many of them the consequences as much of sheer necessity as of ideology: the failure to paint or rebuild, the absence of advertising and motorcars (known to day trippers from West Berlin as “drabness”), the virtually unbelievable smoke and dirt of the old industrial towns. Much of the bureaucratic super-structure that has grown on top of this is of course appalling, as the visitor is apt to be reminded each time he has to produce his papers. But gray can be an unusually beautiful color, and there are ingrained decencies here and a still surviving idealism, even if it too is of a rather low toned kind.
The description of this climate seems increasingly to be what we look for most in East German writing, particularly the effects of the climate on the individual: on the solitary poet, that is, or the less artificially heroic figures of the novels. This began perhaps with Brecht’s late Buckow Elegies (deeply concerned though these also are with his country’s political problems) and with Uwe Johnson’s Speculations about Jacob of 1959, a novel which appeared only in the West but is an unmistakable product of the ambiguous East German atmosphere. But take John Flores’s useful new book on Poetry in East Germany, and you find that half of it is devoted to Huchel and Bobrowski, two isolated figures whose wintry, reflective verse certainly has its critical political implications (not least in the light of Huchel’s checkered editorship of the excellent magazine Sinn und Form), yet makes its more immediate and perhaps also more lasting impression as a poetry of that strange eastward-stretching countryside, with all its creatures and all the mixed implications of its past.
More subtly still, the same misty air permeates Christa Wolf’s novel The Quest for Christa T., which pieces together the life of a sensitive young woman growing up against this background, and employs a keen eye for place and a Johnson-like technique of narration to wrap up a surprisingly hard ethical core. The publication (on both sides of the Atlantic) of a good English translation of this small master-piece is something of an event. More than any other work of art to date, it seems to open up the Wall.
Unlike its very successful predecessor Divided Heaven, Frau Wolf’s third novel scarcely has a plot; instead it is an inquiry, or more precisely a reflective, reminiscent inquiry in which the narrator is herself deeply involved—the Nachdenken, thinking back, thinking after, of its German title. The loan of the author’s own Christian name suggests some autobiographical, introspective element, but the blend of love and detachment with which she writes seems anything but self-indulgent, and in any case this hardly matters. What she does, then, is to reconstruct the evolving character of a girl of her own generation whose education was interrupted by the debacle of 1945, using three crisscrossing and intermittently converging beams to light up different moments and aspects as they happen, in a staggered chronological order. The “beams” are objective narration, the narrator’s subjective memories of her friend, and a random selection of the latter’s posthumous writings and letters.
The events are not in themselves undramatic. There are the hardships of the war years and the defeat; there are an unpredictable marriage, an irrational love affair which breaks into it, finally a slow, then suddenly accelerating leukemia which leaves the husband with three young motherless girls to bring up in their isolated house. The tone however is subdued. The concern is not with tragedy so much as with thinking around tragedy, with unrealized options, with transitoriness itself, with what might have been.
This is matched by the author’s open-ended technique, which allows her, for example, to conjure up a revealing conversation with one of her former colleagues, then suddenly to decide: “No.”
I shan’t go to her, shan’t visit Gertrud Dölling. The conversation won’t take place, we’ll save ourselves the emotions.
—as well as by Christa T.’s own elusive personality: “At home everywhere and a stranger everywhere,” as it seemed to her school friends.
If the search, then, is a search for identity it is identity in a specifically East German setting; even the epigraph (“This coming-to-oneself—what is it?”) is taken from the country’s most approved poet, Johannes R. Becher. The awareness sought comes to Christa through writing, and although this might seem a discouragingly familiar literary remedy she is so ultra-sensitive to all that writing involves that the impression left is surprisingly fresh. “Writing means making things large.” “The difficulty of saying ‘I.”‘ “She thought life can be wounded by what one says” (though this isn’t quite the same as the German “Sie hielt das Leben für verletzbar durch Worte“)—these and other phrases suggest an unusual consciousness of the implications of putting pen to paper. And this in turn comes from a larger moral sensitivity which rises to the surface each time the East German writer’s traditional commitment clashes with the more discouraging facts of East German life:
What she wished for more intensely than anything…was the coming of our world, and she had precisely the kind of imagination one needs for a real understanding of it. Whatever they may say, the new world of people without imagination gives me the shudders. Factual people. Up-and-doing people, as she called them.
So Christa T. doesn’t like “the vehement overplayed words, the waving banners, the deafening songs,” still less “the frightful beaming heroes of newspapers, films and books.” Then in 1956, when she and her contemporaries find that “the iron believer” is finished, they come to realize that “we’d have to get used now to seeing by the sober light of real days and nights.” “A word came up, as if newly invented: truth.” Playing a pencil and paper game with her husband and friends a year before her death, she is asked to write down what humanity most needs if it is to survive.
I know her handwriting and afterwards I looked to see what her answer was. Conscience—there it was in her handwriting. Imagination.
We piece together an individual from such oblique touches as these, and she ultimately proves to be concerned with humanity itself.
You can get a good view of this new East German writing from the opening section of Peter Demetz’s study of modern German literature. Demetz sees his subject as divided nowadays into four roughly equal parts—Swiss, Austrian, East and West German—and he sets them off skillfully against one another and against their different politics and societies. Unfortunately the angle of vision alters after the first sixty pages, and Professor Demetz lapses into a more or less routine review of twenty-two writers who are dealt with individually, with a few pages on each of the forms they practice: poetry, the drama, and fiction. Though Demetz’s judgments here are often shrewd, this piecemeal approach prevents him from dealing with many older writers of at least equal importance (Canetti, say, or Kästner or Günther Eich), while he cannot find space for the newer writers unless they fit one of the general sections, which many do not. The book is thus incomplete; it tells us more what students of German are currently likely to be taught than what they, or we, might want to find out.
Moreover there are two matters which slightly unbalance the picture Demetz provides: first, his suggestion that the new East German “literary establishment” after 1945 were “all experienced functionaries” (which seems a pejorative term for the fact that some of them had sat on committees or held responsible literary-political jobs under the Russians), and secondly the undiscriminating judgments about such socially conscious West German writers as Enzensberger and Walser, whom he calls “supremely gifted” without giving enough evidence to convince the foreign reader of this, or discussing the way in which that country overpromotes its more polemical writers. Nonetheless, Demetz gives a very fair account of Bobrowski, Kunert, and the playwright Peter Hacks, and he is surely right to treat Uwe Johnson as the originator of a specifically East German form of “new novel,” even if it is not acceptable to the authorities there. “This most gifted writer of the German Democratic Republic,” he concludes, “just happens to work in West Berlin….”
Theodore Huebener’s book is the first introduction to East German literature by an American and is interesting mainly for that reason. In its elementary way it gives the reader plenty of names to follow up; unfortunately, however, it sets out from the odd premise that prewar Germany was West Germany—so that even Brecht, who was working in Berlin long before Hitler, and Renn, who came from Dresden, are said to have “left their homeland” to settle in East Germany after the war. It contains enough other awful errors (at least in matters I know about) to make its evidence generally open to doubt. Socialist Realism, for example, is identified with Social Realism and is said to have been formulated by Lenin; the date of the Russian Revolution is given as November, 1918; Wolf Biermann is placed in West Germany; The Threepenny Opera is “an entertaining but hardly serious musical” which only achieved popular success in Eric Bentley’s English translation; and the term gestisch, or “gestic,” becomes “the short, unrhymed poem…called a Gestich,” on the analogy of “distich” perhaps.
A far more reliable account of the East German background is the introductory section of John Flore’s book on poetry, which is informative, well written, and generally fair, aside from a certain tendency to dismiss any older writer (such as Strittmatter or Friedrich Wolf) who cannot immediately be identified as a critic of the system. The strengths of this book, which Flores appears to have developed from his doctoral thesis, are its ample quotations and intelligent analysis, often based on personal acquaintance with the poets themselves, which gives weight to the critical judgments and conveys a genuine sense of the writers discussed.
Nevertheless, the book suffers from two minor faults in planning. Instead of printing complete poems, Flores interrupts their quotation with chunks of analysis, which leaves the reader unclear about how much is being omitted. Moreover Huchel and Bobrowski are given a great deal of space, but instead of concentrating on them entirely, Flores tries to cover the whole scene by bringing in six other poets, most of whom seem to interest him much less.
But East German writing does not lend itself to an entirely logical approach, for such authoritarian systems obviously create incongruous alliances, in fact as well as in the minds of critics looking for symptoms of literary opposition. Thus Brecht, who even in his most nearly orthodox moments was too skeptical to call for the portrayal of “images of hope,” as Huchel once did, joined in 1953 with Huchel and the East German Academy to resist Stalinist measures in the arts. So too Stefan Hermlin in the early 1960s was encouraging Brecht’s younger followers in their conflict with officialdom, though again his debt to Aragon as well as his period of unqualified Socialist Realism make him poetically remote from them.
Even in Bobrowski’s case one feels that the message of reconciliation with the Slav and Baltic peoples to the east is still compatible with his readers’ ambiguous historic involvement in that part of the world, which the brilliant sense of place of his poems conjures up. Here there is a threefold conflict between official optimism, the undigested past, and this committed Christian’s desire for “socialism with a human face.”
Because the younger poets in East and West Germany have realized that they speak a common language (and also because poets anyway have a greater sense of international kinship than prose writers), this complicated, even at times contradictory, body of work is becoming accessible to the West. Reading poetry may continue to be the best way to explore recent East German writing.* Still it will be a pity if the novels and memoirs that have come out of this unique country are neglected. Perhaps poets will continue to lead the way here too, as Christopher Middleton has done in his excellent translation of Christa Wolf’s book. One hopes that his example will be followed by others, as it surely will if other East German writers can maintain the same sensitivity, commitment, and independence of mind as the author of The Quest for Christa T.
September 2, 1971
Many of the newer poets not covered in Mr. Flores’s book are included in an anthology to be published by Dutton in January, 1972, of which Michael Hamburger introduced a selection in the English literary magazine The Review last December. ↩