Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year 2001-2011

Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year is without equal. With remarkable resolve, Wolf described one day, the twenty-seventh of September, for five decades. This latest edition completes what is available in English translation. The earlier volume is inexplicably out of print but available at a premium. We have translator Katy Derbyshire and Seagull Books to thank for completing the project with the years 2001-2011.

I feel at home within the fluid form of Christa Wolf’s diary of sorts, where you sense that she luxuriates in what feels like a personal composition without the tension of public display. Each twenty-seventh of September, Wolf builds texture from whatever happens in her day, combining her thoughts on weighty world events, private reading and what Virginia Woolf called the dailiness of inessential trivia.

This project situates the fabric of Wolf’s life at its centre. Her anxieties about her weight and ageing, the books she is reading her–now fully grown–children’s birthdays and illnesses, mingle indiscriminately with her thoughts on social and political causes, the latest American wars, and the minutiae of what husband Gerd is cooking for the evening meal.

For compassion and lucidity, Wolf’s One Day a Year bears comparison with similar works, which present daily life as an artistic construct: the diaries of Virginia Woolf, Pepys and André Gide. She succeeds in creating remarkable substance from the impalpable and evanescent fabric of daily life.

Wittgenstein on Europe, America and Whistling Dixie

“I will say, posthumously, that Europe is the world’s sore affliction, that you in America who have taken the best that Europe has to offer while hoping to avoid the worst are, in your indigenously American phrase, ‘whistling Dixie.’ All your God-drenched thinking replicates the religious structures built out of the hallucinatory life of the ancient Near East by European clericalists, all your social frictions are the inheritance of colonialist slave-making economies of European businessmen, all your metaphysical conundrums were concocted for you by European intellectuals, and you have now come across the ocean in two world wars conceived by European politicians and so have installed in your republic just the militarist mind-state that has kept our cities burning during since the days of Hadrian.”

Christa Wolf, quoting Wittgenstein, from a preface in Doctorow’s City of God. I’m unable to find the source of this quotation. If you know, please let me know. I shall clearly have to read the Doctorow, which the NYT reviewed concluding, “The ideas are certainly there — the idea of New York, the idea of God, the idea of literature. But where is the novel?” If anything, that only increases its allure.

[Postscript: I’m reasonably sure that this is a fictional Wittgenstein quote.]

Christa Wolf: One Day a Year: 1960-2000

It might seem, at first appearance, a little daunting, this six hundred and eighteen page book that promises to recount in exacting detail One Day a Year for forty years, those between 1960 and 2000. Daunting, unless, of course, you are acquainted with the writing of Christa Wolf, for this will hardly be your first Wolf. If you’ve been fortunate  enough to read her Cassandra, Medea, or the first-rate City of Angels, you’ll already be looking forward to immersing yourself into this autobiography of sorts, of a writer of such high cultural seriousness as Wolf.

Aside from the fascination of following Wolf’s reluctant self-revelation over such an extended time, her book also provides the sublime backdrop of history as Wolf becomes ever more disillusioned with the communism of the German Democratic Republic, whilst retaining an unshakeable faith in the economic–if not humane–ideals of Marxian socialism.

Juxtaposed with the historical context, Wolf writes of her meals with husband ‘Gerd’ Wolf, the books she is reading, her literary friends and influences–Anna Seghers, Nelly Sachs, Günter Grass, Max Frisch and especially Heinrich Böll–and the unfolding lives–birthdays, marriages, divorces–of her daughters. Beneath the macro and micro history lies Wolf’s agonising struggle to escape the boundaries of her recurring depression, realising early the important metaphysical necessity of writing.

It is impossible to read One Day a Year without bringing to mind another writer’s veiled autobiographical works, that of her near-namesake Virginia Woolf. For both writers, writing was a therapeutic act, a way of transposing trauma into literature. Both found it difficult to write about their inner selves. As Woolf wrote so poignantly in The Waves, “But how to describe the world seen without a self? There are no words.”

I Insist Upon Mysteries

“Addendum, three days later: Interestingly enough, I “forgot” to mention an entire train of thought that occupied me on that day, which lies almost a week in the past. Surprising even to me, during the evening conversation among the four of us, I said that I actually did not believe that I could still call myself a Marxist. Not that I would not consider Marxist economic thought–above all with respect to its criticism of capitalism–to be correct and important. but that thought represents only a small segment of human life–just like politics, which has held us in its clutches for far too long. And, perhaps the most important thing: I doubt that the role the economy plays in the motivation of human deeds and misdeeds is as determining as Marx claims. They, the Marxists, concede themselves very little with human nature, which–even that has developed historically–works against them with enormous irrationalities that transcend their own economic interests. The sober economic calculation: if it would at least prevail! No, it probably lies within Marxism itself, as it has presented itself until now, that it could come down to this purely pragmatic economic doctrine and to this utilitarianism, from which not another spark can be struck and which yields nothing for art. I insist upon mysteries that cannot be unveiled by applying an economic law, and upon human autonomy that the individuals cannot surrender to a higher organisation with its claims of omnipotence, without destroying his or her own personality.”

Christa Wolf, One Day a Year (September 27, 1980) (trans. Lowell A. Bangerter)

Engaging with a Book

There are, I suppose, two ways to read a book. Perhaps many more. I tend to inhabit a book, giving rein to a flight of imagination that affords me the opportunity to see through the eyes of a character. Others, I imagine, spectate from afar like viewers at a puppet show.

I read Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth twice recently, a kind of double reading on the first occasion, when I read it straight through and started again at the beginning and read it straight through again without a break. It is the sort of book that I’ll read five or six times, and still be ready to read again.

Observing a writer’s world through their eyes, or sometimes, just the eyes of a particular character, can be so ineffable, so very fertile, that I wish to prolong the encounter for as long as is possible. Another time, reading a book like Max Frisch’s Homo Faber, the view is unsettling, discordant even, which is fecund in a different way, but still worth drawing out, only to emerge after a double reading, anguished but purged

There are writers I wish to engage with to the greatest extent, seeking out all they write: stories, letters, diaries, everything. They offer a rare chance to disturb in some small but permanent way how I conceptualise the world. It is the very best form of escapism, a boundary crossing, a chance to step over a threshold from one self to the other, not just intellectually but on a deep, emotional level. These writers that I set out to read to completion disengage me from myself, silently and profoundly. Who would I be, I wonder, without the alchemical transformation caused by writers like Dante, Christa Wolf, Denton Welch, Virginia Woolf, Mathias Énard, Roberto Calasso, Doris Lessing, Samuel Beckett, Kate Zambreno, Homer.

It isn’t only fiction that provides voluptuous literary encounters. When reading nonfiction, without that distinction between a writer and a writer’s voice, it is possible to develop what feels uncannily like a friendship. Such friends are Gilbert Highet, Walter Kaufmann, Plato, Hélène Cixous, Marcus Aurelius, who have each influenced my life for the better. This intellectual endowment, this gift that is reading, is transformative. Sometimes enchanting, not always comfortable or easy, but that is the nature of friendship.

A Horrible Vision of the Future (1966)

“I elucidate my observation that there are people, an increasing number of people it seems to me, who resemble those sick people in the realm of normality: who keep their feelings and passions well tempered, never reach the verge of a real conflict, are able to swallow everything, if not process it, never know devotion or even moral steadfastness in love, nor see any reason or it . . .
Yes, he says, that is technology. It produces this human commodity, and we cultivate it–But to have to live among such people is a horrible vision of the future . . .–How so? You can still live among mentally ill people who still have all that. Besides, no hereditary biological mutations occur among these people, everything can be reclaimed in coming generations. If technology is not apathetically imitated, they way the pupil copies the teacher’s A, but if we play with it . . .”

Christa Wolf, One Day a Year (trans. Lowell A. Bangerter)

Christa Wolf, City of Angels

Cassandra, Medea. In Christa Wolf’s retelling of these old stories, there are no more heroes. Her project is ideological, the dismantling of myth to uncover the inherent manipulation. By groping her way into the past, Wolf provides a different way to look at our present situation.

In the earlier No Place on Earth, Wolf’s reference points are taking shape, and will be further developed in the two later works. Though political, she is much more than a mere polemicist, explicitly playing with a concept of memory beyond Socrates’ slab of wax, closer to the idea that memory is what makes perception possible, and that our interpretation of reality, based on our memories, is our principle source of wisdom.

In her last novel, City of Angels, these themes coalesce in a book that blurs all the traditional boundaries between reality and fiction. These are my favourite books, surprising and felt in equal measure. Wolf projects instances of her life onto a protagonist that is simultaneously subject and character. But none of that is what makes this novel so brilliant. It is rather the way we inhabit her protagonist’s mind, Wolf’s mind, as its exploration of its own subjectivity and recollection unfolds. As Brodsky wrote, “Evolution is not a species’/adjustment to a new environment but one’s memories/triumph over reality.”

On Guard Against Herself

“She knows too well the causes which can trigger in a woman some unconscious response to a man: mere self-absorption, the dread of an ignominious loneliness. The man, driven by egotism to think himself irresistible, has the knack of interpreting such signals, no matter how covert, as an open invitation. She must be on guard against herself, all the more so because she considers herself capable on an uncalculating and boundless self-surrender.”

Christa Wolf, No Place on Earth, (trans. Jan van Heurck)

Bachmann and Wolf

The German Library’s Bachmann and Wolf caught me unawares; words spilling out, some stirring, others stinging, but the whole thing a treasure outright. How does one adequately explain why one loves this story or that particular book? The more I write here about books, the less I think I am even capable of objectivity. I don’t care for reviews, but only understanding why readers love the objects of their attention, which inevitably amounts to explaining themselves.

My affection for Christa Wolf’s stories is long standing. I expect to read everything of hers that makes it into English translation. If my memory serves me right, Wolf’s Cassandra landed first in my collection, imposing itself with its graceful interpretation of dismal aspects of the human condition. Wolf never coerces you into her stories, but invites you in gently, making you feel almost at home, before shaking you up, but gradually like a long ride over cobble-stones. Bachman and Wolf includes her short novel No Place on Earth, which quietly turned me over and over, leaving me washed ashore, and with little choice but to turn back to its first pages and read again, slower, carving notches with my pencil.

I suppose flowerville lead me to Wolf, as to Bachmann, first encountered in this collection, but quickly become indispensable, especially for the fiery lovers’ script of The Good God of Manhattan, translated by Valerie Tekavec, a flight into language every bit as inspired as Orpheus and Eurydice, or Romeo and Juliet. I expect to read as much Bachmann as I can find in translation.

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2017

This time last year I posted some well-intentioned reading ideas for 2016. I conformed to pattern and failed almost entirely to fulfil my intentions. This is symptomatic of a good year’s reading. Distractions came in the form of writers like Max Frisch, Anna Kavan, Rachel Cusk and Jorge Semprún, all of whom insisted on my attention, and will continue to do so as I explore their oeuvre.

I read some fine books by some first-class writers that I hadn’t read before, and very much hope to read more of: Adrian Nathan West, Amy Liptrot, Lara Pawson, Arno Schmidt, Maggie Nelson and Ali Smith.

Late in the year I discovered the Backlisted podcast. I rarely bother with podcasts but this one should be on the radar of anyone who enjoys this blog. After listening to an episode on William Maxwell, I’m now reading, slowly and with pencil in hand, So Long, See You Tomorrow. I’ll struggle to write objectively about the story. It is in a sense too close to me. Maxwell’s mother died when he was young, as mine did, and he has an exile’s sensibility. Both make the story terribly moving. But that aside, Maxwell writes with the subtly and elegance of a chemical reaction. I shall start 2017 with Maxwell’s work, both this and other novels and short stories, perhaps also dipping into his essays and memoir.

All intentions have a corresponding possibility of fulfilment, more likely if specific books are embarrassing by their presence. A stack of Open Letter and Fitzcarraldo Editions sit within easy reach of my reading chair, part of an intention to read more broadly next year and to spend more time than normal with contemporary books–contemporary by my criteria being books less than ten years old. To this end, I am now subscribed to Deep Vellum, Open Letter, And Other Stories and Fitzcarraldo Editions, all small presses publishing intriguing writers.

My favourite publisher Seagull Books have books forthcoming that will demand attention, including newly translated work by Tomas Espedal, Christa Woolf and Max Frisch. I’m also looking forward to new books by Catherine Lacey, Claudio Magris, Kate Zambreno, Jessa Crispin and Yiyun Li.

The fault and glimpse of newness often leads me astray so expect distractions. If the year ahead holds surprises as great as Rachel Cusk, William Maxwell and Jorge Semprún I’ll be a fortunate reader.

Thanks for reading along in 2016 and for taking time to discuss books with me here, in person and on Twitter. I love little more than to discuss books so more conversation please!

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2015 (updated)

These are not reading resolutions. Writers promising literary gifts lead me astray too easily for these ideas to be fixed in any way.

This year I read widely covering fifty or so writers, concentrating my reading more deeply only twice on Houellebecq and Anne Carson’s work. In 2015 I’d like to read more deeply into the work of some of my favourite authors: alternative Dante and Homer translations (and Adam Nicholson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters) ,  more Ballard’s short stories, always more Beckett, John Berger, Roberto Calasso, more Anne Carson, the new Tom McCarthy, Robert Musil’s diaries, Hélène Cixous, Coetzee, Jenny Diski, Dostoevsky, Marguerite Duras, Pierre Hadot, Houellebecq’s new one if translated next year, Kafka’s short stories, László Krasznahorkai, Clarice Lispector, Bourdieu, Doris Lessing, Nabokov, Alice Oswald, Robert Macfarlane, Nietzsche, Atiq Rahimi, WG Sebald, Thomas Mann, Christa Wolf and Virginia Woolf.

Beyond these ‘old chestnuts’ (as Beckett called his favourite authors) I’m looking forward to unexpected surprises within the pages of the following new books, either missed in 2014 or due in 2015, by authors I have not read before:

  1. Kirmin Uribe – Bilbao – New York – Bilbao
  2. Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric
  3. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor – Dust
  4. Ceridwen Dovey – Only the Animals
  5. Karin Wieland (trans. Shelley Frisch) – Dietrich & Riefenstahl: The dream of the new woman
  6. Can Xue – The Last Lover
  7. Anna Smaill – The Chimes
  8. Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith) – The Vegetarian
  9. Paul Celan – Breathturn Into Timestead
  10. David Winters – Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory

There are several other writers whose older works I’d like to get around to exploring sometime soon including Jens Bjørneboe, Martin Shaw, Ivan Illich, Eva Hoffman, Ivan Goncharov, David Abram, Ágota Kristóf, Rebecca Solnit, Tomas Espedal and Elfriede Jelinek.

As always, distractions are greater than my ambition, but if I manage to take in a decent selection of the above I’m expecting a good year in reading. There are several other titles I have my eye on but I’m mindful of your patience and Molloy’s admission that ‘if you set out to mention everything you would never be done.’

A Year of Reading: 2013

It was an exceptional year of reading that began with Benoît Peeters’ prodigious Derrida biography. I also finally got around to Knowlson’s respectful but no less captivating Beckett biography.

2013 was a year for new encounters: notably Jane Bennett, Pierre Hadot and Christa Wolf, each of whose work I intend to continue exploring. Christa Wolf’s Cassandra and Medea linger long as intriguing reinterpretations of myths. Jane Bennett and Pierre Hadot’s philosophical work is transformative, and leads me back to Ancient Greece; expect to see a concentration on old Greeks next year. Robert Fagles’ lucid Iliad has surpassed Lattimore to become my favourite. On translations, until I left my much annotated copy, together with a fourteen-month old sketch/note-book, in an Indian temple, I was luxuriating in the Hollander Dante like a hippo in a mud bath.

Of books published this year (or late in 2012) my favourite non-fiction was Robert Calasso’s La Folie Baudelaire, or Shelley Frisch’s translation of Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Years of Insight. I didn’t read much contemporary fiction but lapped up Rachel Kushner’s enjoyable The Flamethrowers.

I continued to read Clarice Lispector. A Breath of Life and Near to the Wild Heart were as remarkable as Água Vida. Over the next twelve months I’ll read all the Lispector I can lay my hands on.

As is traditional, for me anyway, serendipity lead me up totally different paths than my intentions of a year ago. All I can say with any certainty of the next twelve months is more Coetzee, Cixous, Lispector and Beckett.

I read pretty much the same number of books as 2012, but still worry about Twitter as a distracting time-sink.

Idées Fixes of the Week

Caspar David Friedrich – On the Sailing-Vessel (1818)

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*****

Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth. SFMOMA

There is no history. Each human being makes his own history, has his own thoughts and his own world but everyone is alone with his own illusions, with his own methods…I think each human being tries to put themselves in a bigger context. You always create an illusion that you stay longer on earth than you do…That’s what a religion is…This reassures you in a sense in the work because in this world there is no sense. So the scientific process…doesn’t lead to any key to the work….the more we know, more we don’t know. It’s always like this only mythology…tries to explain the world in a logical sense.

*****

Jorie Graham – Untitled (2010)

Of the two dogs the car hit, one, two, while we were talking, and thinking about
how to change each
other’s
mind, the other people’s
survived – dark spot near the front
fender just hair blowing in low wind, a spot all wind’s, then
a stir in the ribs and everything’s rising slow-motion up from the tight small shoulders, the
chest, the
dragging hind end of itself on the dirt
road as if sewing a new strap
back
on, dragging, a long
moment, then the
division occurs and the wide perishing shrinks and the legs
are four again and
up. Not ours. Ours
is placed by gravity on the far bank, as if an as yet unbuilt unimagined house on the
empty field into which
one peers past mist
wondering how will or
concentration or want alone will bring the as-yet-not thing into view. What will it take to
build the
thing? The not yet, not anymore, not
again? That. Wouldn’t the beautiful field be best left
alone? unfilled? No. Now the children are folding
over it and sound
is restored and it is the only human
world, something perished on the road, it was its turn, you have your turn says the road I
stare blankly
at, white dust,
thinking there are words now
that must take the
place of this
creature, and I
am at the point in the road where I, who will have lived, no matter how many thousands
of years in the future come, if they come,
even if there are no more humans then or they have become unrecognisable, I,
even when no rain will have come down
in the memory of generations
so they think the story of such an element is one of the myths, the empty
myths, I still will have
lived this day and all the preceding ones of my
person, mine, as I rise now
to the moment when right words
are needed – Dear moon
this morning I woke up, I thought the room for an instant was a blossoming, then a
burning cell, then a thing
changing its clothes, huge transparent clothes, the ceiling part of the neck, where is
the head I thought, of the year, this
year, where are the eyes of
the years – the years, can we stay human, will we slow the end
down, how much, what do we have to promise, how think our way
from here to
there – and human life survived – and its world – ah, room, the
words – has it been just
luck, the room now wild with winds of centuries swirling floods tectonic plates like wide
bones shifting round me – elephants flow through, all gone, volcanoes emerging and
disappearing just like that, didn’t even really get to see them, pestilence, there, it took its
people, hurricane, there, it took its – ‘you’re a
martian’ I heard the angry child cry out on the street
below to the other
child, and the door slams, and the only story I know, my head, my century, the one where
187 million perished in wars, massacre, persecution, famine – all policy induced – is the
one out of which
I must find the reason
for the loved still-young creature being carried now onto the family lawn as they try
everything, and all murmurs shroud hum cry instruct, and all the
six arms gleam, firm, limp, all over it, caresses, tentacular
surround of the never-again, rush of blood and words, although look, you out there
peering in, listening, to see who we were: here: this was history:
their turn
is all they actually have
flowing in them.

******

Christa Wolf, City of Angels or Overcoat of Dr. Freud

Night thoughts have a different color than day thoughts, a different slant, more than anything else they know all the secret paths and chinks in the armor they can take advantage of to force their way into consciousness.

*****

Ovid – Metamorphoses

No species remains constant: that great renovator of matter
Nature, endlessly fashions new forms from old: there’s nothing
in the whole universe that perishes, believe me; rather
it renews and varies its substance. What we describe as birth
is no more than incipient change from a prior state, while dying
is merely to quit it. Though the parts may be transported
hither and thither, the sum of all matter is constant.

*****

I’ve posted Ginevra before, but she haunts me …

Leonardo da Vinci
Ginevra de’ Benci (1474)

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The Deeps of Time

I saw here more clearly than anywhere that it is impossible to separate layers of culture, that they interpenetrate, that the earlier cult shines through that of the present, and through that earlier cult shines a cult more ancient still. I saw that there is virtually nothing more enduring than the rituals which it is the storyteller’s job to reinterpret as needed. Behind the secularised narrative lies the saint’s legend, behind the legend the heroic epic, behind the epic the myth.

Christa Wolf
Conditions of a Narrative

Reluctantly Discontinuing Patterns of Childhood

It doesn’t surprise me that Christa Wolf had difficulties writing Patterns of Childhood. Wolf says that she made thirty-eight attempts to begin this fictional autobiography, the reconstruction of her memories of a childhood under Hitler’s National Socialism.

Though the work is complex and often extraordinarily beautiful, I found myself deflected by the text, partly by the frequent need to reflect on Wolf’s concepts of selfhood and history, and partly due to a puzzling estrangement from the narrative. This may be the first time I have abandoned a book (temporarily perhaps) that I found both beautiful and profound. Why this should be the case intrigues me and I haven’t a precise explanation. I found the communication between family members, mother-daughter particularly, somewhat formulaic. The narrator addresses herself in the second person, and her past self, Nelly, in the third person. This unusual autobiographical point of view may account for the distance I felt from the work.

Wolf’s Cassandra has been much on my mind since reading it a fortnight ago. I tracked down a 1984 edition published by Virago Press that includes four companion lectures, which illuminate its background and implications. I’ve also tracked down Wolf’s Medea, which flowerville suggests outclasses Cassandra.