Academic journal article German Quarterly

Strategies under Surveillance: Reading Irmtraud Morgner as a GDR Writer

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Strategies under Surveillance: Reading Irmtraud Morgner as a GDR Writer

Article excerpt

Westgate, Geoffrey. Strategies under Surveillance: Reading Irmtraud Morgner as a GDR Writer. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002. 276 pp. $47.00 paperback.

My interest in this book was initially piqued by the fact that its author is male. After the appearance of Trobadora Beatriz in 1974, the GDR writer Irmtraud Morgner became the domain of (above all, western) feminist critics who focused on questions of female subjectivity, emancipation and creativity. Male critics tended to write Morgner off as a women's author, and few bothered to read the long, involved novels for which Morgner was mainly known. What would a male British Nachwuchsgermanist-Westgate's book is based on his University of Oxford dissertation-have to say about Irmtraud Morgner, and especially now, more than a decade after the demise of the GDR and the subsequent relativization of GDR literature?

After acknowledging and reviewing the previous scholarship on Morgner, Westgate sets out in a new direction, placing Morgner in the political and cultural context of the GDR and looking at the entire trajectory of her work, from her early days as Lektorin at neue deutsche literatur in the late 1950s up through Das heroische Testament, the fragmentary third part of her trilogy, left unfinished at the author's death in 1990. It is Westgate's thesis that Morgner was a political writer, that her writing was primarily influenced by the "socialist ideal and its deformation in the GDR" (3), that her texts "walked the political tightrope within the GDR context" (12), and therefore must be read against this background in order to be properly understood. His overall objective is to show that Morgner deserves a lasting place in the GDR literary canon.

In carrying out his study, Westgate made ample use of numerous archives which were generally inaccessible before 1989/1990: the party archives of the SED, archives of the Ministry of Culture (of the Hauptverwaltung in charge of publishing), the Stasi archives administered by the Gauck-Behorde, archives of the national and Berlin offices of the Schriftstellerverband, as well as publishers' archives and those of the East Berlin Akademie der Kunste. he also had access to Morgner's Nachlass, and spoke and corresponded with former functionaries, friends and family members, in his effort to piece together and weigh the information he had gathered.

The book is divided into five parts: three literary critical chapters, in which he traces the development of Morgner's writing from the relative orthodoxy of the 1950s, through the socialist modernism of her 'breakthrough' novel Rumba auf einen Herbst, which, written in the early 1960s, became a victim of the infamous 11^sup th^ Plenum in 1965-a pivotal point in her life, as Westgate shows-to the avant-garde experiments of the underdiscussed texts of the late 1960s, to the "grand self-confidence" (17) of Trobadora Beatriz and the ultimate disillusion and cultural pessimism of Amanda and the posthumously published Das heroische Testament. …

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