Academic journal article German Quarterly

Rereading East Germany: The Literature and Film of the GDR

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Rereading East Germany: The Literature and Film of the GDR

Article excerpt

Leeder, Karen, ed. Rereading East Germany: The Literature and Film of the GDR. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2016. 260 pp. $99.99 (hardcover).

Anthologies on a broader topic, such as a national literature or culture, must balance between stock-taking, an overview of existent scholarship, and a breaking of new ground. Rereading East Germany is a case in point. The book is subtitled "The Literature and Film of the GDR," but only one chapter, by Seán Allan, is devoted to film; seven out of twelve are on literature, and four others to larger questions of culture. Absent are music or the visual arts, on which interesting work has been done recently (by Matthias Tischer and Nina Noeske on music, or April Eisman on art); one might think also of recent work on television's role in the GDR, by Henning Wrage or Heather Gumbert. In this emphasis, the book tends somewhat to reproduce the GDR's self-understanding as a Literaturgesellschaft (Stephen Brockmann, The Writers' State: Constructing East German Literature, 1945-1959 [2015]). Its chapters on literature are divided either by genre (play, novel, drama) or subject (Georgina Paul on gender, Alison Lewis on literature and the Stasi), which means that intermedial relations between literature and film or film and television, or literature's changing place in the GDR's Medienlandschaft, are not emphasized.

As Karen Leeder points out early on in her introduction, one of the chief tasks for scholars of GDR culture today is to get beyond the old fellow-traveler sympathies of older scholarship, which meant that "for many years critical judgments were skewed more to political or moral considerations than aesthetic ones" (2).

Another problem with much older scholarship is its curious provincialism, its lack of comparativist dimension, meaning that the GDR was often seen as something absolutely sui generis; recent scholarship on Eastern European culture should be a pointer to GDR scholars to develop comparative perspectives of their own. This means that the further development of GDR cultural scholarship will depend on the ability to make difficult judgments, including judgments on cultural figures once admired as representatives of an alternative Germany. Many of the best chapters in this book do break new ground, including Wolfgang Emmerich's imaginative first chapter on "The GDR and Its Literature," which is full of new ideas on how to reconsider its topic, including references to Bakhtin's chronotope, sharp criticisms of some treasured aspects of GDR ideology (including antifascism), and strong judgments on "what remains" of GDR literature.

Jill Twark's chapter on satire is similarly fresh and inventive, with productive suggestions on how to read GDR satirical prose as a "novel of complexity" (136, referring to scientific "complexity theory") and well-focused observations on postWende satire as well. Gerrit-Jan Berendse's chapter on poetry opens up that subject to cross-cultural relations with other countries' poetic traditions, particularly to the rich vein of translations from Eastern European and Russian literature that was one of the GDR's most impressive accomplishments. Bakhtin is evoked again in Berendse's suggestion that "poetry written in the GDR is characterized by dialogism, and for this reason it signifies the appropriate genre with which the stereotype of the GDR as a closed culture is denied" (143). This may be one of the reasons why Emmerich, at the end of his chapter, notes that while "GDR literature produced one playwright of world stature-Heiner Müller-and a wealth of extraordinarily acccomplished and dynamic poetry [...] its prose literature, which has been more widely discussed [...] may be found wanting" (30). Even within poetry, Berendse is highly critical of the Prenzlauer Berg poets, whose rebellion he finds limited by their "discursive imprisonment" (154) in a pattern of static confrontation with official culture. …

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