The Quest for Christa W

By Paley, Grace | The Nation, April 5, 1993 | Go to article overview

The Quest for Christa W


Paley, Grace, The Nation


About ten or twelve years ago I visited my friend Marianne Frisch in West Berlin. I asked her if I could somehow meet the writer Christa Wolf. Yes, they were friends, Marianne said, and took me by way of Checkpoint Charlie through the Wall past the taciturn, well, hostile guards into that other country, the German Democratic Republic.

Christa Wolf is the second writer I've ever sought out; the first was W.H. Auden, in New York in 1939, the year, maybe the day, that 10-year-old Christa stood watching the S.S. march through her town, bayonets pointing toward Poland. She remembers that day, sharp as a wood carving, and tells about it in one of her essays ("Thoughts About September 1, 1939").

Why did I want to see her? I had read The Quest for Christa T. and Patterns of Childhood. I thought we would talk for hours, this pacifist feminist who might never define herself in this way. What interested me was the woman, the writer who had a passionate commitment to literature and believed at the same time that she had to have a working relationship with society--and a responsibility as well. She seemed to be exactly the writer I wanted to know--not too many like her, though some are dear to me anyway.

And so we came to her apartment in East Berlin on Friedrichstrasse, trolleys rumbling by. I wanted to cry out--don't give up the trolley for the bus; your cars are bad enough. But of course my German was only a failed street Yiddish of about twenty words, and her English had just begun. Still we became friends. For me, a lucky mystery.

When you read the transcribed talks, essays and interviews in The Author's Dimension, you'll be reading Christa Wolfs political and literary history in the country that, after Allied shaping, became, in 1949, the German Democratic Republic, the special concern of the U.S.S.R. Berlin, itself divided, was stuck in the G.D.R.'s chest. Eventually the Wail was built, graffiti on one side, soldiers with guns on the other.

Between 1949 and 1962, Christa studied German literature in Leipzig and Jena, married Gerhard Wolf, a critic and poet, had two daughters, worked in a factory in industrial Halle, hoping to become the worker-artist the First Bitterfeld Conference wanted her (and all other artists) to become (described at the end of her talk, "Contribution to the Second Bitterfeld Conference"). She worked for the G.D.R. Writers' Union and edited Neue Deutsche Literatur and several contemporary anthologies.

Then what? How does a person, a young woman, learn enough, live enough, read and listen enough finally to become one of the most important European writers, to break through the wails of her own early understanding and narrow education in "the snares of theory," as she writes? Of course she was by nature thoughtful, interested, loved her native language and its speakers. She also hated not to be truthful, not to know what really happened.

It's a vital fact that she was a citizen of a small country, its history fractured right at the decisive years of her entrance into young womanhood. …

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