Christa Wolf was an East German writer who wrote a novel—A Model Childhood—that I remember reading decades ago and being somewhat impressed by, but clearly not that impressed. I never read anything else by her, only a few things about her—some collaboration with the Stasi and so on.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Michael Moynihan takes a look at Wolf’s last book. The whole piece is well worth reading, but this, in particular, caught my eye:
City of Angels is billed as novel, but it should be read as a defensive, occasionally polemical, political memoir of Wolf’s life in both the GDR and unified Germany. The book takes place in 1992, in post-Rodney King riot Los Angeles, where Wolf had briefly relocated after accepting a fellowship at the Getty Center. In this “monstrous city,” at the heart of the American empire, Wolf grapples with the Stasi revelations, explores a country that had previously welcomed so many German exiles from Nazism and laments the disappearance of the socialist bloc.
This is no traditional narrative; instead, Wolf drifts through a cast of flat, interchangeable characters who exist only to set up multipage speeches on communism, capitalism and the horrible poverty of the Los Angeles ghetto. As to the Stasi revelation, she swaddles it within an emotional, moral and occasionally lawyerly defense of her life in East Germany. She argues (convincingly, it must be said) that her Stasi collaboration didn’t amount to much. Far more damning than what was in her secret-police file is the nostalgia for her totalitarian homeland that permeates City of Angels.
Wolf gives the impression that East Germany was a semi-normal, semi-civilized country. She “loved” it, she says, mewling that such admissions “earned you nothing but mocking jeers.” When an American asks if she celebrated when the Berlin Wall fell, Wolf responds with “a burst of laughter” and a sarcastic response: “Oh yes, I was so happy.” One suspects this joke wouldn’t amuse Karin Gueffroy, whose 20-year-old son Chris was the last person murdered while attempting to defeat the wall and flee Wolf’s beloved prison-state…
Thankfully, the tedium of intra-German debates on Wolf’s past are leavened by her hilariously naive take on American culture. Two Bill Clinton-supporting friends tell her about how “hard it was for liberals, never mind people on the left!, to find suitable jobs in recent years,” and this was especially true “in the universities, [where] you had to gauge whom you could talk openly with.” She meets a leftist couple who “found the capitalist system perverse” but “couldn’t go public with this opinion.” These ludicrous anecdotes are offered as a parallel to Wolf’s own difficulty in speaking out against the East German government.
Her brief stay in Los Angeles provides an opportunity to present a moral equivalence between totalitarian East Germany and the democratic United States. In America, J. Edgar Hoover kept files on Americans, Wolf writes, just like the Stasi did. And until the election of Bill Clinton, she says, all of America’s presidents were plucked from “the secret police.” Her novels, she hastens to add, were censored by both Soviet and American publishers. U.S. editors, she claims absurdly, wouldn’t countenance criticism of the Vietnam War in her 1980 novel Patterns of Childhood. Yup, no American books criticizing the war in Vietnam had appeared prior to 1980.
While Wolf is being mistreated by journalists who probe her Stasi connections and question her instant nostalgia for the GDR, she reminds us of past party members who also had to endure public obloquy. Poor Bertolt Brecht, her fellow Ossi, who was unfairly treated by America’s House Committee on Un-American Activities…
Ah yes, Brecht. He came up, naturally enough, on a discussion (on BBC Radio 4, thank you Tuned In!) on a new production of his A Life of Galileo. Brecht’s somewhat shifty testimony before the HUAC was criticized (he should have been more forthright about his leftist views, apparently), but his privileged position (somewhere between propagandist, court jester, and exhibit) within the East German dictatorship was not, however, worthy of comment.
I’m perfectly happy to appreciate an artist’s work as art, despite profound disagreement with the politics that might have shaped it (or, indeed, which it might have been designed to serve), but, to do that properly, it’s necessary to come to an accurate understanding of what those politics actually were. With his review of City of Angels Michael Moynihan helps that process in respect of Wolf in a manner in which those BBC panelists were—for reasons it’s all too easy to guess—unwilling to do for Brecht.