Christa Wolf’s Life Under Surveillance

Christa Wolf’s Life Under Surveillance

A Day at a Time

Christa Wolf’s life under surveillance.


There are many mechanisms of expression more private than a diary. Thinking is invisible, and talking is impermanent. A diary, however, has public aspirations: All writing is to some degree expectant of an audience. The preface to One Day a Year, the meticulous yearly record that the East German writer Christa Wolf maintained from 1960 until 2011, concedes this point. At first, Wolf claims that her notes represent “pure, authentic” life with “no artistic intentions.” But only a few lines later, she admits that “the need to be known, including one’s problematic characteristics, one’s mistakes and flaws, is the basis of all literature and is also one of the motives behind this book.” We amass days, Wolf suggests, in the secret hope that someone else will witness and redeem them. The price we pay for our exhibitionism is a life conducted under observation.

One Day a Year was inspired by “One Day in the World,” a project devised by the socialist-realist writer Maxim Gorky. At the First Congress of Soviet Writers, Gorky proposed that authors from around the world contribute descriptions of an ordinary day, collectively capturing a richly heterogeneous moment in global history. His suggestion resulted in One Day in China, compiled in 1936, and One Day in the World, published in Russian in 1937. But Wolf’s take on the project was much more personal. Her efforts chart not many lives at a single moment but a single life at many moments, memorializing not a shared world but a viciously divided country that was, by turns, ferociously nationalistic, war-torn, optimistic, disillusioned, and, finally, uneasily unified. Her chosen day was September 27, and she faithfully observed her annual ritual for more than five decades, mapping her ascent to literary prominence with the 1968 publication of her best-known work, The Quest for Christa T., and the 1983 publication of her daring novel-cum-essay Cassandra, a feminist reimagining of the story of Helen of Troy that doubled as a critique of East Germany (officially the German Democratic Republic).

Throughout, Wolf’s journals bear moving witness to the personal and political landmarks that constitute the bulk of her life: her struggle to come to terms with communism’s quick devolution; her despair over the gender inequalities that belied the GDR’s promise of egalitarianism; the marriages of her daughters, Annette and Katrin (“Tinka”); her tenderness for her husband, Gerhard (“Gerd”), who was her most devoted reader and so her harshest critic; and the shocking revelation, in 1993, that she’d served as an informant for the Stasi, the East German secret police, from 1959 to 1962—a collusion that she claimed she’d forgotten or suppressed.

Long before the publication of One Day a Year’s first volume, Wolf predicted that her tendency toward self-observation would warp her private life. “This entire observed day falls under the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. It is deformed by my constant viewing of it,” she worried as early as the late 1970s. Even in her diaries, Wolf was induced to spy on herself.

Wolf grew up under surveillance. She was born in 1929, in the then-German city of Landsberg an der Warthe, and her youth was carefully standardized. Her father joined the Nazi Party, and Wolf became a member of the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the League of German Girls, in her early youth. The title of her lightly fictionalized memoir Kindheitsmuster (1976) emphasizes the violent regimentation that defined her infancy. Muster means “pattern,” as in the pattern for a dress, a template that prohibits deviation or difference. Kindheitsmuster presents just such a model: It describes the brutal homogenization that Germans faced under the Nazis and Wolf’s subsequent struggle to recover the individuality she’d forfeited. “Statistics are too coarse for your purpose,” she writes of herself in the second person. “Even in the face of exact figures, you’d still want more information, and it’s unobtainable in this world.”

The information that Wolf sought was unavailable in part because Landsberg an der Warthe, the site of her childhood recollections, no longer existed; it had become the Polish city of Gorzów Wielkopolski. What remained of Germany was scarcely more recognizable. Wolf and her family fled the Red Army and found themselves in Mecklenburg, a province in what would shortly become East Germany. In Kindheitsmuster, the narrator’s daughter recoils from understanding “how one could be there and not there at the same time, the ghastly secret of human beings in this century.” It was a secret that colored much of Wolf’s life as she passed from one authoritarian regime to the next, shuttling from one country to another without ever settling into a more situated self.

Wolf wrote to locate herself more completely, but she rarely succeeded. What emerged instead were ill-fated efforts to extricate a single person from the tangle of an intrusively collective world. The Quest for Christa T., an experimental work about the precariousness of identity under fascism, examines Wolf’s desperation to lay claim to the word “I.” The book’s bereaved narrator is devastated by the premature death of Christa T., a character roughly modeled on Wolf’s childhood friend Christa Tabbert. Christa resists posthumous recovery because she failed to recover herself, and the narrator rifles through her friend’s journals and writings to no avail. “Among her papers are various fragments written in the third person,” the narrator complains. But she sympathizes with Christa’s confusion, in which she recognizes echoes of herself: “I understand the secret of the third person, who is there without being tangible and who, when circumstances favor her, can bring down more reality upon herself than the first person: I.” She continues in a broken staccato, as if gasping or stuttering, “The difficulty of saying ‘I.’”

A troubling, garbled homage, The Quest for Christa T. was initially banned in East Germany: The government denounced it as an illicit “attempt to replace Marx with Freud,” but later reluctantly allowed it to be published in a limited edition. Matters intensified beyond endurance for Wolf in the fall of 1976, when the singer Wolf Biermann was expatriated and the Wolfs joined a group of prominent East German writers to pen an open letter opposing his exile. “Bearing in mind Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, according to which the proletarian revolution is constantly self-critical,” it reads, “our socialist state should, in contrast to anachronistic social forms, be able to tolerate such discomfort in a calm contemplative way.” Shortly thereafter, Gerhard was expelled from the Socialist Party. Wolf, who was reprimanded but allowed to remain a member, was compelled to resign from the executive committee of the Writers’ Association.

In the aftermath of the incident, Wolf became a symbol of dissent. In the West, she was a hero; in East Germany, she was a threat. Her difficult, theoretical books, more like fictional essays than essayistic fiction, were a formal rebuke to the GDR’s insistence on conformism—and their content was just as disruptive, often explicitly. In Cassandra, the book’s namesake and narrator bemoans the “language war,” a Trojan campaign that alludes to authoritarian censorship no less than the systematic silencing of women.

Wolf openly criticized the GDR’s sanitized legalese and resented the rampant sexism that the government tolerated and abetted. In One Day a Year, she complains that she is “once again” the only female speaker at event after event. But despite her typically veiled and occasionally overt criticisms of East German policy, she made no effort to leave the country that so chronically disappointed her. Even when her life there became unbearable, she refused to disavow her socialist convictions, for she remained hopeful that the flawed regime could be salvaged, that true equality would prevail.

Her loyalty was a feat in the wake of the Biermann affair, when Wolf and her husband were subjected to continuing surveillance. In the 1977 entry for One Day a Year, Wolf writes of her longing “for a corner in which they would simply let me live, without suspicion, without revilement, without the compulsion to protect myself constantly from others”—a corner that “does not exist.” She had never been at home in herself, in the “I,” which was infiltrated by totalitarian logic from the first. Now she was no longer at home in her physical house: “The Berlin apartment has not yet lost its eeriness for me since it was monitored, since they forced their way into it.”

Wolf continued to work during these years, but many of her texts went unpublished, and she found it more and more difficult to write without anticipating the reaction of the censors. In What Remains, a novella that she had written in 1979 but refrained from publishing until 1990, Wolf describes a day under Stasi surveillance. Through her window, she identifies the car where the officers keep tabs on her. She laughs for the benefit of the presumed listener during a phone call with a friend. “But what if no one was listening in? What if all our hubris and preening were directed at emptiness?” she wonders. She concludes that “it wouldn’t make the slightest difference,” for she has forgotten how to speak without imagining that she is being overheard. “Don’t panic,” the narrator of What Remains tells herself. “One day I will even talk about it in that other language which, as of yet, is in my ear but not on my tongue. Today I knew would still be too soon. But would I know when the time was right? Would I ever find my language?”

For years, Wolf lacked her language and the privacy in which she might have developed it. Instead, she turned to documentation—the language devised for her by her cruelest spectators, the Stasi. “How does life come about?” begins her preface to One Day a Year. While we are living, Wolf hypothesizes, we are too absorbed by the experiences of life to witness them. We can reconstruct them afterward, but “we can never catch [life] in the act.” The stated purpose of Wolf’s yearly record is therefore evidentiary, and Gerd goes so far as to include facsimiles of his wife’s handwritten notes at the end of the most recent volume. These images are proof of the past, additional insurance against forgetfulness. But it’s not clear whether they challenge the official record or internalize it—whether she policed the words she wrote in her journal the way she policed the words she spoke on the phone.

It’s clear enough that documenting can displace doing, and reading One Day a Year, one can easily get the sense that Wolf lived solely in service to assembling material to write about. What began as evidentiary quickly became distortive, and Wolf often worries that she is sacrificing life to its chronicle. On September 27, 1993, she admits:

I know that at the very moment when I, at eleven in the morning, begin to describe this day, the question will arise as to whether this text will swallow up the day, whether it determines its course, whether the day is lived for the sake of the text and the text is written for the sake of the day. In brief, whether self-observation leads to falsification.

At times, Wolf openly confesses to having written the book’s various entries whole days or weeks after the 27th. But she usually writes in the present tense, necessarily disingenuously: How can she be eating or cooking or showering if she’s writing? Wolf’s day-to-day life always capitulates to art and artifice. As she explains in an entry about a rainy trip to Bulgaria in 1970, she was “saved…by the idea that I ought to pay close attention to all external conditions, to remember them and note them down…. The only interesting thing in life is writing, I said. Gerd does not like to hear that.” Whatever Gerd would have preferred to hear, the parts of Wolf’s life that did not make it into her writing were negligible to her. “You forget what you did three days ago if you don’t make an obedient note of it every day,” she wrote in 2005.

Wolf must have had an exceptionally shoddy memory for her own behavior: The most devastating fact of all slipped her recollection for years. In 1993, while perusing the 42 volumes of surveillance files that the Stasi had assembled about her, she discovered a “Perpetrator File” revealing that she had worked as an unofficial collaborator—in Stasi parlance, an “I.M.,” or inoffizielle Mitarbeiter—from 1959 to 1962. Wolf insisted that she had repressed all memory of her complicity. “It horrifies me that there is a language in these files, a sort of Stasi language, that I myself was speaking, and that I can no longer identify with at all,” she said in a 1993 interview with The New York Times. Perhaps she forgot about her betrayal because she didn’t write it down. No mention of her activities as an informant appears in One Day a Year—so Wolf had to learn what she had done from the more thorough recordkeepers.

But what she could not redeem politically, even in her writing, she could sometimes salvage interpersonally with family and friends. For all its faults, her life proved rich in love. September 27 is the day before her younger daughter’s birthday, and it always involves careful preparations. The household is forever doting on its tomcat, Maxel, and Wolf and Gerd often enjoy a nap together in the afternoon.

Still, Wolf hoped to subordinate her life to her writing. Her fiction remained her foremost preoccupation, and she was consistently self-punishing about its quality. In her 1961 entry, she wrote that she had produced a single typewritten page that day—“a meager result, I tell myself almost every day while I walk to the nursery school to pick up Tinka.” In 1976, she opines with breathtaking severity that “what I write is…ot very good, I believe.” It was not until the end of her life, when she was recuperating after a 2008 knee surgery, that she found more charitable words for herself. She read her books “as if for the first time, couldn’t remember having written them, and to my amazement I found them ‘not bad.’”

Her marriage, at least, was better than “not bad,” and One Day a Year is worth reading for its account of Gerd and Wolf’s 51-year conversation alone. The couple never stopped arguing about books, and Wolf always notes what Gerd is reading and what he thinks of it. For his part, Gerd continued commenting on Wolf’s manuscripts for the rest of their days together. In 2005, six years before her death, Wolf became grudgingly sentimental: She stopped Gerd in the kitchen after he served her some homemade soup and said, “Shall I tell you something? I love you.” “The feeling’s mutual” was “his dry response.” In 2010, Wolf wrote with sharp sweetness:

Many times a day I look at Gerd, what he’s doing, his facial expression, his posture, how he says something. The way he brings in a surprising dish for dinner, sometimes triumphant. I listen for the sound of his breathing. I can’t very well wake him to tell him how much I love him.

She died a little over a year later. In her diaries more than her fiction, Wolf emerges as exquisitely human, exquisitely tentative. She never quite manages to carve herself out from her circumstances, never quite pieces her own motivations together. The last entry of One Day a Year breaks off in mid-sentence. Like every effort to become an “I,”it remains grossly incomplete.

In a 1993 article in the Berliner Zeitung, Wolf wrote that she had “absolutely no hope, in view of the hysteria that is unleashed by the two magical letters I.M.,” that she could explain “the real relationship of this file to my life. I had to fear being reduced to these two letters.” She faced a perverse punishment—one that committed the crimes she’d committed against her in turn. In her writing, she tried and failed to spare her characters the cruelties of generality, to attest to their absolute specificity. But she received a public shaming that dispensed with nuance in its haste to turn her into an example, an effacement that only reiterated the spirit of her offense.

Sometimes One Day a Year works against her. It is often curiously impersonal. Wolf listened to the radio obsessively and read multiple daily newspapers, and she includes reliably bleak catalogs of current events in her entries. In 1988, for instance, “in Teltow a new kind of rabbit plague has appeared. One third of the citizens of Schwerin are too heavy. Consumption of alcohol and abuse of medicines are continually increasing.”

Often, however, Wolf displays a harrowing honesty about her doomed efforts to describe the world as she experienced it, or even to access experiences that truly belong to her. “It is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to write in a way that in the process you do not think of an audience. That you only write ‘for yourself.’ That would be the right way to write,” she concluded in 1964. She failed at the task she set for herself, at least by her own lights, for the simple reason that she was too afraid. In the year 1969, she buckled under the pressures of Stasi surveillance and debated whether to ask her therapist, “Do you have something for fear?”

In Cassandra, Wolf writes from the perspective of the famous prophetess. The myth has it that Cassandra promised to sleep with Apollo in exchange for the gift of foresight. When she failed to uphold her end of the bargain, she was cursed to speak the truth without being believed. For Wolf, Cassandra is indeed prophetic: She is one of the earliest women on record to resist male violence and find herself dually dismissed, first by the violence itself and second by an audience unwilling to believe her testimony. For all her outsize and frequently overblown eloquence, she was relegated to the role of impotent observer. Like Cassandra, Wolf was a consummate watcher; like Cassandra, she was doomed to a borrowed lexicon, one bestowed on her by the very figure she set out to resist. But if Wolf never found a voice that wasn’t secondhand, her writings nonetheless help us to restore her violated life. We can read her journals not as the sum of her worst lapses and most public mistakes, not as a political symbol or a work of history, but as a testament to her haltingly singular self.

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