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.”