Friday, 15 February 2013

Christa Wolf: August

"August" is Christa Wolf's final short story, written six months before she died after a long illness at the end of 2011. In a letter printed in facsimile at the end of the slim book, she dedicates it to her husband Gerhard Wolf as a birthday present.

It tells the story of a small boy, August, who lost his parents to the war and its aftermath and spent three seasons in a TB hospital in the Soviet Occupied Zone. There he met Lilo, a teenage girl who helped take care of the younger patients. August adores Lilo, resenting every scrap of attention she devotes to anyone else. But Lilo is perfect in his eyes, and so can only be fair with her affections. We see everyday scenes, lessons and songs and stories, budding romances and sudden deaths in the "Mottenburg" or "consumption castle" - an old stately home as cold as an ice palace, where food is scarce and fat is unavailable. Gradually all the other children there die or have to leave, and finally Lilo too has returned to health and goes home to her family, much to August's regret.

August remembers the story in retrospect as he drives a coach full of pensioners back to Berlin from a trip to Prague. He has led a simple life, on his own until he met and married Trude, who liked to stay at home and spend holidays on their balcony in East Berlin. These are the achievements in his life: becoming a truck driver, being content with his wife, and having once learned, though Lilo, that sadness and happiness can come together. Now Trude has been dead a few years and he still can't get used to coming home to an empty flat, but in sum his life has been a good one.

It could be a very simple story about the beginning and end of a simple life. Yet "August" picks up on the very final section of Wolf's 1976 novel Kindheitsmuster (Patterns of Childhood). The protagonist crops up very briefly only pages from the end - inexplicably renamed Gus in Ursule Molino and Hedwig Rappolt's 1980 translation. And Lilo is all too plainly Wolf's alter ego Nelly from that book too.

Where "August" is simple (or seemingly so), Kindheitsmuster is complex. Narrated on three levels, it deals with Wolf's own childhood under the Nazis. A narrator describes, addresses and admonishes her adult self in the second person while detailing the writing process over several years in the early 1970s, including political and private occurrences. Along with her brother, husband and daughter, she visits the town where she grew up, now in Poland. And this visit is interspersed with the narrative of her childhood, which is told in the third person. 

Wolf's Nelly is subtly infused with Nazi ideology while her narrator feels only horror for what her childish self believed. And the narrator struggles to find the right way to tell Nelly's story without finding excuses for her and her family, and also to confront the fear and other emotions she felt after the end of the war. The book was rather a milestone in terms of autobiographical writing, I feel, and has been much studied. 

The August character is everything Kindheitsmuster's unnamed narrator is not. He feels no need for self-reflection, finds it hard to put names to his emotions and simply does not know or seem to care whether he's changed since his childhood. His voice is colloquial, not afraid of the odd cliché and occasionally repeating itself. And it never bothers him that his memories may be unreliable.

And yet there are many similarities between the two pieces of writing, despite the thirty-five years between them. They both share an oblique view of Wolf's own character, for one. Although she wrote about herself in the first person many times, her young self was obviously difficult to tackle head-on without some kind of distancing device. Nelly and Lilo are not identical; Lilo is a much better person, always kind and even-tempered and a little hard to believe, especially when tempered by a glance at lying, stealing Nelly. That adds a little irony, I felt, that won't have been lost on the intended reader Gerhard Wolf.

There is the structure too, with travel being across space as well as time. As August recalls his childhood while driving his bus homeward, so the narrator in Kindheitsmuster is driving around her former hometown and back to the GDR. In both pieces of writing, the tenses flutter mid-paragraph, memories tugging the narrative to and fro. And both books delight in colloquialisms, the head nurse in "August" rather reminiscent of Nelly's mother with her colourful turns of phrase.

Reading the two books together was an inspiring experience - reading "August" alone was a pleasure in itself. The unaccredited Faulkner quote opening Kindheitsmuster - presumably unnoticed by the translators and therefore rendered as "What's past is not dead; it is not even past" - holds true for both books. Yet had Wolf come to a more relaxed place in old age or through her new protagonist? For the next line does not seem to apply to "August": "We cut ourselves off from it; we pretend to be strangers." Or was she playing a game of pretending to be Lilo?


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