Christa Wolf’s second novel, The Quest for Christa T., is the story of a long-limbed, dreamy young woman, Christa T., recollected by a friend who first meets her at school during the dying months of the Second World War. The unnamed narrator is immediately struck by the self-contained individuality of the new girl—even her stockings retain their distinctness, defying absorption into the larger historical moment: ‘and her stockings, darned all the way up the calf, were ugly and clumsily darned stockings, not the proud sacrifice of a German woman in the war’s fifth year amid a textiles shortage …’
Published in East Germany in 1968, The Quest for Christa T. is also the story of historical upheaval. The novel moves from childhood in Nazi Germany and westward flight from the advancing Red Army, through to the birth of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1949—a brief moment of hopefulness in the promise of the new communist regime—then despair following the brutal Soviet attack on Budapest in 1956: ‘Nothing is so difficult as turning one’s attention to things as they really are, to events as they really occur, after one has spent a long time not doing so …’ When it first appeared in English in 1970, The Quest for Christa T. was widely acclaimed as one of the best novels in German published since the war. The Times reviewer wrote: ‘In a desert—and the [East German] literary scene is a desert—you have to look out patiently for any sign of life, but the sight of a beautiful flower may suddenly overwhelm you. Such a book is The Quest for Christa T.‘
The Quest for Christa T. is a profound, troubled meditation on life and words and destiny. ‘She was afraid of the imprecision and ineptness of words. She knew that they do harm, the insidious harm of bypassing life, which she fears almost more than the great catastrophes.’ Craving meaning, Christa T. has written diaries, notes, letters and scribble on scraps of paper, from which the narrator attempts to put her friend’s life into words, first abandoning then drawing on her own and others’ memories in order to see Christa more clearly.
Wolf’s powers are remarkable. Her writing, possessed of an almost brutal insistence, a penetrating rigour, searching, mistrustful, courageous, conjures scenes and emotions, silences and absences—those fleeting things glimpsed out of the corner of an eye—of such subtle delicacy that their accumulated effect is quite overwhelming. Through a gradual accretion of layers, a stripping away and baring, then a re-collecting, with abrupt shifts between past and present, Wolf recreates a life, a time, leaving the traces of her quest in words:
You haven’t understood a thing if you shrug your shoulders, turn away turn from her, Christa T., and attend to grander and more useful lives. My concern is to attend to her.
The narrator’s painstaking, determined search for her friend is prompted by her tragic death at too young an age. On the novel’s opening page, she tells us: ‘I feel she is disappearing. There she lies, in her village cemetery, beneath the two buckthorn bushes, dead among the dead.’ From this statement Wolf tells the story of an apparently ordinary life, of a girl who goes to school, university, drifts along, becomes a teacher, falls in love, marries a country vet—and dies aged 35. Yet through her relentless probing, her starting out and turning back, Wolf’s narrator gradually reveals the rare and extraordinary beneath the ordinary, and the inestimable value of a single life. And, while the valuing of this single life is particularly resonant, heretical even, in a socialist state whose ideology explicitly values the group over the individual, the story of Christa’s quiet refusal to conform to the expectations of society is a celebration of the individual in any society anywhere, whose quest, like Christa’s own, is ‘To become oneself, with all one’s strength. Difficult.’ Christa T. is ‘trying out the possibilities of life until nothing should be left …’
Christa Wolf was born in 1929 in Landsberg an der Warte (now the Polish town Gorzow Wielkpolski) in Germany. Here she lived until she was 16, when her family—fleeing the 1945 Soviet invasion of Germany—escaped to Mecklenburg, which became part of the new German Democratic Republic founded in 1949. Wolf joined the Socialist Unity Party (SED) and became a committed socialist. Although she was critical of the East German regime, it later allowed her the privileges of a successful writer, including the freedom to travel beyond its borders to the West. From 1949, Wolf studied German literature for four years in Jena and Leipzig universities. In 1951 she met her husband, Gerhard Wolf, with whom she had two daughters. Wolf then worked as a writer and critic for a literary journal, as a research assistant for the German Writers’ Union from 1953, and as an editor for the publishing company Neues Leben. In 1959 she moved to Halle where she worked in a factory for three years before moving to Berlin in 1962.
Wolf’s first novel, The Divided Heaven—the story of a girl who chooses to remain in East Germany rather than flee to the West with her lover—was published in 1963. It won the Heinrich Mann Prize and in 1963 was made into a successful film directed by Konrad Wolf. Christa Wolf’s experience writing the screenplay influenced her approach to her next novel, the fragmented, intercut The Quest for Christa T. Published the year of the Prague Spring and its violent suppression of democratic expression, the novel’s subjective story of a woman unable to live within the bounds of the GDR was widely criticised in East Germany and attacked the following year at a writers’ conference. During the 1970s, Wolf was put under surveillance by the Stasi, and her account of this time, What Remains, was published in 1990. Following a trip to Greece, Wolf became fascinated by its ancient myths. Her book Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays (1983), is based on this journey, and she returned to Greek mythology in her 1996 novel Medea.
Although critical of the GDR, Wolf argued for its continual existence as a separate state and against its absorption into the Federal Republic of Germany. Following the reunification of Germany in 1990, Wolf was attacked by West German critics for the support the former GDR had given her as a writer. Her moral authority was further questioned when it was revealed she’d cooperated with the Stasi from 1959 to 1961. In 2003 Wolf published One Day a Year: 1960-2000, a record of her experiences on 27 September over a period of 40 years, initially prompted by a request from a Moscow newspaper inspired by Maxim Gorky’s ‘A Day of the World‘ project begun in 1936. Of One Day a Year Wolf wrote:
the need to be known, even with our purely problematic features, our errors and mistakes, lies at the heart of all literature and is the motive force of this book. We shall see whether the time for such a venture has come yet.