Christa Ihlenfeld was born in 1929 in Landsberg an der Warthe (today Gorzów Wielkopolski, Poland). Her father, Otto Ihlenfeld, was a salesman. In 1945 the invading Red Army forced the German population in the territories east of the Oder-Neiße line to move to the West; the Ihlenfelds settled in Mecklenburg, where Christa worked as secretary to the mayor of Gammelin. After a stay in a tuberculosis sanatorium she finished school in 1949 in Bad Frankenhausen. She joined the Socialist Unity party and, from 1949 to 1953, studied German literature at the Universities of Leipzig and Jena. In 1951 she married the Germanist and essayist Gerhard Wolf; they have two daughters, Annette and Katrin. After receiving her degree with a thesis on problems of realism in the work of Hans Fallada, she worked as a technical assistant for the East German Writers' Union, as a reader for the Neues Leben publishing house in East Berlin, and as an editor of the periodical Neue Deutsche Literatur. From 1959 to 1962 she was a reader for the Mitteldeutscher Verlag in Halle, where she also worked in a boxcar factory. In 1962 she moved to Kleinmachnow, near Berlin, and turned to writing full time. She has traveled widely in Europe and has visited the Soviet Union and, in 1974, the United States. In 1976 she and her husband moved to East Berlin; the same year she joined other prominent East German writers in signing a petition protesting the revocation of citizenship of the poet/singer Wolf Biermann.
Wolf's first work of fiction, Moskauer Novelle (Moscow Novella, 1961), was received politely but did not enjoy great success. It is the story of an East Berlin doctor, Vera Brauer, who travels to Moscow in 1959 with a delegation from the German Democratic Republic; the interpreter assigned to the delegation turns out to be Pawel Koschkin, whom she had met fifteen years before when, as a lieutenant in the Red Army, he had participated in the occupation of her hometown of Fanselow. Wolf's attempt to use their love affair as an allegory for international relations between Germany and the Soviet Union fails.
Her breakthrough as a writer came with the novel Der geteilte Himmel (1963; translated as The Divided Heaven , 1965). Published shortly after the building of the Berlin Wall, the book was an instant success and made Wolf, virtually overnight, the best-known author in the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
After an accident education student Rita Seidel wakes up in a hospital bed and tries to analyze what has taken place. During her convalescence Rita examines the preceding two years of her life: her love for the chemist Manfred Herrfurth, her move from a small village to the city of Halle, her work in a railroad-car factory, her studies to become a teacher, Manfred's flight to the West just before the erection of the Berlin Wall on 13 August 1961, and her accident shortly thereafter. The sequence of events is primarily chronological, although there are flashbacks to Rita's and Manfred's early childhood. The third-person narrator seems to be almost omniscient but shares Rita's questioning attitude, thereby stimulating the reader to participate in the narrative process. The ambiguity of the text allows Wolf to deal with topics that otherwise could not have been discussed in published form in the GDR in the early 1960s.
The economic and political situation of the GDR was precarious at the time the novel was written: the prospering West German economy presented an enormous challenge to East German planners, who had to cope with the loss of thousands of skilled workers and professionals who crossed the open border to West Berlin. This problem was solved by the building of the Berlin Wall, but at a high price: the loss of international esteem for the GDR and of personal freedom for its population. The resulting intensification of the cold war and the fear that it might lead to actual war are woven into the background of Wolf's novel. Wolf's treatment of the "German Question"--the division of Germany--contributed to the enormous success of the book in both East and West.
Although the story takes place in the GDR, Wolf addresses general problems and concerns: the anxieties resulting from leaving the idyllic village for the big city--the feeling of being lost, lonely, and scared--are common in any industrialized nation. The same universality holds true for the love between Rita and Manfred and their separation by external forces. Nevertheless, Wolf's primary intended reader is East German, and she hopes to stimulate that reader to reflection. Hence, even though Halle is portrayed as a product of capitalism, which was replaced by socialism only fifteen years previously, Wolf points out that the water and air pollution produced by industry can no longer be blamed on the old regime. In fact, Rita cannot find any positive aspect to the industrialized city, even though Manfred, who has lived there all his life, tries to show her its hidden beauty.
The village remains a place of refuge for Rita in times of crisis. But, when she returns there after some time away, she notices that it, too, is changing rapidly due to the forced collectivization of agriculture. Wolf is here touching on a topic which was, at the time she wrote the novel, taboo in the GDR: that the collectivization of farms precipitated an increase in the number of people leaving the country, which in turn led to the building of the Berlin Wall.
In depicting Rita's work in the railroad-car factory, Wolf was abiding by the call of the ruling Socialist Unity party to incorporate themes from the working world into literature, a doctrine formulated at the Bitterfeld Conferences in 1958 and 1959. The hope that workers would start writing about their own experiences did not materialize; authors like Wolf, on the other hand, did respond by working in the fields and factories and gaining experiences which became part of their literary works.
Rita is portrayed as an emancipated woman: she selects the man she loves and lives with him; she leaves her village to pursue an education as a teacher in the big city, against the will of her mother; and she volunteers to work as the only woman in a large factory. Thus, she continually matures in understanding, self-confidence, and knowledge, eventually becoming intellectually equal to Manfred, who holds a doctorate in chemistry. In contrast to Rita, Manfred is emotionally stagnating. Ten years older than Rita, raised in the city and having experienced the Nazi era as a child, he is a skeptic and cynic who is less and less able to put up with the inadequacies of the socialist system. Finally, feeling that he is being treated unjustly in his job, he crosses the Berlin border. He assumes that Rita will follow him; but for her such a decision is more difficult: her loyalty to her country goes much deeper than his. Although she does follow him to West Berlin, she returns home the same day. Shortly thereafter, the Berlin Wall is built, precluding any further choice on her part. Then follows, at the novel's conclusion, her "accident," which may be an unconscious suicide attempt.
Suicide was not an acceptable topic in the GDR when the novel was written, and the book could not have been published there if Rita's attempt to take her own life had not been ambiguously disguised as an accident. The critical reception of the novel in the GDR tended to be apologetic, avoiding any mention of the suicide attempt and dwelling on Rita's remaining in the East as a demonstration of her commitment to the socialist state. In Western criticism, on the other hand, the building of the wall and the possibility of a suicide attempt were emphasized. Wolf received the prestigious East German Heinrich Mann Prize for the novel.
Wolf's next novel, Nachdenken über Christa T. (1968; translated as The Quest for Christa T. , 1971), presented the functionaries in the Ministry of Culture with an even greater headache than had Der geteilte Himmel. None of the criteria of the prevailing literary doctrine of socialist realism--the demands for a positive hero, for the setting of an example, for an appeal to the masses, and, most of all, for strict adherence to the policies of the party--seemed to have been met in the book.
At the beginning of the novel the narrator, contemplating the untimely death of her friend Christa T., an aspiring writer, decides that Christa's memory should not die and sets out to write about her. Her nonconformist subject fills the narrator with self-doubt and with skepticism about her own literary attempts. After all, who will read what she writes? Will it ever be published, and if it is, what good will it do? Furthermore, will she ever understand Christa T.'s secret vision of herself? Did the vision ever exist, or was the narrator just imagining or hoping for such meaning in the life of her friend? Why did Christa T. not write? The answer must be sought in her skepticism about her own ability; about language as a vehicle for conveying meaning; and, most important, about whether her subjective and personal concerns could be of interest to a society whose primary concern is to catch up economically with the West. Christa T., the narrator insists, had good intentions of contributing to the new society and possessed the kind of imagination needed to grasp and portray the concerns of that society.
The search for truth is a major theme in the novel. The narrator tries to discover the truth about the life of her dead friend. Like Christa T., she cannot write without speaking the truth; but in a collectivist society the truth is sometimes better not expressed. Christa T., in the final analysis, saw only two options for herself: to say everything or nothing. She knew that her half-hearted attempts to write were not in accordance with the prevailing literary principles; she was keenly aware that her subjective material and sensitive style would be frowned upon as lacking social relevance. Thus, she led the average life of a housewife and mother, unable to break the banal cycle of her existence, and that banality eventually destroyed her spiritually and physically. Dying of leukemia, she realized that her potential would be lost forever, and concluded that she had lived too early. The novel ends on an optimistic note: in the future young, inspired writers will not have to suffer Christa T.'s fate.
The response to Nachdenken über Christa T. in the GDR has been notable for its absence, except for a few hesitantly critical reviews when the novel appeared. The reason for the neglect is easy to discern: the novel's implied criticisms of the GDR during its early years. The book was published in the GDR only intermittently and in small editions which were quickly sold out. In West Germany, on the other hand, the response in the media as well as in scholarly discussions has been intense.
In the collection of essays Lesen und Schreiben: Aufsätze und Betrachtungen (1972; translated as The Reader and the Writer , 1977) Wolf formulates her ideas about what she considers important in modern prose, as well as its function in her society and the world at large. Wolf believes that literature should provide the reader with stimuli for growth. In a technological age literature is more important than ever, but it also faces increased competition from the other media; therefore, it needs to find ways to be innovative and vital to its readers.
In the early 1970s Wolf wrote a film script, Till Eulenspiegel: Erzählung für den Film (1973), with her husband and published the short-story collection Unter den Linden: Drei unwahrscheinliche Geschichten (Under the Linden Trees: Three Improbable Stories, 1974). The title story uses a dream sequence to express social criticism; in "Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers" (New Perspectives of a Cat) a tomcat comments satirically on his scientist master's attempts to engineer human happiness; the protagonist of "Selbstversuch" (Self-Experiment) decides that she does not want to acquire masculine intellectual and emotional traits and calls a halt to an experimental sex-change procedure.
The autobiographical Kindheitsmuster (1976; translated as A Model Childhood , 1980), her longest novel to date, deals to a much lesser extent than her previous ones with the GDR. The narrator, Nelly Jordan, tells of her 1971 trip to her hometown--the former Landsberg, now part of Poland--with her husband, her brother, and her daughter Lenka; of her childhood during the Nazi period; of the three years she has spent writing the present book; and of her efforts to explain to Lenka how Nelly and her parents could have failed to oppose the Nazis. Daily middle-class life under fascism is described in detail, often by inserting authentic materials such as newspaper clippings. Such events as the limitation of the freedom of the press and the establishment of concentration camps do not really affect the family; they continue to operate their store and remain largely apolitical, as did so many Germans, not realizing that their disinterest is making possible the consolidation of Nazism.
Kindheitsmuster is daring in suggesting--contrary to the official dogma of the GDR--that East Germans as well as West Germans share in the guilt of the Nazi past. On the other hand, while problems of the 1970s, such as Vietnam, Chile, Greece, and the Middle East, are referred to, critical comments are limited to the non-Communist world, and no mention is made of such topics as the unrest in Poland. Restricting her work in this fashion might have been necessary in view of GDR censorship, but in previous and subsequent books Wolf was able to find indirect means of dealing with issues that could not be openly discussed in the GDR.
The reception of Kindheitsmuster was generally positive in both German states. While the novel's complicated structure, with its three levels of narration, was criticized, Wolf was praised for dealing openly and convincingly with the GDR's Nazi past. Kindheitsmuster is the one book of Wolf's which is easily obtainable in East Germany.
In 1979 Wolf published an experimental novel which, unlike her previous works, has little to do with either her own biography or the history of the GDR: Kein Ort, nirgends (No Place, Nowhere; translated as No Place on Earth , 1982). Wolf imagines a meeting of the German romantic writers Heinrich von Kleist and Karoline von Günderode at a tea party in the small town of Winkel am Rhein in June 1804. Kleist and Günderode feel out of place not only in society but also in an existential sense. Their struggle to discover new forms of human experience is not limited to theory and writing: they feel the need for productive dialogue, interaction with others of similar mind, friendship, and love. Kleist and Günderode seem destined to fulfill these needs for each other, but in the imaginary encounter they hardly have a chance to progress beyond superficialities. Incorporating quotations from documentary material into her novel--a technique first used by the nineteenth-century author Georg Büchner, whom Wolf admires greatly--helps to lend authenticity to her story, even though the historical figures are manipulated freely. The historical distance makes it possible for Wolf to explore matters which in some instances are still delicate subjects in the GDR, such as the relationship between the individual and the state, limitations on writing, and the danger of social alienation which may lead to despair and even to suicide--the ultimate fate of both main characters in real life. In spite of their affinity for each other, Kleist and Günderode are unable to break through the sexual and social barriers that separate them. The same problems Kleist and Günderode encounter--societal limitations and pressures; unsatisfactory relationships between men and women, both of whom need to be liberated from traditional roles; and possibly most important, the difficulty of writing freely and truthfully--still cry out for solutions which the socialist society has failed to provide.
In 1980 Wolf became the first author living and writing in the GDR to receive the Federal Republic's most prestigious literary award, the Georg Büchner Prize. That Wolf should be selected for the Büchner Prize seemed particularly appropriate, since she had repeatedly mentioned her admiration and special feeling of affinity for the nineteenth-century author. She sees Büchner's writings as an expression of his sense of responsibility for the great issues that confronted his society and, ultimately, all of mankind. In her Büchner Prize address, published in Die Dimension des Autors (The Dimension of the Author, 1987), she pays special attention to Büchner's female characters, who show that only mature, liberated, yet loving women are capable of helping mankind to survive. This insight, Wolf proclaims, holds true even more in modern times. Women, she says, must not leave the responsibility for survival to men because of the male propensity for self-destruction, a tendency which is manifest in all of Büchner's male characters.
The concerns expressed in Wolf's Büchner Prize address are a major theme in her novel Kassandra: Vier Vorlesuugen; Eine Erzählung (1983; translated as Cassandra , 1984). The novel begins with Kassandra, a prisoner of war awaiting execution, pondering the destruction of her city, Troy, and its civilization. How and why did it happen? What actions or inactions led up to this cataclysmic event? What role did she play in it? These are some of the questions Kassandra attempts to answer as she recapitulates what has happened. Wolf's main themes, expressed allegorically, are the threat of war in the nuclear age; the role, or better nonrole, women play in societies that seem to drift at an accelerating pace toward self-destruction; the unwillingness to negotiate to prevent war; the insane reliance on increasing armaments; economic interests; false concepts of honor and the fear of losing face; and industrialism as the Trojan horse which most societies embrace as a panacea but which might well carry the seeds of civilization's destruction. The novel shows that male-dominated power structures deny input not only to women like Kassandra but to anybody with differing ideas. As soon as Kassandra opposes the views and actions of her father, King Priamos, and his ruling clique, she is excluded from the inner circle and even thrown into the dungeon. Kassandra's plight has an autobiographical basis in Wolf's own need to speak and write the truth no matter what the official policy might be.
Although Kassandra's warnings are not heeded by the men in power, who ignore the truth and thereby bring about the destruction of Troy, the book's message should not be viewed as pessimistic. A thoughtful reader will be forced to ask: what would have happened if the male ruling clique had listened to Kassandra? Could she have saved Troy? The possibility of a positive response represents the optimistic component of this work about war, death, and destruction. That Wolf touched a central nerve of contemporary concerns is evident if one considers the appeal of the work in East Germany, where every new printing seems to be immediately sold out, and in West Germany, where Kassandra: Vier Vorlesuugen; Eine Erzählung was on the best-seller list for over a year after it appeared.
Simultaneously with the novel Wolf published Voraussetzungen einer Erzählung: Kassandra (Genesis of a Story: Kassandra, 1983), a series of lectures she delivered in Frankfurt am Main in 1982. Wolf describes in detail and without inhibition the impressions, concerns, and research--including a trip to Greece--which went into the writing of her novel. Voraussetzungen einer Erzählung: Kassandra was probably never intended for publication in the GDR because of its frankness, particularly in regard to the political issues only touched on allegorically in the novel. When the lectures were finally published in Wolf's own country, certain passages were deleted.
The novel Störfall (A Case of Disruption, 1987) appeared one year after the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union. In this work Wolf juxtaposes the technical failure of the nuclear facility with the occurrence of a brain tumor in the narrator's brother. The novel poses searching questions about the future of humanity in view of man's frailty and the dangers of technology.
From: Sevin, Dieter. "Christa Wolf (18 march 1929-)." Contemporary German Fiction Writers: Second Series, edited by Wolfgang Elfe and James N. Hardin, vol. 75, Gale, 1988, pp. 258-264. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 75.