Apr/May 2013

The Return of the Repressed

An East German novelist grapples with a forgotten past

Marjorie Perloff


When was it that I stopped writing confidential and intimate letters? That I had to force myself to write letters at all? I no longer knew. When had the period of the “as if” letters begun—when I had decided to write as if no one was intercepting my mail; as if I was writing freely. . . . Could I still feel disappointment at this? Horror? Hadn’t I come to accept it? They’re succeeding, I thought. And how.

—Christa Wolf, “What Remains”

The unnerving title story of Christa Wolf’s What Remains tracks one day in the life of its narrator (transparently the author herself), who, like so many of her fellow citizens of the then German Democratic Republic, was evidently under constant surveillance by the Stasi—the East German secret police. “What remains?” asks the narrator at the story’s end. “What is at the root of my city and what is rotting it from within?”

When What Remains was published shortly after Germany’s reunification in 1990, it was greeted in the West as a daring exposť of life behind the Berlin Wall. There was only one problem. The story, it turned out, had been written in 1979 but went unpublished because Wolf feared its repercussions in the GDR, where she was a celebrity, perhaps the country’s most famous and hence privileged author. Was it now, as her West German critics argued, too little and too late? But the publication controversy was nothing compared to the bomb about to explode: In 1993, it was revealed that Wolf, under the code name “Margarete,” had herself served as an inoffizieller Mitarbeiter (informal collaborator) of the Stasi for three years (1959–62). Even more infuriatingly, from the point of view of the West German press, the author insisted that she had no recollection whatsoever of having done these things.

Wolf’s final novel, City of Angels or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud, completed the year before her death in 2011, deals with the Stasi scandal, as the author experienced it during her year in Los Angeles (1992–93), where she was a fellow at the Getty Research Institute, then housed in Santa Monica on the top floors of a bank building. Wolf’s fiction has always been autobiographical—the heroine of her celebrated feminist novel The Quest for Christa T. (1968), for instance, is quite clearly the author’s alter ego—but City of Angels is, despite some disguised proper names, quite simply a memoir. It begins with Wolf’s arrival by air at LAX and concludes with her departure from the same airport. In between, the incidents of daily life give way to extensive memory scenes, in which the “I” confronts an earlier “you.” “To Look into My Own Otherness,” as one chapter is titled: This is the ostensible trajectory of City of Angels.

Wolf has a great flair for descriptive detail: Through her eyes, one sees the Getty–Santa Monica landscape as if for the first time. The genteel but slightly musty decor of the ms. victoria hotel (Wolf’s pseudonym for the Princess Eugenia apartments on Third Street); the cheery welcome notes from the hotel’s largely invisible manager, Mrs. Ascott; the helpful survival kit handed out to all new fellows by the Getty staff; the incessant friendly “Hi’s” of everyone one meets; the author’s sojourns on “her” bench in Ocean Park overlooking the beautiful sunlit Santa Monica Bay—all these are described with great warmth and good humor:

So, many times, I set out in the morning through the blossoming front lawn of the ms. VICTORIA, full of unfamiliar plants and with a small bitter orange tree in a circular flower bed in the middle, whose fruits I saw ripen. The cars here, extraordinarily wide, crept carefully up to the intersections and politely stopped even when there was no little green man on the traffic sign to permit pedestrians to WALK. . . . Friendly, well-dressed, carefully coiffed female drivers or chic male drivers in dark suits with ties and collars signaled the pedestrian to go ahead, with nonchalant waves of their hands, so I crossed California Avenue without hurrying.

Wolf takes much satisfaction in such small gestures of goodwill. Similar politeness is displayed by her colleagues and staff members at the Getty—unfailingly gracious and ready at a moment’s notice to take her along to dinner in Chinatown, to art exhibits in Glendale, or for margaritas (Wolf’s favorite new drink) in the local bars. The historian of LA architecture Bob Rice takes Wolf on an all-day tour of Neutra and Schindler houses; a couple from the UCLA German department named Marja and Henry have a dinner party in her honor in Pacific Palisades; and her upstairs neighbor Peter Gutman turns out to be a soul mate. At the end of her fellowship year, after a seemingly endless round of good-bye parties, two young anthropologists, Lowis and Sanna, take the author on a magic tour of the Southwest, a journey into American Indian culture that Wolf describes in detail.

All along, however, the narrator’s almost childlike enthusiasm for her actual LA life is offset by casual references to the evils of US imperialism and capitalism. Thus Pat and Mike, “assistants in our department,” who are working to elect Bill Clinton,

explained to me how hard it was for liberals, never mind people on the left!, to find suitable jobs in recent years, how stale and demoralizing, denunciatory too, the environment was in government offices; the same in the universities, how you had to gauge whom you could talk openly with, and young people like them would have had absolutely no prospects if they hadn’t conformed to the point of denying who they really were.

John and Judy, who hold “a shared appointment in the sociology department” at UCLA, “didn’t hide the fact that they found the capitalist economic system perverse . . . but they couldn’t go public with this opinion, they said, not yet.” The “real crime,” Peter Gutman insists during one of his nightly talk sessions with Wolf, was not the GDR’s advocacy of “new property relations” (which Wolf, like her fellow citizens, endorsed), but the “toxic money economy” of the West. In any case, Peter opines, “every single one of our modern societies, based as they are on colonization, repression, and exploitation, has to block out certain parts of its history and deny as much of its present as possible too, in order to keep the self-assurance it needs to live.”

Such moral equivalence is this novel’s subtext. TV images of J. Edgar Hoover persecuting Charlie Chaplin, of Rodney King being beaten by the LAPD, of Japanese internment camps: These references, trotted out as little more than ciphers, are taken as testimony of the underlying evils of our system. In the course of her painful late-night vigils, the narrator comes to feel that perhaps her allegiance to the GDR government—an allegiance that had made her one of the few prominent figures to oppose reunification in 1989—was justified. “There was this thing we wanted,” she tells herself one sleepless night, invoking the specter of Bertolt Brecht, “a humane society, and all we had to do was dismantle the ruling class’s ownership of the means of production, everyone would surely be happy to be able to live each according to his abilities, understanding, and reason. Was that not the age-old dream of humanity?” East Germans, it seems, are special because they subscribe to the opinion “that the common good should take precedence over profit.”

Never in the course of the book does anyone seriously counter its heroine’s views. Indeed, when the faxes and newspapers denouncing her role in the Stasi begin to arrive from Germany, not a single friend, colleague, or office assistant turns against her. Everyone is super-understanding, kind, and ready to take her side. When she tells a friend in Zurich that she has no memory whatsoever of her Stasi role, he reminds her of what Freud taught us about the conscious mind’s ability to repress events too painful to contemplate. And she thinks gratefully that Freud’s overcoat—given by the great psychoanalyst to Neutra, who gave it to Bob Rice, who had it stolen from his office but bestowed its spirit on Wolf—is there as a kind of symbol of protection. In any case, she insists in City of Angels, her Stasi reports were mere cultural surveys that hurt no one.

For those interested in the facts of the matter, the weekly German newsmagazine Der Spiegel ran a long piece citing the files in question. A typical case involved the sixty-nine-year-old Communist writer Walter Kaufmann, who, having fled from the Nazis to Australia in the 1940s, returned to Germany in 1955 and became the secretary-general of the East German pen Club. As Margarete, Wolf referred to a Kaufmann manuscript whose publication she questioned in view of its “ideological errors,” and her final verdict is that Kaufmann is a “labiler Mensch”—a man of no real convictions, a potential turncoat.

As a novel, City of Angels should not, of course, be judged for its adherence to fact. But from a literary standpoint, the book displays a curious inconsistency, a disconnect between its lovingly particularized images of LA life and its more abstract political and ethical generalizations. If, as Wolf’s characters (not really characters at all but largely name tags with their professional titles or job descriptions attached) insist, and as she herself seems to believe, the US is such a sinister place, why does everyone treat her so well, and why does she find the Santa Monica atmosphere so delightful? Why do even the locals, sitting next to her on park benches, seem so cheerful? What makes possible the generosity of American universities and think tanks? And how is it that she and her fellow Getty scholars have so much time and money available for outings, restaurants, and fine wines—in her own case, money enough to pay her acupuncturist and her Feldenkrais instructor, those therapists employed to lift Wolf’s spirits when the news of her German disgrace comes through?

The more one probes the narrator’s debates with herself and with Peter, the more it becomes apparent that in City of Angels, “self-discovery” is largely synonymous with self-justification. What, in the end, has the novel’s narrator learned? “What remains?” In Wolf’s 1979 story of that title, the narrator concluded that “there is no misfortune other than that of not being alive. And, in the end, no desperation other than that of not having lived.” It is a moment of refreshing candor. Wolf is no visionary, no serious political thinker, and, in my view, only intermittently a strong writer. But she is certainly a survivor. Turning Freud’s overcoat “inside out” in what might have been a moment of genuine self-criticism: That particular Wende proves to be too difficult. Better to follow one’s instincts and, as the American idiom has it, do what you have to do. Or, as her invented angel and confidante Angelina puts it on the eve of Wolf’s departure from Los Angeles, “Only feelings count, not facts.”

Marjorie Perloff is the author of The Vienna Paradox: A Memoir (New Directions, 2004) and, most recently, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

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