A PROMINENT Frankfurt critric recently remarked that the best West German books, at present, were written by East German authors; and professors on both sides of the walls and minefields dividing the Germanies have more difficulties than ever answering the question how many German literatures there actually are.
Literary maps change quickly; in the late '60s, East Germany, or rather the German Democratic Republic, was well on its way to creating its own cohesive body of literature, self-critically exploring the development of a new society in which many old and young writers shared common hopes for the future. Cohesion has been long lost today. There are (faintly reminiscent of Germany under the Nazis) at least four groups of writers who now go their divergent ways -- the "loyalists," including magisterial Anna Seghers and glib Hermann Kant who continue to defent every twist and turn of the party line; the stubborn loners like Heiner Muller, a true genius of the drama, who fights it out with the Party play by play and scene by scene; the tired "inner exiles" who, bitterly disappointed by their daily experiences, withdraw to their dachas in the Mecklenburg hinterlands and cultivate their private poetry; and the increasing number of highly gifted writers who have been deprived of their citizenship, expelled from the Party and the Writer's Union, and provided, by the State Security Services, with exit visas enabling them to live and work abroad.
As a community of writers, Eat German literature has ceased to exist, and while the minister of culture drones on, and the writer's conferences are packed with hollow yes-men, the literary scene is dominated by bitterness, silence, withdrawal, and the news item on the radio announcing that yet another artist has been served with walking, or flyng, papers to the West.
It is, of course, not a question of literary styles or loyalty to "Socialist Realism" (which is long dead), but the fear that the restive writers, possibly infected by the Czech or Polish desire for a humane socialism, might create spontaneous action groups, more or less independent of the Party. In purely literary affairs, the establishment was not unwilling, for a considerable time, to tolerate a limited kind of experimentation which, almost inevitably, articulated issues totally unknown to the practioners of the boy-meets-tractor school of the '50s. While in West Germany, the student revolt of 1968 discarded literature, above all fiction, in favor of social action, fiction writing in the GDR (as happened in 19th-century Czarist Russi) assumed social and political functions of prime importance; and once again, in the absence of legitimate political discourse, revealed the hopes and nightmares of the public soul.
Gunter de Bruyn's witty novel, Buridan's Ass , in the guise of telling the story of a hapless librarian torn between two women, for the first time clearly showed the ossifications of public and private behavior; Christa Wolf, sensitive and occasionally sentimental, in a fictive biography explored the problems of a pensive young woman who wants to be nothing but herself in a utilitarian society of socialist Gradgrinds; and Ulrich Plenzdorf, an experienced scriptwriter, put on stage the first East German drop-out -- in jeans, talking the slang of his subculture, and listening to progressive rock. In these heady days hopes ran high, and everybody was fond of quoting Erich Honecker, the first secretary of the Party, who declared in a famour speech upon assuming power (1971) that there should be no literary taboos for anybody proceeding from the "firm position of socialism."
The true implications of these government declarations and the limits of tolerance, even at the best of times, are strikingly visible in the fate of the young Marxist poet and singer Wolf Biermann whose banishment from the Republic of Workers and Peasants was followed by wave upon wave of new repressions, characterizing the situation today. Biermann's credentials were impeccable: his father was an active Hamburg Communist who died in Auschwitz, and the young man left West Germany for the East where he was trained in Brecht's Ensemble. The trouble was that he wrote rebellious political songs in the tradition of Villon, Heine, and young Brecht, against the aging functionaries who were quick to condemn his verse as anarchist, dirty, and even anti-Communist. He was, for 15 years, a non-person in the country of his choice but his old-fashioned apartment in East Berlin, Chausseestrasse 111, became an underground hang-out for unorthodox young socialists and artists. The authorities wanted to get rid of him for a long time, finally permitted him to go to West Germany (upon invitation of th Trade Union of Metal Workers), and revoked his citizenship as soon as he arrived there.
But by banishing Biermann, the government also set in motion an open protest movement of East German writers and intellectuals who, suddenly, had found their moment to gather against the establishment. At first, only six writers petitioned the government to revoke the Biermann decree but soon additional lists were circulated, and some of the literary stars of the older and the younger generation, long pampered by the Party and the government, joined in protest, collectively or as individuals.
The government may have been impervious to a few experimental novels but it was totally unwilling to permit writers to express political ideas from below; and, immediately, an entire repertory of repressive measures was instituted to crush even the beginning of resistance. Until now more than 50 East German writers and artists have arrived in West Germany; a few are on trial at home (after the East German laws have been conveniently changed), others have been deprived of any possibility to publish. Wolf Biermann, in the meantime, has demonstratively joined the West German branch (foreign workers) of the Spanish Communist Party in order to show his open contempt for those German comrades who still rely on ideas, and subsidies, from East Berlin.
Rolf Schneider's novel November , translated skillfully by Michael Bullock, takes it cue from the Biermann events and its present consequences for the East Geman Intelligentsia. Forty-nine-year-old Schneider, who continues living in the Gdr, was (to the surprise of some of his fellow-writers) among the first to sign the protest letter to the government; and though he insists that he is writing a fictional narrative; he sketches fascinating and ambivalent portraits of some of his real friends and colleagues, including Wolf Biermann himself, a rather Quixotic figure, under the name of Arnold Bodakov.
Instead of giving us a mere chronicle of events, Schneider soberly explores the psychological and intimate impact of a fellow poet's banishment on a privileged family of East German intellectuals -- the writer Natasha Roth, who can freely travel in the West, her husband (a museum director), and their 15-year-old son Stefan who, slowly recuperating from a car accident, painfully learns to distinguish between what people say and what they hide. Natasha is the daughter of a Social Democrat who was once deprived of his citizenship by Hitler, and almost instinctively decides to sign the protest. Yet she does not want to go further because she feels that, as a writer, she has to "listen to the country . . . to the stones and the streets and the soil and cast-off rubbish and fabrics and bridges and leaves." It is her son who sees with disturbing clarity on what silent compromises his parents' lives are built and, increasingly alienated from his mother, who wants to have her political cake and eat it too, tells himself that "later, he would do everything differently."
Schneider has earned little praise for his courageous analysis of a difficult situation; the East German deputy minister of culture, as was to be expected, called the book (which was only published in the West) "quickly writen and without depth" and, on the other side, Wolf Biermann (who knows, as does everybody else, that the author of November has written less than sophisticated stuff in the service of the establishment) flatly accused Schneider of having joined the opposition out of opportunism. Schneider still has a certain propensity for heaping melodramatic coicidences (from the disintegration of Natasha's marriage to grandma's sudden demise in Tel Aviv) but, considering his past performance, he clearly shows a new seriousness of committed purpose, excels in suggesitng subtle atmospheric details of city walks in East Berlin, Paris, and Vienna, and creates lively and interesting characters. November may be a revealing and symptomatic rather than a significant novel, but it is certainly a first-rate introduction to the contradictory realities of East German life and literature and to the complicated experience of intellectuals and writers, unhappily caught between the temptation of affirmative service and the virtues of resistance.
It was poetry, the most fragile kind of writing, which has shown, for many years, far more resilience to state interference than the novel or the theater. At a time when West German radicals condemned the writing of poems as pure escapism, East German poets of the middle and the younger generation marvelously expanded the range of their writing, long narrowed by party interests and Brecht's didacticism, and fearlessly explored the fundamentals of human existence, far beyond the construction of new steel mills in Karl-Marx-Stadt.
Richard Zipser, professor of German at Oberlin College, went to East Germany to gather important poetry on the spot and to talk with the poets themselves; the results of his explorations, now published in a special issue of Field , constitute an illuminating little anthology of East German poetry in its astonishing variety of approach an idiom -- a gathering of East German poets under one roof, for a last time, since nearly one-third of the authors translated here in the meantime have left the country because they wished to do so (Gunter Kunert) or because they were forced to go (Reiner Kunze).
There are the cryptic and forceful verse by aging Erich Arendt who spent many years of exile in South America, learning from Spanish Modernism; Volker Braun's bitter polemics against socialism without having humane vision, "sitting behind closed doors/I hear sounds, the grinding of industries and of bodies/Under the Plan"; and Sara Kirsch's intriguing poems that combine motifs from Grimm's fairy tales with the ironies of our universal discontent. Missing are Wolf Biermann's chansons but there is gifted Thomas Brasch who was little known when he began writing in the East, and has become one of the central figures of new German writing after he arrived in the West. It could be easy to say where he imitates whom, but young people especially have been quick to identify with his rage, insecurity, tenderness and his stoic refusal to cooperate with any political system, built by the fathers without the consensus of their sons. Finally, Thomas Brasch is touching a raw nerve of our age, and it is impossible to classify his poetry by simple labels, West or East.