A Day at a Time - Christa Wolf’s life under surveillance.

There are many mechanisms of expression more private than a diary. Thinking is invisible, and talking is impermanent. A diary, however, has public aspirations: All writing is to some degree expectant of an audience. The preface to One Day a Year, the meticulous yearly record that the East German writer Christa Wolf maintained from 1960 until 2011, concedes this point. At first, Wolf claims that her notes represent “pure, authentic” life with “no artistic intentions.” But only a few lines later, she admits that “the need to be known, including one’s problematic characteristics, one’s mistakes and flaws, is the basis of all literature and is also one of the motives behind this book.” We amass days, Wolf suggests, in the secret hope that someone else will witness and redeem them. The price we pay for our exhibitionism is a life conducted under observation.

One Day a Year was inspired by “One Day in the World,” a project devised by the socialist-realist writer Maxim Gorky. At the First Congress of Soviet Writers, Gorky proposed that authors from around the world contribute descriptions of an ordinary day, collectively capturing a richly heterogeneous moment in global history. His suggestion resulted in One Day in China, compiled in 1936, and One Day in the World, published in Russian in 1937. But Wolf’s take on the project was much more personal. Her efforts chart not many lives at a single moment but a single life at many moments, memorializing not a shared world but a viciously divided country that was, by turns, ferociously nationalistic, war-torn, optimistic, disillusioned, and, finally, uneasily unified. Her chosen day was September 27, and she faithfully observed her annual ritual for more than five decades, mapping her ascent to literary prominence with the 1968 publication of her best-known work, The Quest for Christa T., and the 1983 publication of her daring novel-cum-essay Cassandra, a feminist reimagining of the story of Helen of Troy that doubled as a critique of East Germany (officially the German Democratic Republic).

Throughout, Wolf’s journals bear moving witness to the personal and political landmarks that constitute the bulk of her life: her struggle to come to terms with communism’s quick devolution; her despair over the gender inequalities that belied the GDR’s promise of egalitarianism; the marriages of her daughters, Annette and Katrin (“Tinka”); her tenderness for her husband, Gerhard (“Gerd”), who was her most devoted reader and so her harshest critic; and the shocking revelation, in 1993, that she’d served as an informant for the Stasi, the East German secret police, from 1959 to 1962—a collusion that she claimed she’d forgotten or suppressed.

Long before the publication of One Day a Year’s first volume, Wolf predicted that her tendency toward self-observation would warp her private life. “This entire observed day falls under the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. It is deformed by my constant viewing of it,” she worried as early as the late 1970s. Even in her diaries, Wolf was induced to spy on herself.

Wolf grew up under surveillance. She was born in 1929, in the then-German city of Landsberg an der Warthe, and her youth was carefully standardized. Her father joined the Nazi Party, and Wolf became a member of the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the League of German Girls, in her early youth. The title of her lightly fictionalized memoir Kindheitsmuster (1976) emphasizes the violent regimentation that defined her infancy. Muster means “pattern,” as in the pattern for a dress, a template that prohibits deviation or difference. Kindheitsmuster presents just such a model: It describes the brutal homogenization that Germans faced under the Nazis and Wolf’s subsequent struggle to recover the individuality she’d forfeited. “Statistics are too coarse for your purpose,” she writes of herself in the second person. “Even in the face of exact figures, you’d still want more information, and it’s unobtainable in this world.”

The information that Wolf sought was unavailable in part because Landsberg an der Warthe, the site of her childhood recollections, no longer existed; it had become the Polish city of Gorzów Wielkopolski. What remained of Germany was scarcely more recognizable. Wolf and her family fled the Red Army and found themselves in Mecklenburg, a province in what would shortly become East Germany. In Kindheitsmuster, the narrator’s daughter recoils from understanding “how one could be there and not there at the same time, the ghastly secret of human beings in this century.” It was a secret that colored much of Wolf’s life as she passed from one authoritarian regime to the next, shuttling from one country to another without ever settling into a more situated self.

Wolf wrote to locate herself more completely, but she rarely succeeded. What emerged instead were ill-fated efforts to extricate a single person from the tangle of an intrusively collective world. The Quest for Christa T., an experimental work about the precariousness of identity under fascism, examines Wolf’s desperation to lay claim to the word “I.” The book’s bereaved narrator is devastated by the premature death of Christa T., a character roughly modeled on Wolf’s childhood friend Christa Tabbert. Christa resists posthumous recovery because she failed to recover herself, and the narrator rifles through her friend’s journals and writings to no avail. “Among her papers are various fragments written in the third person,” the narrator complains. But she sympathizes with Christa’s confusion, in which she recognizes echoes of herself: “I understand the secret of the third person, who is there without being tangible and who, when circumstances favor her, can bring down more reality upon herself than the first person: I.” She continues in a broken staccato, as if gasping or stuttering, “The difficulty of saying ‘I.’”

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