The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

I failed. I got to page 93 out of 185 and I stopped reading. I have tried. For several weeks I have picked up this book and read the first chapter. Then put it down and later tried again. Now at the half-way point, ten chapters out of 20 have been read, but I can’t go on. I’ve weighed up the time it was taking to read this novel against what I felt I got out of it. I’ve decided to move on to other books.

The title of this post should really read: The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

The Quest for Christa T

Christa T is not an especially remarkable woman. Like the narrator, she grew up in eastern Germany during the war, and like many in that area, fled before the advancing Red Army. Living in East Germany (the DDR), as normality is resumed, the girls meet again in university and form a loose friendship. The narrator reconstructs Christa T’s life from the documents she left when she died young of Leukaemia.

Part of the novel seems to be about the impossibility of recreating anyone’s life, fictional or real. She opens the novel with doubts about memories.

The quest for her: in the thought of her. And of the attempt to be oneself. She speaks of this in her diaries, which we have, on the loose manuscript pages that have been found, and between the lines of those letters of hers that are known to me. I must forget my memory of Christa T.- that is what these documents have taught me. Memory puts a deceptive color on things.

But must we give her up for lost? (1)

It’s this kind of elliptical yet lyrical prose that made reading it so hard. And the novel continues by exploring witness evidence, documents, and conjecturing what happened in the gaps. There is very little narrative, more a series of events alongside the narrator’s suggestions of what might have been happening in Christa T’s mind and explanations of her responses.

What are we to make of the author’s name being shared with the main character? Why has Christa Wolf embarked on this search, the quest for her namesake, at all? I guess I’ll never know because I am moving on to other reading.

Christa Wolf

Christa Wolf lived 1929 to 2011, mostly former East Germany. The area in which she was born is now in Poland, and when her family fled the advancing Red Army at the end of the war they ended up inside the Russian Zone.

She worked as a literary critic and journal editor and although critical of the DDR leadership during the Cold War period she remained a socialist. She won many awards for her writing. From reading her obituaries and about The Quest for Christa T it seems that Christa Wolf was interested in individuals who make their own way rather than following the crowd. This had obvious implications for the East German state. Her book was not banned when it appeared in 1968, but only a limited number of copies were printed.

A Novel in translation

Well, I am sorry for my failure to get beyond half way. The Quest for Christa T was my October choice for the Women in Translation project. I chose it because it appeared in several lists of recommended reads for #WIT and others had responded positively. For example, on Heavenali’s blog and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. I plan to read another, but more recent, text by a German writer: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (2017) in November.

I would like to hear from people who got further with Christa T than I did, and who got more out of it.

The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf, first published in English in 1970 by Hutchinson & Co. The translation from the German is by Christopher Middleton. I read a library copy from Exeter Library stacks. Virago also published a version.

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Women in Translation

8 Responses to The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

  1. This happens, so nothing to feel bad about. We have to be congruent in these matters; it’s not what others praise that counts, but our own genuine reading response . This can be informed & enhanced by the insights of others, but it’s our own true feeling that’s key. I didn’t get on with Herta Muller, while most raved about her. Hearing why you didn’t finish a book can be as useful as the other kind of post.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for your comment Simon. I agree that there is no shame about not finishing a book, but I was disappointed that I did not get more pleasure from the half I did read. Here’s to my next Woman in Translation post in November!

  2. It’s not an easy book, I’ll grant you that – it took me a while to get into the groove with it but when I did I was fine. But not every book is for everyone and I’ve abandoned plenty in my time that people have raved about….

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this comment. I was impressed that you got through this book and enjoyed it. A salutary reminder to me that I can’t assume I will manage it all!

  3. Ah, shame.. but we simply can’t get on with all books, no matter how much other people like them. I did like this book – but this was in my pretentious teenage years, when I thought the more experimental and complicated, the better!

    • Caroline

      Hi Marina, I think I was behaving like a pretentious adult when I assumed that this book would be attractive to me. I like experimental and complicated, but I also like movement in a novel. Caroline

  4. Simon and Marina have beaten me to it with their comments as I was about to say something similar. The world would be a very dull place if we all experienced things in broadly the same way. It’s the personal responses and different perspectives that add real value to these discussions. As I’ve never read Christa Wolf, I can’t comment on the book in question. That’s said, I do get the feeling that her novels are quite challenging and not the easiest to penetrate…

    • Caroline

      Thanks Jacqui, and it bears repeating that we do not all respond to things, especially books, in the same way. And thank goodness. When prize winners are announced the press tend to treat the books as the best in some way. No simply what the judges responded to.

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