BOOKS / The secret sharer: Christa Wolf was the voice of East Germany's conscience, renowned for her scrupulous honesty - but she was also, at one time, an informer. Now her integrity is in tatters and her readers can no longer distinguish truth from lies

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CHRISTA WOLF was a runner-up for the Nobel prize in 1988. Nowadays, though, it's not her stories but the stories about her that command attention. From being East Germany's literary conscience, the very voice (it seemed) of painful honesty, the one who spoke for the individual from inside the walls, she has become for the new Germany a symbol of duplicity.

There were two stages to this process. First, in 1989, she published the novella What Remains, written (she said) 10 years earlier, about being harassed by the Stasi, the secret police of the German Democratic Republic, and spied on by fellow intellectuals. Many readers' responses were sceptical and sour. Why hadn't she published it in 1979, when to do so would have been dangerous? Wasn't she retrospectively justifying herself as a victim? Wasn't she also claiming a kind of outsider-status she didn't really have? All of this was fuelled by the fact that her best writing had always been based in autobiography - now there was a gap between that 'secret' self and another one, seemingly even more secret. However, the discovery of a whole bank of Stasi files on Wolf and her husband, compiled between 1968 and 1980, lent credibility to the story of the story.

Except that there was another Stasi file lurking - its existence first hinted at last summer in the German press. This was not a file on Wolf, but one to which she had contributed as an 'informal collaborator' of the Stasi, long before. It turned out that in the heyday of her infatuation with the regime - between 1959 and 1962 - she'd chatted to the thought-police. She broke the story eventually (when it was about to break anyway, said her enemies) in January of this year. By this time, ironically enough, she was on a Getty grant in California, working on a book about classical myth (Medea and guilt). By this time, too, the GDR, the country she'd defined herself for, and against, had been erased from the map.

Now her own words turn against her, on every side. It's impossible to read What Remains without reversing the roles, hard to remember her brilliant study of a girl (herself?) contriving to forget the Nazi past in A Model Childhood without reflecting on the feat of amnesia she's more recently managed. She said to the New York Times Book Review earlier this month that she must obviously have been 'a case for Dr Freud . . . a classic case of repression', since she'd really forgotten most of her informal collaborating - the codename out of Goethe (Margarete), the details she furnished, and so on. Her 'I' no longer includes 'the person I was at that time: a believer in ideology, a good comrade', with all the ideologue's 'pigheadedness'. Getting out my old paperback copies of her books I discover, on one blurb, this from the Guardian: 'A writer of scrupulous, 'touchstone' honesty.'

And there it is. She was one of those writers shaped by repression, who represented in the indifferently 'free' world a value for writing, and for realism, and for truth-telling, which we revered. It was our bad faith she reminded us of, the playful emptiness we all too often detected in our literary versions of liberty. What we forgot was that the state that defined her was also a state she'd helped define. Her East German generation congratulated itself on rooting-out and rejecting fascism: 'We in our part of Germany confronted German Fascism uncompromisingly and thoroughly,' she wrote in 1989. 'Today many of us see that at first we were in danger of just substituting one doctrine of salvation for another.'

This piece is reprinted in The Writer's Dimension and, along with some pieces from 20 or 25 years earlier, it does begin to sketch out the collective psychological mechanism whereby the rejection of fascism made way for the new regime. This next quotation comes from a piece on her generation - she was born in 1929, so was 16 when the war ended - written in 1965:

Our situation was unique in that our path into adulthood, our search for our appropriate place in life, coincided with the rise of a new society, with its quest for forms of existence, with its growth, its mistakes, its consolidation. Since we learned to move around freely and securely in this society, to identify with it and at the same time stay critical as one can be only towards one's own work - since that time we have turned 30 or 35 and our books have become more vivid, more truthful, and filled with reality.

Fascinating to read this now. It explains in its own way the quality of almost Victorian density and depth that Christa Wolf's kind of fiction managed - the 'realism' of writers who also see themselves as creating the reality they record and resent ('reality is created by common effort', the young Raymond Williams used to say, nostalgic for those days). The last section of The Writer's Dimension, headed 'The End of the German Democratic Republic (1989-90)', mostly comprises the texts of speeches. She was pleading in these speeches for the preservation of the 'real' country of her imagination, while helping to dismantle the shell of dead GDR institutions.

As it turned out, the extra 'dimension' she believed in simply vanished. In her Sixties' days of hope she had triumphantly contrasted 'our language, the accurate, serviceable language of reason' with 'the abracadabra' of the consumer culture next door in West Germany ('Talking German', 1965). Now, she had lost her place. In her most famous novel, The Quest for Christa T, Wolf wrote about 'the new world that we were making and making unassailable - even if it meant building ourselves into its foundations'. Well yes, with hindsight, that's what she did. And now the walls are down, and the 'sacrifices' have come unglamorously to light.

There's one story in What Remains in which Wolf revisits the lost world of moral idealism at the end of the war. In this atmosphere, she remembers trucksful of waste paper, soldiers 'throwing it out of Wehrmacht vehicles . . . forms . . . files . . . documents'. At every turn her writing acquires ambiguities, suggestions, self-references she didn't mean. It is as if she is being written by the words, being written out and exposed by a language she's always despised. In another long quotation, from Cassandra (1983), she talks about her hatred of precisely the kind of public exposure she's now writhing under:

About reality. The insane fact that in all the 'civilised', industrialised nations, literature, if it is realistic, speaks a completely different language from any and all public disclosures. As if every country existed twice over. As if every resident existed twice over: once as himself and as the potential perceiver of an artistic presentation; second, as an object of statistics, publicity, agitation, advertisement, political propaganda . . . Vital, contradictory people . . . have rigidified into ready-made parts and stage scenery . . .

These two worlds have - for the moment at least - collapsed into one another for her and her readers. Her 'realism' looks indistinguishable from lies and propaganda, her 'writer's dimension' looks like a sleight of hand, a way of constructing an apologia, a space to hide in.

The last point she makes, though, about the grossness of publicity's simplifications, is also true. Germany's unification may have demolished the space she lived in, may have revealed her claim to dissenting authority as mired and mirrored in the authority of the dead state, but it has also encouraged a cynical purity-crusade that enables the bad faith of the right to disappear again behind attacks on her kind.

Will she be able to write about this? Live, on the page, with her new inheritance of shame, and share it out? In her best-selling book on Chernobyl, The Accident, published in 1987, she wrote: 'Once again . . . our age had created a Before and After for itself. I realised that I could describe my life as a series of just such incisions, a gradual clouding over produced by ever thickening shadows. Or, on the contrary, as a continuous acclimatisation to ever harsher lighting . . .' Or again (in the same book): 'We are more and more obliged to act the part of writer and, by falling out of character, to pull off our masks . . .' Perhaps she will be overwhelmed by the hideously prophetic force of her own words - 'growing older means: all that one would never have thought possible comes true'. Truth has overtaken her realism, and has given the very hacks whom she despised a carnival. The more playful pieces in What Remains - a Flann O'Brienish tale about what happens to left-over fictional characters, a speculative whimsy about a sex-change - do not begin to cope with what happens if you really take on literature-as-lies. But then that was Before.

Writers who never lay claim to her kind of responsibility for their worlds are forgiven for their duplicities and dark secrets in a way that Wolf can't and won't be. In 1965, for instance, Marguerite Duras published La Douleur, which purported to be mostly old manuscripts belonging to the moral no-man's-land at the end of the war: 'I found this diary . . . I have no recollection of having written it. I know I did.' One of the stories is about a resistance group, and particularly a character called Therese, torturing to death an informer. 'Therese,' Duras said in an introductory note, 'is me. The person who tortures the informer is me.' And yet, partly because of Duras's habitual insistence on the murkiness of ecriture, and the way words spread obscurity and ambivalence rather than enlightenment - not to mention her claim that this is the special territory of the woman writer, who's a subversive in the cause of anarchy - one is enabled to side-step the real implication of this 'confession'. Whereas Wolf, having identified herself with the cause of naming and mapping and remembering, is exposed. Wolf, moreover, never fancied or allowed herself the womanly get-out; in the sex-change story she writes with jokey contempt about 'that division of labour which leaves the right to sadness, hysteria and the majority of neuroses to women'.

No post-modern escape hatch, then. Just the dystopian mess that has replaced her Utopian project. For Wolf's kind of realism, you now can see, was Utopian, news from nowhere, a vanished country where public and private life, intellectuals and the rest, past and present generations, were supposed to be able to find common ground. One of the things that hurt her most in 1989 was the exodus of the young to the West - 'did a bonding ever take place, a dialogue?' she asked herself dismally. Her own experience of suppressed memories now helps to explain why her communist generation - like her parents' fascist generation - failed to make links. She tried to write a literature which, however private-sounding, had ties with public history. And it's that prospect - 'that's what writing means, to furnish examples' - which, for the moment at least, has vanished along with her reputation for integrity.

'What Remains and Other Stories' and 'The Writer's Dimension: Selected Essays' are published by Virago at pounds 8.99 and pounds 16.99

(Photograph omitted)