Christa Wolf relives a public scandal in the novel ‘City of Angels’
City of Angels
Or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud
Translated from the German by Damion Searls
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 316 pp., $27
Christa Wolf’s final book, “City of Angels, or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud,” is a work about betrayal — or more accurately, our inability to know ourselves.
Set in Southern California between mid-1992 and mid-1993, it was inspired by the year Wolf, who died in 2011, spent as a Getty fellow. Although it comes labeled as a novel, it is more a public act of self-reflection, intensely autobiographical and vividly imagined at once.
At its center is a writer named Christa Wolf, who, like the author, was among the most prominent writers to come out of communist East Germany. She was a true believer who became a dissenter, and yet, in her own way, remained a patriot. This becomes a key factor in the narrative when (as really happened) it is publicly revealed that Wolf, who was herself watched by the Stasi for three decades, also functioned between 1959 and 1962 as an East German secret service “ ‘Informeller Mitarbeiter’ — ‘informal collaborator’ — … the Stasi term for an informer, a nonemployee who made a report.”
Wolf’s memory is incomplete: She recalls having spoken more than once to a pair of Stasi officers but not submitting a report, even though she has seen it, in her handwriting — inescapable proof of her complicity. In trying to understand how this could have happened, she has no choice but to question her identity, everything she’s ever thought about herself.
“I called my friend in Zurich,” she writes. “You are a psychologist, you must know: Can someone forget something like that? That they gave me a code name? That I wrote a report? He kept calm. And? he said. What else? And by the way: A person can forget anything. They need to, in fact. Don’t you know the line from Freud: We cannot live without forgetting?”
Wolf frames the essential tension of the novel (published in Germany in 2010 and now available in English in a nervy, vibrant translation by Damion Searls), which is only heightened by its blurring of the line between fiction and nonfiction, between experience rendered and experience lived. What good is memory if it escapes us? And if we can’t remember, how do we know who we are?
In that sense, “City of Angels” is a narrative of culture clash, although part of its brilliance is to frame that less through politics — the divide between east and west, between Germany and California — than in terms of past and present, public and private life, necessity and idealism, the way others see us and how we perceive ourselves.
For Wolf, memory is like a dream half recollected, the residue not just of another time, another moment, but also of another life. The paradox, though, is that this brings her closer, allowing her to excavate her experiences with ruthless grace. She shows us everything, whether it is watching “Star Trek,” tracing the failures of her body (she was 63 when the action she describes took place) or detailing her engagement with a regime she stopped believing but never fully broke with.
In the end, she realizes, forgetting offers her the starkest sort of freedom; as the psychologist in Zurich reminds her, “You can say anything now.”
There is, of course, a particular genius to setting such a story in Los Angeles, which has long been stereotyped as a landscape of forgetting on the grandest scale. For Wolf, however, that’s another thing to play against; she wants to get beneath the surface, to cut against the grain.
Wolf writes about her daily life in the city but finds her deepest connections in the expats who came here to escape Hitler: Thomas Mann, Arnold Schoenberg, Salka Viertel and especially Bertolt Brecht, with whom she feels a deep affinity. Like him, she moves through L.A. in a state of exile, banished from her homeland, which, post-reunification, no longer exists. Like him, she is equally engaged with this place and disengaged with it, reflecting on her history from a distance both actual and metaphorical.
At a party in the Palisades, surrounded by other émigrés, she asks “whether, buried in his work, preoccupied with worries about Germany, deep in discussion with colleagues and actors who were putting on his Galileo play — whether Brecht ever really paid attention to his city of refuge, Los Angeles.” The answer is yes, for Brecht too wrote about "[t]he oil derricks and the thirsty gardens of Los Angeles” even as he was consumed by other things.
The point is that, in Southern California, as in any place, life goes on, time passes, an idea Wolf makes explicit in her text by adding an additional layer, that of herself 15 years in the future, after all the controversy has settled, looking back at these experiences to write of them.
In that sense, “City of Angels” is a book about writing, about the interplay of memory and life. This is why it’s called a novel, since in the imagination, experience is transformed, given a shape, a significance it only has in retrospect. Yet here’s another bit of genius: It doesn’t matter what we call it. Like all art, it creates a category of its own.
Particularly fascinating is Wolf’s sense of East Germany as still deserving of allegiance: a failed alternative to capitalism but, if nothing else, her home. “At some point,” she writes, “the sentence formed: We loved this country. An impossible sentence that would have earned you nothing but mocking jeers if you had spoken it out loud.”
This, in turn, only deepens the conundrums at the heart of the novel, the issues of betrayal and complicity, the idea that nothing is ever truly black and white. Wolf is anything but self-protecting — she even includes some of the reactions provoked by the release of her IM file, such as the following postcard, sent by a lawyer from Leipzig: “Unlike you, I always hated the GDR and was thus immune to many things. You, however, were an important part of the GDR, and I hate you!”
But the point is that the lawyer can’t be immune, any more than Wolf, or anyone; we are all a part of whatever culture we inhabit, and responsible for it, whether wittingly or otherwise.
“Kafka. Kafka could have come up with something like that,” says a friend about the layers of complicity Wolf documents.
To which Wolf replies: “You’re right.... No one is innocent in his work either. As in life.”
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