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Leeder, Karen, ed. Rereading East Germany: The Literature and Film of the GDR.

Leeder, Karen, ed. Rereading East Germany: The Literature and Film of the GDR. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2016. 260 pp. 199.99 (hardcover).

Anthologies on a broader topic, such as a national literature or culture, must balance between stock-taking, an overview of existent scholarship, and a breaking of new ground. Rereading East Germany is a case in point. The book is subtitled "The Literature and Film of the GDR," but only one chapter, by Sean Allan, is devoted to film; seven out of twelve are on literature, and four others to larger questions of culture. Absent are music or the visual arts, on which interesting work has been done recently (by Matthias Tischer and Nina Noeske on music, or April Eisman on art); one might think also of recent work on television's role in the GDR, by Henning Wrage or Heather Gumbert. In this emphasis, the book tends somewhat to reproduce the GDR's self-understanding as a Literaturgesellschaft (Stephen Brockmann, The Writers State: Constructing East German Literature, 1945-1959 [2015]). Its chapters on literature are divided either by genre (play, novel, drama) or subject (Georgina Paul on gender, Alison Lewis on literature and the Stasi), which means that intermedial relations between literature and film or film and television, or literature's changing place in the GDR's Medienlandschaft, are not emphasized.

As Karen Leeder points out early on in her introduction, one of the chief tasks for scholars of GDR culture today is to get beyond the old fellow-traveler sympathies of older scholarship, which meant that "for many years critical judgments were skewed more to political or moral considerations than aesthetic ones" (2).

Another problem with much older scholarship is its curious provincialism, its lack of comparativist dimension, meaning that the GDR was often seen as something absolutely sui generis; recent scholarship on Eastern European culture should be a pointer to GDR scholars to develop comparative perspectives of their own. This means that the further development of GDR cultural scholarship will depend on the ability to make difficult judgments, including judgments on cultural figures once admired as representatives of an alternative Germany. Many of the best chapters in this book do break new ground, including Wolfgang Emmerich's imaginative first chapter on "The GDR and Its Literature," which is full of new ideas on how to reconsider its topic, including references to Bakhtin's chronotope, sharp criticisms of some treasured aspects of GDR ideology (including antifascism), and strong judgments on "what remains" of GDR literature.

Jill Twark's chapter on satire is similarly fresh and inventive, with productive suggestions on how to read GDR satirical prose as a "novel of complexity" (136, referring to scientific "complexity theory") and well-focused observations on post-Wende satire as well. Gerrit-Jan Berendse's chapter on poetry opens up that subject to cross-cultural relations with other countries' poetic traditions, particularly to the rich vein of translations from Eastern European and Russian literature that was one of the GDR's most impressive accomplishments. Bakhtin is evoked again in Berendse's suggestion that "poetry written in the GDR is characterized by dialogism, and for this reason it signifies the appropriate genre with which the stereotype of the GDR as a closed culture is denied" (143). This may be one of the reasons why Emmerich, at the end of his chapter, notes that while "GDR literature produced one playwright of world stature--Heiner Muller--and a wealth of extraordinarily acccomplished and dynamic poetry [...] its prose literature, which has been more widely discussed [...] may be found wanting" (30). Even within poetry, Berendse is highly critical of the Prenzlauer Berg poets, whose rebellion he finds limited by their "discursive imprisonment" (154) in a pattern of static confrontation with official culture. Prenzlauer Berg poets'borrowing from American Beat poets, who were already imitating the Surrealists or Rimbaud, "meant the recycling of the already recycled" (154). Birgit Dahlke's chapter, too, concludes a discussion of "the unofficial culture of the GDR" on a sober note: "it appeared, after 1990 when they had access to it, as if very few of the artists involved [in the underground] actually preferred the real outside world to the comforts of their neighborhood scene" (172). Provincialism, in other words, is a characteristic of many of the writers critically evaluated here. Dahlke's chapter also benefits from a comparativist dimension: "Czech, Russian, Polish or Hungarian samizdat literature was much more politically radical, and their political and literary scenes were more closely linked" (176).

The writer who is most subject to critical revision here is, unsurprisingly, Christa Wolf, whose once-canonical status is here criticized both from an aesthetic and a political perspective. Emmerich writes of her: "Very early, in childhood or youth under the Nazi regime, a habitus had developed--continued 'patterns of childhood'so to speak--the chief characteristics of which were a need for security, a desire to identify with authority, a susceptibility to mobilization (.Begeisterungsfahigkeit), and moral rigour." This pattern only "crumbled [...] in part. What remains are certain moralizing and self-legitimizing tendencies that persist in modes of speech or her writing style" (27). Carol Anne Costabile-Heming writes even more sharply of Wolf's inadequate response to the events of 1989: "Her surprise [at the poor reception of Was bleibt] was a further indication of the extent to which she was out of touch with her readers and the changes in her society" (205). Thus Stadt der Engel, with its sentimental self-pity and heavy allegorical aspects, "reads more like a lament for the 'good old days'of the GDR than a coming to terms with the past" (210). By contrast, Gunter de Bruyn's work emerges from discussion in several chapters of this book (Tate, Tvvark) as more likely to last than Wolf's, due to its greater subtlety and distance from official ideology. This revision is linked to a revision of GDR genre theory, especially that of autobiography and its supposed "authenticity," once so central to older scholarship: as Alison Lewis points out in her important chapter on literature and the Stasi, "while genres such as biographies, memoirs, letter-writing and diaries are referential genres that refer to real people, real times and real places, they are also genres which are mediated through language and can benefit from 'tropological' readings that are sensitive to the figurative use of language" (182). Dennis Tate's chapter on autobiography, by contrast, tends to stay more within the confines of older scholarship on the genre.

The book closes with a chapter by the editor on remembering the GDR, which notes that film has become the Leitmedium for GDR memory (223), and that although GDR writers have been active in working through their nation's past, Ostalgie fashions "run the risk of becoming a grotesquely commodified symbol, rather than a true after-image, of life in the GDR" (219). So too, the dominance of generic melodramas like The Lives of Others, or the presence ol melodrama in the films of Christian Petzold, risks framing the GDR past in flat oppositions of Stasi versus freedom, which serve less to remember than forget the complexities of that past. Leeder concludes the volume by observing (231) that the "spectres" (in Derrida's sense) of the GDR are still very much with us.


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Author:Powell, Larson
Publication:The German Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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