East German literary studies have been mired in the “culture wars” that have raged in Germany since the collapse of the German Democratic Republic in 1989 and its quick integration into the Federal Republic. Reading East German literature in order to determine whether a text or author was complicit with or critical of the Communist regime, Hell argues, is an inadequate way to think about East German culture. This criticism applies as well to the Cold War-era totalitarian theories that inform such readings. She proposes a reconceptualization of East German literary history against this reductionist background, first by interrogating the prevailing literary-historical paradigm, the (socialist) realism/modernism dichotomy espoused by Wolfgang Emmerich, and then by arguing for the usefulness of a psychoanalytic approach. Hell’s [End Page 1029] major interest is East Germany’s most prominent prose writer, Christa Wolf. The first two parts of the study build the foundation for a reconceptualization of Wolf’s “subjective authenticity” in the third part. Here she aims to correct feminist readings which, appropriating Emmerich’s framework, share a teleological trajectory that defines Wolf’s search for a “pure” feminine voice as a gradual (modernist) liberation from the GDR’s dominant ideological (socialist realist) narrative.
Hell’s psychoanalytic approach is intended to burst the straightjacket of this paradigm rather than to retie it. At the same time, the book provides a series of fascinating, highly literate close readings. Canonical East German texts were chosen for their narration of conscious and unconscious fantasies involved in an “ideological formation based on the family.” She also wants to ensure a historicized psychoanalysis by applying it to an appropriate ideological context—a specific historical discourse of antifascism in postwar East Germany. Her theoretical discussions elaborate Claude Lefort’s rethinking of totalitarianism as a political-ideological project, Slavoj Z(breve)iz(breve)ek’s concept of the sublime Communist body, and British feminist-psychoanalytic readings of both Lacanian theory and classical Freudian positive and negative oedipal positioning with the family narrative. Formal concerns nevertheless remain central, as she reads the works symptomatically, with an eye on incoherencies related to unresolved contradictions. Her method results in progressively complex synthetic readings that integrate analyses of political-historical discourse, psychic structures of fantasy formation, and narrative voice. She provides much historical background, intertextual material, and extensive cross-referencing in voluminous footnotes. This is an ambitious and accomplished work of scholarship.
The first part of the book, “In the Name of the Father: East Germany’s Foundational Narratives,” analyzes novels that tell the “pre-history” of the GDR as family sagas centered on the anti-fascist hero and a male lineage of Communist fathers and sons: Willi Bredel’s trilogy Verwandte und Bekannte (Relatives and Acquaintances) (1941–53), Anna Seghers’s Die Toten bleiben jung (The Dead Stay Young) (1949), and Otto Gotsche’s Die Fahne von Kriwoj Rog (The Flag from Kriwoj Rog) (1959). These provide the legitimating antifascist narrative in the subjection to the father. At the same time, Hell gives compelling readings of Seghers’s “Ausflug der toten Mädchen” (“The Outing of the Dead Girls”) and [End Page 1030] “Post ins gelobte Land” (“Letters to the Promised Land”) and analyses the overdetermined nature of Seghers’s representation of Communist femininity and motherhood in the “vital tension between the antifascist narrative and the representation of the mother.”
The second part, “Mapping the Oedipal Story onto Post-Fascist Socialism: New Families/New Bodies,” deals with novels written in the early 1960s by a younger generation: Brigitte Reimann’s Ankunft im Alltag (Arrival in Everyday Life) and Dieter Noll’s bildungsroman Die Abenteuer des Werner Holt: Roman einer Heimkehr (The Adventures of Werner Holt: Novel of Homecoming) along with Heiner Müller’s “Der Vater” [“The Father”]. The family romance involves the desire to separate from parents involved in national socialism; Hell examines the new “father-son, mother-daughter” relations characterized by the absent antifascist father, the absent Stalin, and the production in fantasy of new, sexually pure “post-fascist bodies.”