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Anna Kuhn's and Jacqueline Vansant's new books attest to the growing importance and visibility of German-speaking women writers in the American scholarly community as well as among the general reading public. Both texts are to some extent "firsts." Kuhn's is the first book-length chronological study in English (and one of the best in any language) of the works of contemporary East German writer Christa Wolf; Vansant's is the first book in English to deal extensively with Austrian women writers of the postwar and contemporary period.
Kuhn treats with great sophistication the intricate interrelationship between Wolfs "fictional" and "essayistic" pieces and demonstrates the necessity of reading these texts simultaneously in order to comprehend Wolf's genre-disruptive practices. Kuhn's familiarity with Wolfs work (and indeed with Wolf herself) is complemented by her knowledge of the materials that have influenced Wolf's development. For example, the philosophical works of Ernst Bloch prove highly illuminating in understanding Wolf's formation as a writer. In addition to direct influences, Kuhn invokes a number of psychological studies that parallel Wolf's arguments but were not necessarily known to her (for example, Carol Gilligan's work on gender-based differences in moral decision making, which was not known to Wolf, or Alexander and Margarethe Mitscherlich's studies of postwar Germany's inability to mourn, which did impress Wolf. These supplemental materials from the realms of psychology, philosophy, and feminist theory contribute depth and refinement to Kuhn's analyses of Wolf's oeuvre. The historical and cultural contexts supplied by Kuhn are also crucial for an American audience.
Kuhn displays an impressive command of secondary materials; she consistently acknowledges her debt to earlier critics, but she also challenges readings of Wolf that she sees as limited or one-sided. Kuhn even takes issue with Wolf herself when she seems too mired in a politically short-sighted view of reality. Most often, however, Kuhn places herself in as close a communion as possible with Wolf as a writer and thinker in order not only to understand but also to participate in the creation of meaning in Wolf's texts. Kuhn argues convincingly that one of the main intentions of Wolf's work is such mutual complicity between author and reader, which Wolf hopes will evolve into a community of understanding.
Kuhn structures her study both chronologically and by examining the crucial stages in Wolfs development. The book's subtitle, "from Marxism to Feminism," suggests the major turning points in Wolf's perception of the political and moral underpinnings of society. Although never relinquishing her desire for a human socialist community, Wolf eventually takes up the issue of women's suppression in the patriarchy that has defined Western civilization since its inception. Kuhn adroitly demonstrates Wolf's growing consciousness of a need for a "re-vision" (in Adrienne Rich's sense) of the role of women in Western culture if we are to avoid self-destruction in this nuclear age.
The book's main title, Christa Wolf's "Utopian" Vision, refers to a sophisticated and central thesis. Kuhn establishes that Wolf is not naively "Utopian," that she is aware of the constant dystopic underpinning of the word's etymology. Kuhn [End Page 354] argues rather that Wolf's concept derives from Bloch's notion of "concrete utopia," which "recovers traces of humane social interaction in the past and present and using these as bases, foresees the possibility of the concrete realization of a future utopia." Always aware of the necessity to criticize the shortcomings of society, and even acknowledging the pernicious effect of society on many of its most valuable individuals, Wolf nevertheless continues to hope that it can be changed. Although she never pretends to give us a Utopian alternative in the present, she offers glimpses of isolated moments of personal and social possibility.
Kuhn, who apologizes in her acknowledgments for what she feels is...