- Suicide in East German Literature: Fiction, Rhetoric, and the Self-Destruction of Literary Heritage by Robert Blankenship
In Suicide in East German Literature, Robert Blankenship sets out to eradicate common assumptions about fictional suicides in GDR literature, which have been fundamentally misinterpreted. He aims to overcome the notion that such suicides reflect on actual and specifically politically motivated suicides in the GDR. Referencing Udo Grashoff's seminal study on suicide in the GDR, "In einem Anfall von Depression …": Selbsttötungen in der DDR (2006), Blankenship effaces the belief that the GDR had particularly high, and moreover, largely politically motivated suicide rates. Focusing on the discrepancy between the number of actual and fictional suicides, he stresses the literariness of fictional suicides, which emerged as a trope in GDR literature in the 1970s, following Erich Honecker's rise to power and authors' increasing frustration with official GDR cultural politics. The communists, who—according to Blankenship—feared the effects of fascist and capitalist aesthetics, "planned their aesthetics just as they planned their economy" and "constructed" a literary heritage that represented only an "imagined totality" (4). While both this conflation of East German and Soviet communists and the contention regarding GDR aesthetics until the 1970s seem underdeveloped, Blankenship's explanation for the rise in fictional suicides—a taboo topic in GDR writing until the 1970s—is intelligible: it can be interpreted as a subversion of the top-down decreed literary heritage, and as a phenomenon that needs to be tackled by semiotic, metaphorical, rhetorical, and intertextual analysis.
Both his preference for an approach highlighting the aesthetic value of East German literature and the idea that GDR authors until the 1970s largely obeyed the call for socialist realist literature and rejected movements such as romanticism and modernism reveal Blankenship's proximity to Wolfgang Emmerich. While obviously aware of more recent scholarship—he references, for example, Julia Hell, David Bathrick, and Benjamin Robinson—Blankenship insists on an approach that privileges literary methodology. He aims to rewrite GDR literary history by focusing on the subversive character of intertextuality in tandem with fictional suicides. It is this liaison, he argues, that caused the allegedly constructed literary heritage of the GDR to crumble, and makes the self-defeating character underlying this tradition visible. Focusing on how East German literature reworks suicides in classic works of Western literature in order to subvert and transform GDR literary heritage, Blankenship reveals a political dimension of these fictional suicides that is more than a mere reflection of reality in the former socialist country.
Throughout the six chapters framed by a concise introduction, conclusion, and an epilogue, Blankenship offers close readings to corroborate his thesis. Building [End Page 650] on literary theorists such as Jacques Derrida, Yuri Lotman, and particularly Gérard Genette and his notion of transtextuality, more specifically hypertextuality, these textual analyses dig deep into issues of memory, fictionality, and power. Following a brief chapter on suicide as an antifascist literary trope in early GDR literature, Blankenship illustrates how Ulrich Plenzdorf's Die neuen Leiden des jungen W. (1972) relates to Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werther (1774). This chapter emerges as foundational since the author proposes that Plenzdorf's reworking of Goethe's classic serves as a model for future GDR fiction dealing with suicide in that they, too, suggest intertexts and theorizations of intertextuality. The close reading of Werner Heiduzcek's Tod am Meer (1977) offered in chapter 3 reveals this novel as a reworking of Thomas Mann's Der Tod in Venedig (1913), and demonstrates Heiduczek's engagement with Kant, Schopenhauer, Goethe, and Josef Stalin. Focusing on Christa Wolf's Kein Ort. Nirgends (1979) in chapter 4, Blankenship brings to light how Wolf articulates her "transevaluations of GDR literary heritage" (93) via her fictional characters Kleist and von Günderode, whose conversations present a prototype for these reassessments. Comparing two rather dissimilar texts that, however, share, the fact that they are to some degree inspired by actual suicides—Heiner Müller's...