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  • Writing Anxiety: Christa Wolf’s Kindheitsmuster
  • Michael G. Levine (bio)

For Diane C.

Christa Wolf’s Kindheitsmuster, published in English as Patterns of Childhood, takes very little for granted—least of all the question of beginnings. The novel literally opens with the words of another: “Das Vergangene ist nicht tot; es ist nicht einmal vergangen,” a slightly altered translation of a line from Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” 1 Lacking a proper opening and haunted by the specter of an unmastered and perhaps unmasterable past—of a “model childhood” spent in the East Prussian town of L. during the Third Reich, the text begins by questioning the very possibility of a clean break and a fresh start. This insistent question, raised in a variety of ways throughout the novel, is posed at the outset as a kind of textual stutter, as a perseverating question rehearsed from the beginning—and in lieu of simply beginning—as a series of false starts, as repeated attempts to start over, as a desperate struggle to restart a narrative paralyzed by the anticipation of difficulties still to come. “You lay aside stacks of tentatively filled pages, insert a fresh sheet in the typewriter, and start once again with Chapter 1. As in so many times during the last eighteen months, when you were forced to learn: the difficulties haven’t even begun [die Schwierigkeiten haben noch gar nicht angefangen].” 2 The temporal structure of this passage, found in the second paragraph of the novel, is worth commenting upon, for here the difficult question of how to begin seems to be folded back on itself, turned inside-out, as it were, and reposed as a question of difficulties that apparently have not yet even started. Indeed, only in a text that stammers from the start and begins by beginning over and over again could it be said both that the difficulties have already started and that they have not yet even begun.

Already/not yet: such is the split temporal framework of a difficult encounter, of an encounter with difficulties that will never have been confronted as such. 3 The language of confrontation, of squaring off face-to-face, is particularly inappropriate in this context since, as we will see, the difficulties that force “you,” the writer, to begin again are not simply identifiable or avoidable obstacles in the way of writing but, rather, irreducible and irreducibly conflicted aspects of the writing itself. They are what keeps the writing from ever having a self, from ever being one with or self-consciously coming to itself. 4 [End Page 106]

While it is tempting to describe Kindheitsmuster as a novel that is self-conscious in the extreme—difficult writing that writes about the difficulties of writing—one should bear in mind that it is a text that repeatedly calls into question the presumed authority and the capacity for self-knowledge of an instance derisively referred to in a passage inexplicably deleted from the English translation as “His Majesty the Ego [Seine Majestät das Ich]” [83]. In an apparent attempt to suspend the privileges usually accorded to—or, rather, autocratically arrogated to itself by—das Ich, the narrator makes a point of scrupulously avoiding the first-person pronoun when referring to herself in the text. (There is, of course, one important exception to this rule toward the end of the novel to which we will return much later.) As was already evident in the passage cited earlier, “You lay aside stacks of tentatively filled pages, insert a fresh sheet in the typewriter, and start once again with Chapter 1,” the narrator employs the second person rather than the first when speaking in the present—as though she could speak of herself at the moment only by speaking to herself. More significant still in this autobiographical novel that deals at length with the narrator’s memories of growing up in Landsberg on the Warthe (now the Polish town of Gorzmploys the second person rather than the first when speaking in the presenerson when referring to the child she used to be.

What is one to make of...

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pp. 106-123
Launched on MUSE
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