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I Have No Regrets
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B+ : appealing voice and forthrightness; interesting glimpses of country, times, and literary scene
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From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
Anna Seghers, already an established writer with an international reputation before the founding of the German Democratic Republic, was very much the grande dame of literature in East Germany, but the generation that followed her included some of the most significant German writers of the second half of the twentieth century, notably the trio of women novelist Christa Wolf (1929-2011), Irmtraud Morgner (1933-1990), and Brigitte Reimann (1933-1973).
Wolf is well-translated into English (and many other languages), and by Morgner we at least have one of the great post-war German novels, The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice as Chronicled by her Minstrel Laura, but Reimann's fiction remains untranslated into English (and under-translated into most other languages, save Spanish and the languages of the former Communist bloc), despite an impressive body of work that includes one landmark novel (the seminal Ankunft im Alltag (1961; 'Arriving in Everyday Life')) and one masterpiece, the posthumously published Franziska Linkerhand (1974).
I've only kept the last ones from '53 on, at least for now. Even though they contain the dirtiest and unhappiest chapters: my doubt and desperation about our cause, my first steps as a writer, my marriage to Günter, objections to his drinking, my adultery and sickening, deceptive maneuverings, decadence and tedium, misplaced illusions, nights spent agonizing over books never published, weeks and months spent in perpetual drunkenness, waking up in strangers' beds -- quandaries, wrong turns, mistakes, cheap ways of getting high ...The respite is only temporary (albeit also only partial):
I've just decided to throw away the books from '53-'54 after all. Love stories from an overstretched imagination, away with it all !Still, she held onto four years worth of diaries, from 1955 on to that point -- covering also much of the activity she describes. Gone, however, are also the accounts of important markers left unmentioned in what she is ridding herself of: two years spent as a teacher and -- surely more significantly -- the January 1954 (essentially still)birth of a child, and her subsequent suicide attempt. And while she later does repeatedly long for a child of her own, this past is never delved into at all closely in the pages of the surviving diary (as published) -- a closed book.
The burning of the older diaries leads to the then-still-just-twenty-six-year-old summing up well enough:
I enjoyed success too early, married the wrong man, and hung out with the wrong people; too many men have liked me, and I've liked too many men.Men do figure prominently, beginning with first husband Günter Domnik; the diaries only cover the period to 1963, but in that period she will already have married her second husband and fallen in love with the man who would go on to be her third. Reimann was quick to fall passionately in love -- an occurrence so frequent that she refers to her: "many three-day loves", raptures that were inevitably reciprocated by the men taken by the apparently completely bewitching beauty. She feels some Catholic guilt, but on the whole can't seem to help herself -- and there seems to be at least a playful note of pride in her observation that: "Wherever I am, I cause disturbance, mayhem and trouble". She claims some shyness -- and occasionally admits to being in overwhelmed awe (such as when she encounters Anna Seghers) -- but clearly can and does effortlessly wrap men around her little finger; we only get her perspective here, but in this like practically all other regards there doesn't seem to be much dissembling.
The opening entry, from August, 1955, marks a small new beginning, Reimann explaining that she and husband Günter have broken up -- and that she has to start a new diary because he took the old one ("He wants to use it against me in the divorce"); although she gets the older diaries back, she does -- as noted -- eventually destroy them all up to this point, so clearly she sees this as turning point. The collapse of her marriage and break from her husband would seem to be an appropriate cæsura -- but in fact it's not quite as hard and complete as initially suggested: the marriage putters on, in some form, for a while: "Günter still comes, and I can't always refuse him", and when he is arrested in late 1957 for "resisting state authority" (he beat up a policeman) and she vows to herself that for the six months he gets sentenced : "I won't cheat on him. I can bear being without a man" (spoiler: she can't). She meets Siegfried Pitschmann -- "one of these people who'll end up committing suicide or going insane, I'm sure. And what a mighty talent !" --, the man who would go on to become her second husband, and it is only after Günter is released from prison that she really breaks from him, some three years into this diary -- though at that point he has some difficulties letting go.
Somewhat confusingly, Reimann generally refers to Siegfried as Daniel (or Dan) -- having decided that: "that awful young hero's name Siegfried doesn't suit this sensitive, tender, almost fragile Daniel at all". He is also a writer, and the two of them live the struggling-artist life together, eventually getting married and moving to the rapidly expanding industrial town of Hoyerswerda, where they both had positions as sorts of writers-in-residence, actively taking part in industrial work, but also providing education for their fellow workers while giving them some time to write.
Reimann and Siegfried/Daniel's relationship is passionate but difficult, as Reimann is easily led to stray. She acknowledges her (flesh-)weakness -- indeed, her diaries get her in trouble again as Siegfried reads them (even after she has said she has gone to pains to hide them ...) -- but also seems sincere about her deep feelings for Siegfried -- and, often, for the others ..... At one point she explains:
I just like being adored, or even loved; I need to feel validated, that's almost all it's about.But that doesn't seem entirely accurate; validation is important to her -- in her writing, as well -- but she's also very confident, about both her abilities and, generally, herself. Still, she expresses annoyance at being a lust-object:
I'm damned never to find friendship because of my gender; men are incapable of separating body from soul. Not one of them understands that I want to be loved for my intelligence, my talent or, to use that word again, my soul.The relationships she describes, however, suggest she's wrong: men seem quite obviously attracted to her for those very qualities, and a fierce independent streak. Beyond that, she seems equally incapable of separating body and soul as she falls into one passionate affair after another. One occasion where she turns the man away leads to some introspection, pointing towards some of her confusions:
Kaufmann tried to seduce me (God that makes it sound as if I'm a shocked seventeen-year-old kid). Okay, he wanted to sleep with me. [...] He tried it on and, what the hell, has something to offer -- a man if ever there was one. Now he sits there, shaking his head, looks at me and doesn't understand what's going on. I don't either by the way. It would definitely have been a pleasure with him and it did me good to hear his endearments, and I returned his kisses, but I can't go any further. [...] An aroused man brings on a physical aversion, something close to disgust; I'm turned on, yes, but repelled at the same time, and in a flash I'm sober and very clear-sighted, and then I lash out, and they stand there, troubled and disappointed, and think I'm abnormal and say that I'm not a real woman. The path to these affections that I open up -- not always innocently -- is only ever through a meeting of minds, work, conversation, never just physical attraction.Interestingly, for someone who sleeps around so much, Reimann doesn't make particularly much out of sex itself; it's only in late 1963, for example, that she specifically mentions a deeper physical pleasure: "I have discovered my body and the bliss of physical love with Jon" (whom she left Siegfried for, and who would become husband number three)
As intense as her relationships -- both the brief and the more extended ones -- are, Reimann throws herself into her work with similar abandon (and at one point insists: "Work is the only thing that counts"). In 1956 already -- she's just twenty-three -- she notes:
On the outside, everything's going as well as it possibly could. I have a good husband, have a book published, have contracts for new books, have money, have a comfy room, and I have the looks (and can dress) that I have men aplenty -- for a day or a week or longer, whatever takes my fancy. But in truth ? My ambition is unstoppable, I want to write good books, have fame -- will I ever have it ? [...] I'm deeply unhappy.So too, at the beginning of this diary -- and to differentiate it from the earlier ones ? -- she explains:
This diary is not dedicated to my adulterous escapades; it's not about love and liaisons -- I want to record whatever happens to me on my journey to becoming a writer. Yes, I write -- some already refer to me as a writer -- but inside I feel I'm a dead loss, a literary nobody; I want to write good things, to work, to dedicate my whole life to this one aim; to help people through literature, and fulfil my duties, the duties we share towards the rest of humanity.Reimann does seem to believe in the experiment that the GDR appeared to be, and the role of the artist in it -- even if she is repeatedly disappointed by the prevailing conservatism. When her brother Lutz takes his family to West Germany in 1960 she wonders:
Families torn apart, conflicts between brothers and sister -- what a literary subject ! Why doesn't anyone tackle it, why doesn't anyone write a topical book ? Fear ? Inability ? I don't know.East Germany took culture and culture-in-the-workplace seriously, and Reimann was active in this both on the local and then national level -- though enthusiasm among writers seems to have sometimes been limited, as she describes when she settled in in Hoyerswerda: "Last week, the worker writers' circle was set up. Of the twenty invited, only four turned up; none with any potential, I imagine". Amusingly -- and demonstrating her sharp eye -- Reimann in this instance doesn't dismiss all the would-be writers that show up after all:
Only little Volker Braun, who got his school-leaving certificate and then worked on the factory floor for four years, seems to be gifted. He reminds me of my Ulli-brother -- in every respect a late developer.The 'late developer' Braun (Rubble Flora, etc.) would, of course, go on to become one of the leading German poets (and a significant writer of prose as well) -- and is still publishing, almost sixty years (!) after Reimann wrote this.
Reimann doesn't write much about the writing-process, the works of these times mostly background: she throws herself fully into them, but what she wants to do in them is all left on their pages, with little to be said about it here in her diary. She makes some mention of her contracts, the editing of the books, and publishing frustrations and successes, but it's also all in a day's work; the radio-plays she works on get as much space here as her much more significant works of fiction. Still, there are work-glimpses -- notably early mentions of the book that would only be published after her death: "I wrote three pages of preliminary notes for my Franziska novel, which for now is called 'Singing in the Rain'", she writes in 1962.
Active in the GDR's prominent and important Writers' Union, Reimann moved comfortably among East Germany's literary elite -- though occasionally awed by the masters, and even still in 1963, after she has met her several times, gushing like a fan-girl:
Did I already mention that I exchanged a few words with Anna Seghers, that I saw her, my heroine, and was allowed to help her into her coat ? Heart beating fit to explode. Once she bumped into me (she's a bit clumsy, or pretends to be) -- I was ecstatic. A beautiful woman -- and a real woman.There are a number of interactions with well-known writers, including the budding friendship with Christa Wolf that develops over a joint trip to Moscow, some encounters with Rainer Kunze, whom she originally had her doubts about (but: "then we kissed. I've rarely had a kiss that churned me up as much as Rainer's"), or glimpses of: "the magnificent, incorruptible Strittmatter" or "that snob Kunert". There's a conversation with legendary poet, teacher, and mentor Georg Maurer -- and her opinion:
He is one of the greats whose poems will be understood by a wiser, more sensitive humanity -- and one who sometimes desperately needs 100 marks we feeble beginners earn effortlessly.Reimann's feel for talent and literature was excellent -- though occasionally overly caught up in the spirit of those times and that place. Among the most amusing-revealing episodes is one with her second husband:
In two years, Dieter Noll writes 1,000 pages that cause turmoil across half the Republic, and there isn't a perfectly formed sentence on a single page. So what ? His Werner Holt gripped and stirred me a hundred times more than, say, Thomas Mann, with his accomplished art. But D. finds it primitive; for him, Mann is the be-all and end-all of literature, even if no one reads him.Early on, Reimann is also pressured and coöpted into working for the Stasi ("the Stasi has a task in mind for me. No, I don't want to call it informing"). She mentions several unpleasant interactions with these authorities, with the pressure put on her when Günter faces jailtime ("God, they're pigs ! They play on my feelings"); she seems to manage to dodge being sucked into this part of the state apparatus, but it is odd that she doesn't mention further attempts by the authorities to use her as an informant.
So also the diary has an odd look and feel due to all the ellipses in general, each page littered with "[...]" -- an editorial decision (that accurately reflects the German original, where the cuts were made) that unfortunately pares back the text a great deal. Apparently, there was lots of repetition; I, for one, would certainly have preferred the whole wordy flood. (Reimann edited in a different way, as the diary entries come at very differing paces, with her sometimes not recording anything for weeks or months at a time.)
Additional supporting material would also have been helpful in this volume (as there is in the German original), and while the footnotes are helpful for those not familiar with the era, locale, and literature they are inconsistently provided: many more of the names dropped should have been identified.
Reimann warns early on that: "everything that's written in a diary is a lie -- or it's all just a half-truth, and half-truths are just lies", but there's no question that I Have No Regrets is revealing, and gives a good sense of its author. Many of her passions come through -- though more their intensity than details (that goes for both her writing and the men in her life) -- while biographical details are avoided: there's little even about her family members, for example. She goes so far to suggest: "I never write down the things that really move and excite me anyway" and arguably these diaries are just a kind of outlet -- and, even for all their rawness, not even really raw material for her art. Because her art lies elsewhere, in her accomplished fiction. As she suggests:
Apart from those writers who just do it for the money or to pass on information and facts, I have yet to meet a serious and credible writer who dared say he wrote with the reader in mind (such claims, cloaked in clichés are still reserved for cultural functionaries); for every writer, work is a self-examination, and it seems that precisely therein lies the art: to make this self-examination universally interesting and accessible to the widest possible readership.Reimann does this too in these engaging and interesting diaries, but it's her fiction that manages this so much more impressively. Nevertheless, it's good to be able to see this additional facet of her work, and even for those not familiar with her or her fiction, the diaries offer fascinating slices of life and love in the East Germany of those years.
- M.A.Orthofer, 3 June 2019
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East German author Brigitte Reimann lived 1933 to 1973.
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