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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

In the Flesh

Christa Wolf

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase In the Flesh

Title: In the Flesh
Author: Christa Wolf
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 126 pages
Original in: German
Availability: In the Flesh - US
In the Flesh - UK
In the Flesh - Canada
Le Corps même - France
Leibhaftig - Deutschland
In carne e ossa - Italia
En carne propia - España
  • German title: Leibhaftig
  • Translated by John S. Barrett

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Our Assessment:

A- : powerful novella of diseased states

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 22/2/2002 Swantje-Britt Koerner
Harper's . 1/2005 John Leonard
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 23/2/2002 Beatrix Langner
New Leader . 1-2/2005 Sarah Harrison Smith
The Village Voice . 2/8/2004 Kris Wilton
Die Welt . 23/2/2002 Uwe Wittstock
Die Zeit A 28/2/2002 Rolf Michaelis

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, but most are impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "So nah war sich Christa Wolf vielleicht noch nie. Doch ihre Stimme, die so wundervoll konzentriert anhebt (...) kann ihre Kraft nicht durchweg halten, vielleicht, weil sie sich des Persönlichen, Allzupersönlichen, nicht erwehren kann. (...) Ein Großteil ihrer Erzählkunst zerfällt der Autorin, und das ist ungewöhnlich und stimmt traurig. Da gibt es Sätze, die vorwärts streben und dann doch auf der Stelle treten. Da werden Sprichwörter und banale Redewendungen hinzugezogen, derer es gar nicht bedurft hätte." - Swantje-Britt Koerner, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "(H)er scary, short new novel about the dying of a body politic (...) Besides a gleam of hope, there is even a glint of humor. (Or maybe not.)" - John Leonard, Harper's

  • "Wolf's political preoccupations are personalized here. The patient is haunted by echoes of a rich culture that seems largely forgotten by the younger doctors and nurses attending her. (...) In the Flesh may sound insufferably pedantic, but Wolf weaves her web so loosely and with such humor that it is pleasantly difficult to discern her broader pattern in the course of reading." - Sarah Harrison Smith, New Leader

  • "Wolf has never been one for subtlety, and it's clear her patient has the symbolic weight of the Communist bloc on her shoulders. She is exhausted by East Germany's restrictions, and her immune system is weak, but with time, patience, and a few infusions from the West, there's hope for her yet." - Kris Wilton, The Village Voice

  • "Leibhaftig ist dort besonders gelungen, wo die Autorin alles gleichnishafte oder metaphorische vermeidet und sich ganz der konkreten Situation ihrer Heldin widmet. Mit welcher Einfühlungskraft sie dann die Situation eines kranken Menschen einzufangen versteht, gehört zu den beeindruckendsten literarischen Leistungen Christa Wolfs überhaupt. (...) Gleichwohl ist Leibhaftig das vermutlich persönlichste und gewiss beste Buch von Christa Wolf seit langem." - Uwe Wittstock, Die Welt

  • "(H)ier, in der klassischen Form einer Erzählung, findet Christa Wolfs Abrechnung mit Faschismus, mit dem von Stalin bis zu Honecker verratenen Sozialismus statt, von dem sich eine von den Nazis um ihre Jugend betrogene Generation 1945 ein besseres, menschenwürdiges Leben erhofft hat. (...) Auch sonst bedient die Verfasserin von Medea und Kassandra manchmal heftig das Pedal für mythologische und symbolische Untertöne. Macht nichts, der dichte, gut gearbeitete Text hält das aus. Kleine Erzählung, doch ein großes, ein wichtiges Buch." - Rolf Michaelis, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The plot of In the Flesh is simple, describing the hospital stay of a desperately sick writer (obviously closely based on the author herself). She narrates the entire story, but the perspective shifts between first and third person, falling back on the disembodied distance of the latter to deal with this body that has almost completely failed her and left her in this awful state. The hospital stay, from the ambulance trip there through the examinations and operations to the beginnings of recovery, isn't particularly unusual, though it certainly is often unpleasant, unnerving, and scary. Realistically the narrative also drifts back and forth between the sharp clarity of what is happening around (and to) her to feverish dreams and real and surreal recollections.
       Like the daze of alcohol and drugs, it's hard to pull off this not-quite-bounded-in-the-real state and its many near-hallucinatory descriptions -- especially over the course of almost an entire book -- and the results can often make for an enervating read, but Wolf is a writer who can -- and here does -- show how it can be done successfully.
       The patient is a writer, and the text decidedly literary. (There are many specifically literary allusions -- unattributed quotes and the like -- which are usefully explained in an extensive 'Translator's Notes' section.) Words are support and safety net, and from the beginning it is also the style of the writing that reflects how terribly afflicted she is. The book begins:

     Something's complaining, wordlessly. Words breaking against the muteness that's spreading persistently, along with faintness.
       The malignancy - a spreading infection -- within is literally inexpressible, a completely foreign body to one who always wants to put everything in words. Words are also all she has to fight it with, and words, obviously don't suffice ("Named, tamed" is an expression she recalls, but it isn't quite that simple), forcing her to put herself into this also foreign world, where doctors and nurses do the incomprehensible as well, accentuating her feeling of helplessness.
       Words are all she has, and this stream of them that makes up the novella is the hold she needs to get through the ordeal. The effect is even more obvious in the German original, but even in the English Wolf's use of extremely short sentences at moments when the patient is particularly weak and lost -- and then longer, more flowing sentences, either when she is stronger or drifting off -- is particularly effective. Even at her weakest the attempt at describing what is happening -- and she always seems to be trying to put this experience into words -- suggests the inner strength needed to get through all this.
       Wolf conveys the feeling of the various stages the patient finds herself at convincingly, from moments of resignation to the surprising changes in the body. Even a simple transition, such as that from the weak post-operative daze to that where a sense of time is regained is perfectly captured, when she writes that suddenly:
     Time jumps onto its tracks. Times of day take on form, morning, noon, evening, from morning and evening a new day is made. Night stands out in sharp contrast.
       Illness is, of course, also metaphor, and this story isn't just about a personal struggle against a life-threatening infection, an internal rot. The patient lives in a state -- East Germany, just before its collapse -- that is also rotten within. From the shoddy surgical gloves (repeatedly the doctor needs two or three pair because some inevitably tear) to medicine that has to be rushed over from West Berlin, the signs of how decrepit the state truly is are everywhere.
       It's not outright condemnation Wolf offers, but rather a resigned acceptance and acknowledgement of this state of affairs. This world she lives in (a modestly privileged life in this state) is familiar and comfortable, even with its faults -- just like an aging body. But the rot has spread far and wide by now, the damage -- like the infection in the patient's body -- potentially fatal.
       Recollections, dreams, and hallucinations add to the picture of the state gone wrong, in particular in the character of Urban ("whom I once liked very much, whom I liked less and less as the years went by"). The nearly effortless mix of allusion, reflection, and reality impresses: there's a surprising depth to the text in how they are woven together. From the straightforward and clinical to the very playful (such as the description of the bronze statue of Brecht who: "studies us slyly out of the corner of his eye, pretending that he's dead, a tried-and-true strategy not available to everyone") it's a remarkably multi-faceted (and inter-connected) text.
       The ending of the book -- when the patient is recovering and has a greater say -- literally pits the two world-views against each other, reality versus a word-version thereof. The patient is too much of a literary soul to accept reality simply for what it is:
The way a lake sparkles in the sun, there are whole poems about that. "It's beautiful in nature, too," you say. I say, "Yes, it's beautiful."
     "But you mustn't cry," you say.
     "That," I say, "is in a poem, too."
       A short but packed, powerful work.

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In the Flesh: Reviews: Other books by Christa Wolf under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature

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About the Author:

       Leading (East) German author Christa Wolf lived 1929 to 2011.

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© 2005-2021 the complete review

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