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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

City of Angels

Christa Wolf

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To purchase City of Angels

Title: City of Angels
Author: Christa Wolf
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 415 pages
Original in: German
Availability: City of Angels - US
City of Angels - UK
City of Angels - Canada
City of Angels - India
Ville des anges - France
Stadt der Engel - Deutschland
La città degli angeli - Italia
La ciudad de Los Ángeles - España
  • Or, the Overcoat of Dr. Freud
  • German title: Stadt der Engel
  • Translated by Damion Searls

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Our Assessment:

B+ : self-portrait in unusual circumstances -- but at too much of a distance to entirely convince

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FASz . 14/6/2010 Volker Weidermann
FAZ . 19/6/2010 Richard Kämmerlings
The LA Times . 31/1/2013 David L. Ulin
NZZ . 22/6/2010 Joachim Güntner
The NY Times Book Rev. . 24/2/2013 Joshua Hammer
Wall Street Journal . 15/2/2013 Michael Moynihan
Die Zeit . 17/6/2010 Jens Jessen

  Review Consensus:

  Takes a while to get going, interesting take

  From the Reviews:
  • "Es ist das radikale Bekenntnisbuch einer Schriftstellerin, die einst die bedeutendste Autorin der DDR gewesen ist, ein Buch der Suche und des Abschiednehmens, ein kämpferisches Buch, ein Buch über die Kämpfe des letzten Jahrhunderts, ein Buch der Verzweiflung, die sich allerdings in der kalifornischen Sonne und unter tatkräftiger Mithilfe eines Engels in eine Art leise, vage Zuversicht verwandelt. Die sich vor allem aber verwandelt durch das Erzählen selbst, das Erzählen von einer ganzen Epoche" - Volker Weidermann, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung

  • "Wie in ihren kanonischen Werken wie Nachdenken über Christa T. oder Kindheitsmuster entzieht sich auch dieses Buch eindeutigen Kategorisierungen. (...) Für den Leser ist das zunächst ziemlich mühsam, zumal man sich neben manchen sehr banalen Alltagsbeobachtungen (die übertriebenen Freundlichkeit der Amerikaner, ihre merkwürdigen Frühstücksgewohnheiten etc.) und der erwartbaren (aber deswegen nicht falschen) Kritik an sozialen Missständen und am exzessiven Konsumfetischismus des Westens auch durch wirklich Ärgerliches beißen muss (.....) (N)ach etwa hundert, hundertfünfzig Seiten nimmt diese Prosa langsam Fahrt auf, werden die motivischen Verknüpfungen dichter, der Ton dringlicher und direkter. (...) Ein merkwürdiges, ein bemerkenswertes Buch, eine Rettung." - Richard Kämmerlings, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Wolf frames the essential tension of the novel (published in Germany in 2010 and now available in English in a nervy, vibrant translation by Damion Searls), which is only heightened by its blurring of the line between fiction and nonfiction, between experience rendered and experience lived. (...) This is why it's called a novel, since in the imagination, experience is transformed, given a shape, a significance it only has in retrospect. Yet here's another bit of genius: It doesn't matter what we call it. Like all art, it creates a category of its own." - David L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Der Plot des Buches ist arm an Handlung und rasch erzählt. (...) (K)urzum, als politisierenden Traktat mögen passionierte Christa-Wolf-Leser dies Alterswerk wohl goutieren. Aber eine Analogie zum Roman Kindheitsmuster zu beschwören, indem man Stadt der Engel ein «Lebensmuster» nennt, führt in die Irre. In Kindheitsmuster ist alles aufregende Vergegenwärtigung der Geschichte, es leben die Figuren, es wühlen den Leser die Szenen auf, während doch jetzt in dem neuen Buch die Aufgewühltheit ganz bei der Erzählerin liegt und das Personal flach bleibt." - Joachim Güntner, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "(E)ngrossing and sometimes frustrating (.....) City of Angels can be elusive. It reads less like a novel than a pastiche of memory fragments, observations, dreams and visions." - Joshua Hammer, The New York Times Book Review

  • "City of Angels is billed as novel, but it should be read as a defensive, occasionally polemical, political memoir of Wolf's life in both the GDR and unified Germany." - Michael Moynihan, Wall Street Journal

  • "Für dieses Buch braucht man Geduld. (...) Es ist der grandios bis zum Quälenden inszenierte Abstieg von den Eiseshöhen der sozialistischen Tugend, den die Autorin beschreibt. Sie erspart sich -- und dem Leser, wie man zugeben muss -- nichts, keinen Umweg, keine Ausflüchte, keine Rückfälle in den alten Gewissenshochmut." - Jens Jessen, 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:

       Stadt der Engel ('City of Angels') is labeled a novel, and comes with the usual disclaimer (here that: 'all the characters in this book, with the exception of the named historical figures, are inventions of the author' and 'episodes, as they are presented, have no correlation with actual events'), but this is autobiography (or self-portraiture) through and through. It is narrated in the first person (with some second-person reflection, the narrator making herself the subject in this way, too), and it is clearly Christa Wolf who is giving account here.
       In 1992/3 Wolf was a visiting scholar at the Getty Research Institute (called the 'CENTER' here) in Los Angeles, part of the The Metropolis as Crucible-class. This was also the period when it was revealed that she had been an Informeller Mitarbeiter (IM, 'informal collaborator') of sorts for the East German Stasi, the Ministry for State Security, a revelation that received an incredible amount of press coverage in reunified Germany -- and was something she had to deal with (and could also escape from) an ocean and a continent away.
       Stadt der Engel begins with her arrival in Los Angeles, and is set entirely in the US (beyond the memories from Germany she brings up); it is written in the present -- but that is a considerable time (more than a decade and a half) after the events described here. There are several layers of looking back to this book: not only is the narrator looking back at her time in Los Angeles from the present, she also looks back at the (lost) GDR, her homeland that no longer exists as she always knew it, as well as the Los Angeles of the many German artists who went into exile after the rise of the Nazis, from Vicki Baum through Mann and Brecht. It describes worlds of compromises and disillusionment, and is full of examples of that tragic proto-German figure who holds onto even flawed ideals in the face of what seems worse: the Marxists who cling to their Soviet beliefs in the face of Nazism, or Wolf and many of the East Germans she knew, who were not blind to the flaws of the GDR, but still clung to a belief -- utopian ? naïve ? -- that it could be a better society than that of the 'West'. Wolf describes how she reacted when her son-in-law announced that the Berlin Wall had crumbled-- "Then they should raise the white flag at the Central Committee HQ" --, recognizing belatedly that it was an ungenerous response in a time of general euphoria -- but it is revealing: even as she, like many East German intellectuals, had been involved in the paving the way to a new openness, she was not prepared for how quickly the dam broke entirely, and she could not refrain from feeling slightly bitter about this outcome.
       Stadt der Engel is also a stranger-in-a-strange-land novel -- feeling oddly dated when, despite referencing contemporary times (such as the financial crisis of 2009), the day-to-day background noise includes everything from the Rodney King trial to the first Clinton election. The varied scenes of LA and her encounters with all walks of life (the homeless, the dangerous, the raccoons), often have an odd touristic-exotic feel to them -- all the more pronounced because of the changes the city has undergone in the past decade and a half.
       Ostensibly, the narrator is at the Getty to do research: she has a pile of letters and is trying to identify one of the correspondents. It is one loose thread that runs through the book, but it is both presented and used more as an excuse than anything else; the narrator acknowledges as much. Instead, Wolf describes a loosely structured life away from home, with regular tea-hours at the Getty and a variety of encounters beyond it. One of the other scholars, living in the same apartment complex as her, becomes a soundingboard, even as he is dealing with his own issues (trying to break up with his married lover, not finishing the philosophical tome that has obsessed him for ages). And there are always episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation to turn to; Wolf is quite the fan.
       When news breaks that there are files on Wolf, proving her to have been an 'informal collaborator' Wolf has a whole lot more to deal with -- and yet at this distance she does not find herself completely immersed in the scandal. She doses her exposure to the newspapers and news from Germany, and is able to confront the issue, if not on her own terms, at least somewhat at her own pace. But one thing becomes clear: it has taken until now, more than a decade later, for her to be able to feel capable of completely addressing it.
       'The Overcoat of Dr. Freud' of the subtitle is Sigmund Freud's coat, that was passed on (by Richard Neutra's widow) to and then lost by one of the people Wolf meets. As soon as she hears the story Wolf is inspired to write a book with the title this one has; tellingly it took more than fifteen years to finish it. The overcoat-idea accompanies her along the way:

     The overcoat of Dr. Freud, fiel mir ein. Ich wünschte, er könnte mich schützen.
     Im Gegenteil, sagte Sally. Er ist doch dazu da, dir deinen Selbstschutz wegzuziehen.

     [The overcoat of Dr. Freud, it occurred to me. I wished it could protect me.
     To the contrary, said Sally. What it's there for is to pull away your own protective coating.]
       And, later, she too imbues it with more meaning:
Der Mantel, weißt du, der dich wärmt, aber auch verbirgt, und den man von innen nach außen wenden muß. Damit das Innere sichtbar wird.

[The coat, you know, that warms you but also provides cover, and that one has to turn inside out. In order to make visible what's inside.]
       Stadt der Engel is a fairly leisurely-paced memoir-novel that manages to cover a great deal. Wolf adeptly weaves her stories together, mixing incidental observations from Los Angeles with both memory and history in creating a larger tapestry that does examine many issues, the first and foremost being how to live one's life. In acknowledging straightforwardly how many compromises can be necessary, Wolf manages to be quite disarming; on the other hand, the very care with which she presents her story, and the distance she sets it at make it all feel just a bit too tidy and neat. This is not apologist fiction, but it feels too polished and thought-through to seem completely convincing. For American readers, LA will also not ring entirely true, even giving the foreigner the benefit of the doubt -- though it can be amusing to see how she presents and explains some of her LA experiences.
       There is a great deal of interest here, and Wolf narrates her story with an old hand's ease. The issues are well-handled, without pretending there might be easy answers -- but this is also an escapist work, Wolf removed from the (admittedly already lost) GDR and the new, reunified German world (and the accusations she is confronted with there), and able to avoid facing much truly head on.
       Worthwhile, if not entirely satisfying.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 August 2010

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City of Angels: Reviews: Getty Research Institute: 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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