In the Flesh

Christa Wolf is a writer whom I have long intended to read, casually acquiring her novels (I have four) without ever quite opening one. I began In the Flesh, probably not a typical entry point, in the appropriate if not advisable surroundings of a hospital waiting room. Published in 2002 (and translated by John S Barrett in 2005), it is one of her later novels (Wolf died in 2011) and does not generally trouble sentences which begin, ‘Her works include…’ It does, however, convincingly portray the experience of a woman admitted to hospital with abdominal pains and a soaring temperature to such an extent that some element of biography is soon suspected.

Wolf’s bravura move is to alternate between the third and first person, in a narrative which is uninterrupted by chapters, thus conveying the sense that patients have of surrendering themselves, or at least their body, to the medical staff, and perhaps the institution itself. I immediately thought of Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Tulips’ where she finds this abnegation seductive:

“I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to surgeons.”

In the Flesh begins in such a way as the narrator (‘semi-narrator’ sounds a little clumsy) is taken to the hospital:

“Something’s complaining, wordlessly. Words breaking against the muteness that’s spreading persistently, along with faintness. Consciousness bobbing up and down in a primordial tide. Her memories like islands.”

It is in her memories that she becomes alive (or perhaps ‘I-live’), reborn in the first person. While the doctor’s words “barely touch the outer limits of her consciousness”:

“I’m sinking past my mother’s face as she lies near death. I’m standing by the window of her hospital room and seeing myself through her eyes – a black silhouette against the summer light.”

Her memories are largely focussed on Urban, a friend from university who goes on to become someone of importance in the East German state, rising above the narrator and her husband Lothar a functionary rather than an artist:

“Was it just that Urban had been promoted over Lothar and was now in a position to give him orders and pass judgement on his work? Mild judgement if at all possible or, if criticism was unavoidable, criticism cloaked in irony that always made it evident that we’d all been hatched in the same incubator, as Urban put it.”

She meets him years later returning from West Berlin – one of the few trusted to travel back and forward – where he “had to make a presentation about the most recent cultural events in our country.” It is tempting to see Urban as a poison in the body politic, excised in the same way the narrator’s own infection is cut away. Later, she will declare:

“Urban’s dead and they’re a lot more pleased with me.”

However, another prominent memory is that of her Aunt Lisbeth:

“…that’s the face of my Aunt Lisbeth as a young woman, fifty years ago, when I was a child. Isn’t she dead?”

In the ‘memory’, a story she has presumably only been told, Lisbeth visits a Jewish Doctor, Leitner, “who’s no longer permitted to treat Aryans.” Luckily their love affair is unreported.

The connection between these scenes which the narrator experiences seems to be that participant is dead. She reflects on whether “there weren’t special keys – high fever for example – to unlock” our interior worlds, which she describes as an underworld:

“…now she understands… why people speak of the ‘realm of shadows’, call the netherworld the realm of shadows, and why the recently deceased are spoken of as ‘shades’.”

It’s an image she returns to (“someone must have given me a key to the cellar”) just as she uses images of water to describe the experience of pain and anaesthesia. Her closeness to death allows her to reinterpret these stories of others who, conforming or rebelling, neglect their mortality.

In the Flesh may not be one of Wolf’s best known novels, but it is an absorbing examination of the borderland between life and death. “I’m standing on the opposite shore of that river which has no name,” she says at one point. It suggests a writer willing to experiment, to cut to the bone, while ensuring her work remains pulsing with the marrow of lived experience.

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10 Responses to “In the Flesh”

  1. Melissa Beck Says:

    This looks like just the thing I would enjoy. Plus I am a big fan of her writing!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    That’s brave of you, buying four of Christa Wolf’s books without ever trying one! I don’t think I’m quite that adventurous with my book buying. (Of course, now I’m kicking myself for passing on a vintage green Virago copy of The Quest for Christa T a year or so ago. Oh, well.) Anyway, this does sound rather intriguing given the exploration of that liminal space between life and death – an interesting area for fiction.

    • 1streading Says:

      To be fair, I bought them all second hand so there was no great financial risk! I always worry I’ll pass a book and then regret not having bought it later as in your example of Christa T.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I had to smile, Grant, because I have numerous Wolf books on the shelves and I’ve only read one (Quest) – which I did absolutely love. They *are* quite a commitment, which is maybe why I’ve never got any further with her, but I haven’t come across this one – it’s going on the list of books to look out for! 🙂

  4. Tony Says:

    Not one I’ve read, but there you go 🙂 Christa T or Kassandra would be good ones to try.

  5. GLM VIII: Author Index – Lizzy's Literary Life Says:

    […] The Mussel Feast 1 von Büren A Long Blue Monday 1 Winkler Natura Morta 1 Wolf In The Flesh 1 Zweig Beware of Pity 1 Chess Story 1 2 The Collected Novellas 1 The Collected Stories […]

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