Monday, September 5, 2011

A Tale of Three Misfits

Several decades ago, I enrolled in a university in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) to study German language and literature with a focus on East German authors. When the time came for me to pick a topic for my Diplomarbeit, roughly the equivalent of an American thesis for a master’s degree, I had a ready topic. I wanted to explore the theme of social alienation in The New Sufferings of Young W., a 1973 novel by Ulrich Plenzdorf, an East German poet, playwright, screenwriter, and novelist.

You could have knocked my academic advisor over with a feather. Naively, I’d assumed I had freedom of choice in the matter but quickly realized my error when the professor offered a long list of more suitable candidates for me to study. Although Plenzdorf was not strictly a dissident author (his work was published, produced, and staged in the GDR), he nevertheless didn’t earn a lot of popularity points with the East German authorities, largely (although not exclusively) because of the novel I’d proposed for my Diplomarbeit.

First produced as a play in 1972 and turned into a novel the following year, The New Sufferings tells the story of Edgar Wibeau, a hydraulics apprentice who drops out of vocational school and lives for some months in a condemned cottage in Berlin, where he creates abstract paintings, listens to music, and sends taped accounts of his life and musings to his best friend, Willi. Edgar falls desperately in love with a young woman he nicknames Charlie, a kindergarten teacher who is engaged to be married to the much older Dieter.

The short novel (it’s only 84 pages long) is a modern retelling of The Sufferings of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers), a classic 18th-century novel by the German writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749—1832). Not only do the two novels follow the same plot, but they are populated by characters who play equivalent roles and have similar names. In Goethe’s version, young Werther (Wibeau) is a sensitive artist who falls in love with Charlotte (Charlie), a woman betrothed to an older man named Albert (Dieter), and Werther pours out the sorrows of his unrequited love in letters to a confidante named Wilhelm (Willi).

In The New Sufferings, Edgar finds a copy of Goethe’s novel in the outhouse of the cottage where he’s staying. Although he reads the book and quotes extensively from it to anyone who’ll listen, he doesn’t identify with Werther. “I can’t imagine that anyone ever talked like that, even three centuries ago,” he says. Instead, he relates to another literary figure – Holden Caulfield, the hero of J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel, The Catcher in the Rye. Both young men rebel against the “phoniness” of social conventions and both feel youthful angst and alienation. In another parallel with Edgar’s story, Holden is expelled from prep school and hides out in New York while he tries to figure out how to break the bad news to his parents.

Like Holden Caulfield, Edgar has plenty of attitude to offer, much of it directed against the authoritarian society in which he lives. In a conversation with a movie producer, he criticizes “socialist realism,” the state-approved art form where entertainment plays second fiddle to the primary purpose of educating citizens to become better socialists. “I told him that a movie in which people are supposed to do nonstop learning can only be boring.”*

Edgar has plenty to say on the value of jeans as a fashion statement. Jeans, those symbols of the decadent West, are not just pants, they’re “an attitude.” In Edgar’s view they’re not to be worn by anyone over 25, an age group incapable of grasping the finer points of proper jeans wearing: low on the hips. “People over 25 are too dense to grasp that. Especially if they are card-carrying Communists who beat their wives.”

In publishing The New Sufferings, Plenzdorf’s timing was impeccable. Only one year before the premier of the stage version, the GDR relaxed its strict censorship rules, which had limited acceptable literature to the socialist realism category. Plenzdorf’s story was the first to openly criticize social conditions in the GDR, an idea so remarkable that the novel became the most widely discussed book among East German readers.

That social criticism is precisely what made Ulrich Plenzdorf’s novel an unacceptable focus for my thesis at the university. My studies there began ten years after the censorship rules changed, and most of my professors had been educated in a world where literature was meant to be edifying and not necessarily entertaining. My academic adviser likely couldn’t see a novel expressing the social dissatisfaction of Plenzdorf’s story as being worthy of academic analysis.

Although Edgar Wibeau has plenty of reason to rebel against the constraints of his world, The New Sufferings is not a wholesale condemnation of communism. Edgar merely objects to the heavy-handed way in which socialist ideals are applied. “No halfway intelligent person can have anything against communism these days,” he says. Like all the best literature, his story holds up a mirror to the society in which it was written and reflects a true-to-life image of that experience.

All citations of The New Sufferings of Young W. come from the 1979 translation by Kenneth P. Wilcox.

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