“Light out.” That is the simple yet symbolic last sentence of Christa Wolf’s great diary project One Day in the Year. One is reminded of Goethe’s dying words, “More light!” – though here it refers not to the end of all things, but to something as ordinary as going to sleep at night. And thus this forty-year life testimony comes full circle from its first sentence, one which almost seems to express the essence of the entire book: “The first thing upon waking up is the thought: once again the day won’t go as planned.”
And how exactly did they go, the 41 days between 1960 and 2000 that are compiled here? Christa Wolf notes them down with many private details from her family and literary life. Burnt birthday cake, the last conversation with the mortally ill Max Frisch about the latest episode of the TV mystery series The Old Man, a discussion evening with the National People’s Army in Potsdam-Eiche, the smell of freshly-made elderberry juice, the end of the Kohl era, fears for the grandchildren – Christa Wolf meticulously describes all these events, private and political, big and small, as well as the thoughts and feelings connected with them, without turning them into “literature” after the fact. This is a way of depicting the chance that governs our lives – now more, now less – in all its unpredictability, as well as the constant repetition of little daily rituals and habits.
The occasion for this immense chronicle was an appeal by the Soviet newspaper Izvestia “to the writers of the world” to record a randomly-selected day, the 27th of September 1960, in as much detail as possible. The idea of having writers take these kinds of “snapshots” was based on a project by Maxim Gorki from the year 1935 – and surely no other author practiced it with the resolute consistency of Christa Wolf. The contract work originally confined to one day has become a life contract which the author has made with herself and which she will continue after the appearance of One Day in the Year.
The keeping of a diary on this particular day of the year, also, by coincidence, the day before her youngest daughter Katrin’s birthday, becomes an act of resistence against the “inexorable loss of existence”. At the same time, it is an attempt to find the answer to a question that is central for Wolf, how life actually comes about, what it consists of: of days like these, all the 27ths of September between 1960 and 2000 which she records as very personal yet historically significant miniatures and “which in the end, if you’re lucky, are connected by a line […] instead they could fall apart into a senseless accumulation of past time, […] only an ongoing unwavering effort gives meaning to the little time units in which we live.”
Christa Wolf was lucky. The life documented here appears thoroughly meaningful, and these 41 days of the year are connected by a very clear line: the sincere examination of herself, her family, a cross-section of reality in East Germany, then unified Germany, and of course the writing process – not least as a means toward self-analysis and self-positioning. Thus this annual stock-taking gradually takes on the character of history: of a family, a time, and the German state of mind.
Reduced to one day in each year, forty years of German history are presented as if in time-lapse. This is also illustrated by the collages of the Berlin painter and graphic artist Martin Hoffmann. The diaristic kaleidoscope jumbles together photos from Wolf’s family life, newspaper photos of political events and public personalities, and snapshots of German everyday life, assembling a subjective panorama of private and political history. Wolf’s chronicle of a life and a country is also made more accessible to outsiders by brief endnotes on the most important actors and events of all the 41 days.
This life testimony clearly conveys a gradual process of disillusionment, powerfully documenting the transformation in Christa Wolf’s attitude toward the GDR and finally toward reunified Germany over the course of four decades. Like her novels, this book also reflects her suffering under the society that surrounds her, often articulated as a sickness, as a physical reaction to social or artistic pressure. The melancholy undertone that emerges over and over again amidst the descriptions of unclouded, happy moments with friends, husband and children speaks of a heavy heart, not a light one. With great integrity Christa Wolf reveals extremely private things unvarnished, neither idealizing nor suppressing, day by day, year by year.
In One Day in the Year the subjectivity characteristic of Wolf’s writing is brought together with a non-literary but no less powerful form. This autobiographical text brings off the difficult experiment of self-examination without awkwardness. Christa Wolf is well aware of the risk involved in publishing these diary-like notes “in which the ‘I’, no artistic construct, defenselessly exhibits and surrenders itself – even to the uncomprehending and unsympathetic gaze.” And that is exactly what makes them so engaging, the fact that they reveal a woman with doubts and self-doubts, vacillating between resignation and commitment in politics, art and private life.
As the authentic historical testimony of a great German writer, One Day in the Year bears witness to the lifelong attempt to reconcile the literary existence with real life. This results in a picture of the times which simultaneously encompasses and reflects Christa Wolf’s life work. With this form of artistic and personal stocktaking Christa Wolf makes herself profoundly vulnerable: without idealization she portrays the commencement and end of her career as an East German literary star, offers herself up as an actor and witness of the times and gives us both more and less than an author biography: a document of recent German history.
[Translated by Isabel Cole]