Dennis Tate. Shifting Perspectives: East German Autobiographical Narratives before and after the End of the GDR. Rochester, New York: Camden House, 2007. 267 pp. $75.00.
In this book on East German autobiographical writing before and after unification Dennis Tate does not focus on the traditional “factual” autobiography but rather “the steady stream of prose works located in the ambiguous area between first-person fiction and autobiography” (p. 2). As a point of departure for his theoretical framework, Tate re-examines Christa Wolf’s ground-breaking essay “Lesen und Schreiben” of 1968 with its emphasis on self-reflexive prose and what Wolf subsequently termed “subjective authenticity.” Wolf’s aesthetic centers on her definition of “prose,” which challenges conventional genre distinctions and breaks away from the model of the socialist realist Entwicklungsroman, which had left its mark on autobiographically based novels in the early years of the GDR.
Part 1 of the book provides a concise historical overview from the debates in the 1930s about the differences between “subjectivity” and “subjectivism” (Lukács) to the most recent examples of autobiographical writings by the younger generation of eastern Germans, such as Ingo Schulze. In the second part of his study, Tate traces the development of five East German authors (Brigitte Reimann, Franz Fühmann, Stefan Heym, Günter de Bruyn, and Christa Wolf) who have written major works which can be seen in the framework of long-term autobiographical projects in pursuit of the “elusive goal of ‘subjective authenticity’” (p. 7). Tate places his in-depth analyses of such important works as Reimann’s Franziska Linkerhand, Fühmann’s Das Judenauto, Heym’s Collin, de Bruyn’s Zwischenbilanz and Vierzig Jahre, and Wolf’s Nachdenken über Christa T. and Kindheitsmuster into the context of the difficult historical circumstances from the Third Reich to the various phases of political and cultural development in the GDR and, in the case of Heym, de Bruyn and Wolf, to the collapse of the socialist regime and the new conditions in unified Germany. This thoroughly researched monograph arrives at a very convincing reassessment of this major development in East German literature from stereotypical socialist realist autobiographical writing to modernist multi-layered narratives. It can be recommended as a significant and stimulating contribution to scholarship on the autobiographical genre in particular and on GDR and postunification German literature in general.