East German feminist writer makes her English debut 50 years after her death

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The first English translation of a novel by a cult voice in East German feminist literature will introduce writer Brigitte Reimann to a new audience in 2023, nearly 50 years after her death.

Reimann’s 1963 work Siblings (Die Geschwister) will be published in the UK and United States in February, to coincide with the anniversary of his premature death. Considered a groundbreaking classic of GDR literature, she wrote in her late 20s after the construction of the Berlin Wall and describes a young woman’s fervent belief in her attempts to build a bright and beautiful future around the ideals of her post-war generation. the heartbreaking effect on the integrity of his family, where his commitment to socialism and the project contradicted his brothers’ views.

“Her voice is really modern and bold, her enthusiasm is infectious, so what you have left is not her obsession with her particular idea of ​​socialism, but her passionate, youthful belief in what the future should be like,” said Lucy Jones. Translated the 129-page novel published on February 2, as part of Penguin’s Modern Classics series. “It also captures the apocalyptic mood we’re experiencing right now, so I think it’s a very fitting novel for our time.”

The Berlin-based translator and author has spent years getting a publisher interested in the English version of the novel. He was closely tied to the work of Reimann, who translated in 2019 I Have No Regrets, the first volume of his candid, often humorous, life-affirming diaries that summarize what the author describes as “dense clusters of life.” agitation, gossip and devious intrigues”.

Brigitte Reimann.

Brigitte Reimann. Photo: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

In it, the woman who tells one of her four husbands, “I can’t live without the exuberant rush of a new love,” includes many romantic adventures from her short but dazzling life, where she also fell ill with polio. . Drawing on the reality of everyday life in socialist Germany, she details her time as a state-sponsored artist, giving writing lessons for workers at an industrial factory in the new town of Hoyerswerda. His work on the factory floor, in which he inhaled the black sooty air that probably contributed to the cancer that ended his life, also informs his bold statements about the everyday problems of industrial life and the supply chain problems of a socialist state. The disdain for wearing lipstick at work.

Ka Bradley, assignment editor at Penguin Classics, said: “We’ve been thinking about Reimann for a long time after Lucy came to our attention. He is an exciting but oddly overlooked author who has never been out of print in Germany, yet still has a sense of discovery about him. It presents East Germany not as a cold, gray-dark place limited by history as most of us probably see it, but in a very broad, generous and precocious way in which it sees the wider world, and I think it’s a very diverse readership.”

Considered largely autobiographical, Siblings began in 1960 when Reimann’s real brother, disillusioned with East Germany, fled west, and Reimann began writing about the painful idea of ​​losing him to “another Germany.”

Likened to writers Carson McCullers and Edna O’Brien, counting Anna Seghers and Ernest Hemingway among her literary heroes, Reimann became a cult figure with a reputation akin to that of a beatnik poet.

Franziska Linkerhand’s most famous novel, which Jones describes as “German history fueled in the form of a love letter”, was incomplete at the time of her death, but became a bestseller when it was published in 1974. focuses on a young and ambitious architect as he tries to fulfill his dream of creating humane urban construction in a new town in East Germany, despite obstacles set by his own colleagues.

The course of the novel reflects Reimann’s frustration with the everyday realities of socialism. He would later refer to himself as “a pure idiot” in reference to his once enthusiasm for communism.

Reimann’s books were heavily censored by the East German authorities. Only in the last 25 years have original, uncensored versions of their work been made available to a wider audience in new releases of their work, a phenomenon that has helped create a new generation of fans.

Her books’ unusually explicit depictions of everyday life in East Germany, told from a woman’s private perspective, played an important role in the country, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, when East German citizens tried to critically address them. made it play. Examine the logic behind a terrain that embraces or imprisons them, depending on your perspective. They also offered insight into younger generations who were eager to understand their own mothers’ attitudes towards the socialist state in which they grew up in the post-communist era.

Reimann offered a chance to “see where the women in my family came from” for Carolin Würfel, a Leipzig journalist and writer focusing on feminism and East Germany, who was three years old when the Berlin Wall fell.

Würfel’s recent nonfiction book Three Women Dreamed of Socialism examines the close friendship between Christa Wolf Reimann, the greatest woman in East German literature, and novelist Maxie Wander, each of whom has a contradictory relationship to socialism. She said that, like that of many women in East Germany, their lives were much freer than those in the west, making them objects of admiration and inspiration then and now.

“Reimann was part of a generation where women enjoyed equal pay, had abortions, the right to divorce… she could live alone, smoke pot, listen to jazz, cut her hair short. western women were often held back, unable to find a job or vote without their husbands’ permission – so Reimann’s works also had a considerable following in the west.”

But when East Germany was incorporated into the west after reunification, much of the country’s culture, including writers like Reimann, was buried, and “people’s self-esteem was maliciously taken away” in the process, he said.

“The narrative throughout Germany was very clearly aimed at erasing, forgetting or minimizing the east, including the cultural and literary scene and the actors there. This, plus Reimann’s premature death, led to his being largely forgotten. After all, his books seem to idealize a state that is a dictatorship. And people were encouraged to leave behind values ​​and cultural treasures because they were told, ‘What you did was fundamentally wrong.’

Würfel said he only recently realized the extent of Reimann’s impact.

“While I was reading my book, especially women in their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s came to me and said, ‘Thank you for bringing the heroes of our youth back to us,’ and I realized what a naive generation there was. there. It wasn’t about his politics, it was about the fact that he made our hearts beat. He showed women how to live, both in the east and in the west. In short, she was one of the coolest chicks in town.”

Meanwhile, Reimann’s exploration and rediscovery continues. Franziska Linkerhand has recently been adapted for the stage. In October, Reimann’s first unpublished novel, Die Denunziantin (The Denunciator), which he began writing at age 19 and was censored so much that Reimann gave up, was discovered and published for the first time in the Reimann archive in Neubrandenburg. by editor and Reimann expert Kristina Stella.

Meanwhile, Bradley and Jones have their eyes on future translations. “I’m very protective of him and want to be assertive for him, especially now that he’s once again at the center of the cultural conversation,” Bradley said. “Franziska Linkerhand at 600 pages is a bit of a door stopper, but she should be next.”

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