In 1992, the great East German novelist Christa Wolf came to Los Angeles as a guest of the Getty Research Institute. In an apartment just blocks from the ocean in Santa Monica, the 60-something Wolf worked on what would become Medea, her novel recasting the murderess as a feminist heroine.
But Wolf didn't just use L.A. to reassess Medea. Eighteen years later, the publication of her final novel revealed that she'd also been assessing Los Angeles. City of Angels, or the Overcoat of Dr. Freud, published in Germany in 2010 and out this month in an English translation by Damion Searls, is Wolf's elegy for the East German state. It's also a sharply observed portrait of the city Wolf found herself in as she made her final reckoning with the socialist dream–turned–police state — and a reflection on both the failure of words in translation and the failure of memory.
Sharply critical of capitalism, often homesick, Wolf disliked much about her temporary home. But she could still acknowledge its beauty.
“The light! Yes, the light, that's the first thing I would say if someone asked me what I miss when I think back to those months,” she writes. “The endless streets, fringed with palm trees, that seemed to run right into the ocean. … ”
The book is a “time capsule” of 1992 Los Angeles, Searls tells the Weekly: “There's the historical moments I had forgotten — the L.A. riots, liberals saying they'll need to leave the country if Bush Sr. gets re-elected, Art Spiegelman's Maus coming out — plus all this great L.A. description, defamiliarized from her East German perspective: the long streets, the light, the homeless people and street performers, the big apartments.”
It was during Wolf's time in L.A. that the world learned of her collaboration, from 1959 to 1962, with the East German secret police. Historians who examined the declassified files would conclude that Wolf provided little of value to her handlers; her contacts with the Stasi ended after just three years, while the police force subsequently spied on her nonstop for three decades.
But the fallout for Wolf was huge, and as press coverage built to a frenzy, she grappled with her actions. She had no memory of these contacts — how is that possible? And how could she have informed to the Stasi?
In City of Angels, she tries to explain herself to an L.A. colleague. “I want to figure out who I was back then. Why I talked to them at all.”
So why? the colleague asks.
“Because I don't think I saw them as 'them' yet,” she says.
Wolf adds, “Of course I don't remember everything that was said that night, but I do remember that the ocean, the Pacific Ocean outside the window with the moon up above it, were with me the whole time. I noticed how difficult it was to connect normal, everyday words to the country I came from, which the newspapers my friends were reading categorically classified under Evil Empire. I didn't argue with a lot of what those papers said, but still, I lived in a different country than that one. And how was it possible to describe that?”
EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this story referred incorrectly to Christa Wolf's sponsor during her time in L.A. She was a guest of the Getty Research Institute, not the Getty Center. We regret the error.