Patterns of Childhood
Patterns of Childhood, originally published as Kindheitsmuster in German, is a book written by Christa Wolf and published in 1976. Christa Wolf was a prominent East German novellist known for works such as Der geteilte Himmel (Divided Heaven) and Kassandra. Although Patterns of Childhood is not an autobiography, it has parallels with Wolf's own childhood in Nazi Germany. It is set in multiple time periods and locations, with the primary narratives revolving around the second-person narrator's childhood in Nazi Germany, her return to her hometown as an adult, and her reflections while writing. Patterns explores themes of memory, Nazism, and guilt. Thus it provides insight into the upbringings of those who lived under totalitarian regimes, and problems that arise from such a childhood.
The novel's main settings relate to major historical events during and following World War II. The sections recounting the earlier parts of the narrator's childhood are set in Landsberg an der Warthe (referred to as “L”), now Gorzów Wielkopolski in Poland. During the course of the book her family was forced to leave due to the invading Soviet army. After the war, Landsberg became Polish territory as a part of the post World War II Potsdam Conference. The postwar settlement also established the German Democratic Republic, the socialist state where Wolf lived for much of her life.
The person of the narrator is central to the novel. The text alternates between scenes of the adult narrator's journey back to her childhood home and scenes of her childhood itself. In the former, she refers to herself in the second person, as though recording her thoughts for her own private use. In the latter, she refers to herself in the third person, and by name: she is Nelly Jordan. Wolf has stated that her decision not to frame the novel as a first-person narrative was because of her estrangement from her childhood in the period of National Socialism.
Nelly Jordan is therefor the narrator as a young girl. She grew up in Nazi Germany, in an area that fell to Poland at the end of the war, and in a town referred to simply as “L”, which we might take to be the author's own home town, Landsberg an der Warthe. Her parents Charlotte and Bruno, owned a shop and lived a fairly comfortable lifestyle. Her father was also a member of the German military. In her youth she joined the League of German Girls (Bund Deutscher Mädel). While she was still in her youth her family, along with many other Germans, fled westward following the invasion of the Red Army.
The adult narrator, who in this way distances herself from her childhood, is on a journey of self-discovery. Throughout the book, she reflects on the memory process both when she is writing as well as during visits to her hometown. Present in her visit to “L” are her husband, daughter, and brother. The daughter's responses often prompt the narrator to reflect on her youth and how it was so unlike what young people of the current day experience. She also contrasts her recollections and emotions with that of her younger brother. In one section of the book, the narrator says her younger brother has “more reliable factual memory.” The brother also says his memory is less distracted by the inner life. This is one of the multiple ways the narrator contrasts her own recollections, and capacity to remember, with those around her.
The three main narratives are: 1) the life of Nelly Jordan, set from 1929-1947 2) the narrator's perspective visiting her childhood hometown in the 1970s and 3) the narrator working on the book.
Although the book's major events closely follow those of Christa Wolf's life, there is a disclaimer on the first page that goes as follows:
“All characters in this book are the invention of the narrator. None is identical with any person living or dead. Neither do any of the described episodes coincide with actual events. Anyone believing that he detects a similarity between a character in the narrative and either himself or anyone else should consider the strange lack of individuality in the behavior of many contemporaries.”
The novel does not follow a linear schema, but instead often jumps back and forth between the three narratives.
From the first line of the novel Wolf focuses on the problem of memory. “What is past is not dead, she writes, "it is not even past.” [Das vergangene ist nicht tot; es ist nicht einmal vergangen.]” The introduction includes a reflection on issues of remembrance and childhood. She also addresses the narration and different voices present in the book.
The German word Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a combination of the words for the past (Vergangenheit) and coming to terms (Bewältigung), refers to the process of “coming to grips with” the past. This idea encompasses both literary and political efforts to reckon with Germany's Nazi history.
The major theme throughout Patterns of Childhood is a reckoning with the memories of a troubled childhood. Wolf explores this process through different stages and settings over the course of the main character's life. From the outset of the book, the narrator acknowledges the problems with this process. Remembering a normal childhood is difficult for the simple fact that we forget over time, but when disturbing and violent events shadow memory it is obscured even further. The narrator argues that many adults suppress their past because recognizing their actions causes too much turmoil. She states that she and her contemporaries had to forget to “continue functioning.”
Bund Deutscher Mädel
The narrator's former role in Nazi society as a member of the Bund Deutscher Mädel, or League of German Girls in English, was one aspect of her childhood she had to come to terms with. She reflects upon her leadership position in the girl's branch of the Hitler Youth, ascribing it to her desire for the “loftier kind of life” that it promised. Her lapses in retention demonstrate the profound psychological effect her involvement in the organization had. When reflecting upon her time in the BDM, and gatherings such as after the attempted assassination of Hitler, she cannot recall faces or names. She says that, “where Nelly’s participation was deepest, where she showed devotion, where she gave herself, all relevant details have been obliterated.” She goes on to explain how this loss may have been as a response to the painfulness of the memories. This process of remembrance and forgetfulness is mirrored in other sections of the novel.
Her childhood experiences associated with The Holocaust were another source of guilt that haunts the narrator throughout the book. She says that smokestacks always make her think of Auschwitz, even though she did not really realize what the final solution was until after the war. The following passage captures the mental anguish from such awareness:
“… it is unbearable too unbearable to think the tiny word “I” in connection with the word “Auschwitz.” “I” in the past is conditional: I would have. I might have. I could have. Done it. Obeyed orders.”
One of the narratives of the book that reveals a problem with memory is the narrator's return to her hometown in her adult years, during which she remembers events and emotions from her childhood. She is inconsistent about whether she experiences nostalgia for her hometown. On one occasion her daughter asks her if she was experiencing nostalgia and she says no, but in other instances in the book she says she did experience it. These positive feelings towards her hometown are problematized by her guilt towards her past. Scholars have described this process in terms of “Heimat [home/land] and Heimweh [homesickness].” The Nazis widely invoked rhetoric of the homeland to justify policies such as annexation of land. Some scholars argue that this troubled relationship with the homeland because of Nazism caused Christa Wolf - or at least her narrator persona - to repress her positive thoughts towards her childhood home. Her return to “L” uncovers the complicated contradictories in her emotions.
Patterns of Childhood can be interpreted in relation to how it explores culpability in events of terror and genocide. It has been argued that Wolf's works seek to lay out frameworks of interpretation and ways of life. She has also been praised for how Patterns of Childhood sought to relate war memory to politics of the day. But conversely, she was criticized for what some describe as a disconnect between herself and the events that took place during Nazi Germany. Self-directed feelings of guilt pose a recurring problem for the narrator throughout the novel.
The first edition of Kindheitsmuster appeared in 1976 in the East German Aufbau-Verlag. In 1993 it was released in West Germany in the Sammlung Luchterhand, incorporated into dtv in 1994. The West German publishers made radical alterations to the paragraphing.
The English translation by Ursule Molinaro and Hedwig Rappolt appeared under the erroneous title A Model Childhood in 1980, and as Patterns of Childhood from 1984. Later it was published by Virago.
Several scholarly studies have critiqued this translation. One of the criticisms of the English translation is how it has been altered from its original form to suit the literary tastes of the targeted country. Some scholars argue that when texts are introduced to an international audience they are changed from their original form and morphed to match the culture and agenda of the publishing company more closely. One of these changes is the modification in tone towards political elements of the text.
A notable difference between the original German version and the English translation is the significant decrease in length. In a number of places, whole paragraphs have been omitted.
Much of the initial reception to Patterns of Childhood focused on the political ramifications of her works. Some say that the work's mode of investigating remembrance breaks with the GDR's stance on the war. It also holds an important position among postwar and German Democratic literature.
Responses and interpretation
The question of whether the narrator in Patterns of Childhood successfully reconciled her troubled past has been debated by different critics. Some scholars have argued that Patterns of Childhood represents a successful endeavor in this process of working through one's history. Literary scholars such as Robert Shirer have also contended that novels such as this are a way to discover and explore the self. Wolf reflects on this process of self-discovery while considering her feelings towards Nelly. She describes the difficulty of this process when she says that “The closer she gets to you in time, the less familiar she becomes.” This sense of uncertainty towards understanding herself has led some to criticize her efforts.
The level of ambiguity the narrator maintains towards the goal of coming to terms with her past has been seen as a weakness by some critics. Ginsburg argues that there is a contradiction between the goals of understanding oneself through memory and the process itself. She says that this is a paradox because “revealing the past prevents integration of the self.” In addition to the judgements of its success, different writers have taken stances on the manner in which this process was undertaken. The work was also criticized around the time of its release by German writers who believed it left out other interpretations of the fall of Nazism, for example the liberation it presented. The political implications of her work influenced the different reception it received in the German and Anglo-phone worlds. In addition to the judgements of its success, different writers have taken stances on the processes of Vergangenheitsbewältigung present in the book.
Although Wolf does not reflect at length upon the topic of communism in this book, her childhood is often discussed as being a reason behind her later support of communism. She outlined the journey to communism that was driven by her, and her peers, experience with the Nazis and The Holocaust when she said that her “generation came to socialism via Auschwitz.” Some argue that this embracing of socialism came as a response to the guilt of the generation of Germans who lived through the Third Reich.
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Drees, Hajo. A Comprehensive Interpretation of the Life and Work of Christa Wolf, 20th-Century German Writer. Studies in German Language and Literature, v. 31. Lewiston, N.Y: E. Mellen Press, 2002.
Dunphy, Graeme, "Tracking Christa Wolf: Problembewältigung und syntaktische Präzision in der englischen und französischen Übersetzung von Kindheitsmuster", in Michael Neecke & Lu Jiang, Unübersetzbar? Zur Kritik der literarischen Übersetzung, Hamburg 2013, 35-60.
Friederike Eigler. “Writing in the New Germany: Cultural Memory and Family Narratives.” German Politics & Society 23, no. 3 (Fall 2005): 16–41.
Germany, SPIEGEL ONLINE, Hamburg. “East Germany’s Most Famous Writer: Acclaimed Author Christa Wolf Dies at 82 - SPIEGEL ONLINE - International.” SPIEGEL ONLINE. Accessed April 11, 2017. http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/east-germany-s-most-famous-writer-acclaimed-author-christa-wolf-dies-at-82-a-801150.html.
Ginsburg, Ruth. “In Pursuit of Self: Theme, Narration, and Focalization in Christa Wolf’s ‘Patterns of Childhood.’” Style 26, no. 3 (1992): 437–46.
Jackson, Neil, and Barbara Saunders. “Christa Wolf’s Kindheitsmuster. an East German Experiment in Political Autobiography.” German Life and Letters 33, no. 4 (July 1, 1980): 319–29. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0483.1980.tb00197.x.
Jopling, Michael. Re-Placing the Self: Fictional and Autobiographical Interplay in Modern German Narrative (Elias Canetti, Thomas Bernhard, Peter Weiss, Christa Wolf). Stuttgarter Arbeiten Zur Germanistik, Nr. 381. Stuttgart: Verlag Hans-Dieter Heinz, 2001.
Kuhn, Anna Katharina. Christa Wolf’s Utopian Vision: From Marxism to Feminism. Cambridge Studies in German. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire] ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Leona Toker. Commitment in Reflection: Essays in Literature and Moralphilosophy. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, vol. 1763. New York: Garland, 1994.
Love, Myra Norma. Christa Wolf: Literature and the Conscience of History. DDR-Studien = East German Studies, v. 6. New York: P. Lang, 1991.
Mattson, Michelle. Mapping Morality in Postwar German Women’s Fiction: Christa Wolf, Ingeborg Drewitz, and Grete Weil. Studies in German Literature, Linguistics, and Culture. Rochester, N.Y: Camden House, 2010.
Rutschmann, Paul. “Vergangenheitsbewältigung: Historikerstreit and the Notion of Continued Responsibility,” no. 1 (2011).
Shirer, Robert K. Difficulties of saying “I”: The Narrator as Protagonist in Christa Wolf’s Kindheitsmuster and Uwe Johnson’s Jahrestage. Germanic Studies in America, no. 57. New York: P. Lang, 1988.
Stone, Brangwen. “Visiting the Hometown, Revisiting the Past: Christa Wolf’s Kindheitsmuster.” Neophilologus 96, no. 4 (October 2012): 593–609.
Summers, Caroline. “Patterns of Authorship: The Translation of Christa Wolf’s Kindheitsmuster.” German Life and Letters 67, no. 3 (July 2014): 378–88.
Wolf, Christa. Kindheitsmuster. 2. Aufl. Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1977.
———. Patterns of Childhood: (Formerly A Model Childhood). New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1984.