East German feminist author gets English debut, 50 years after death

Translation of Brigitte Reimann’s 1963 work, considered a classic of GDR literature, is out in February

The first English translation of a novel by a cult voice of East German feminist literature will introduce the author Brigitte Reimann to a new audience in 2023, almost 50 years on from her death.

Reimann’s 1963 work Siblings (Die Geschwister) is due for publication in the UK and the United States in February, to coincide with the anniversary of her premature death. Considered a groundbreaking classic of GDR literature, she wrote it in her late 20s after the construction of the Berlin Wall, and tells the tale of a young woman’s ardent belief in her postwar generation’s attempts to build a bright and beautiful future based around the ideals of socialism and the heartbreaking impact her adherence to the project, at odds with the views of her brothers, has on the unity of her family.

“Her voice is really modern and bold, her excitement is infectious so that what stays with you is not so much her obsession with the particular idea of socialism, but her passionate, youthful belief in what the future should look like,” said Lucy Jones, who translated the 129-page novel, which Penguin is bringing out on 2 February as part of its Modern Classics series. “She also captures that apocalyptic mood we’re experiencing now, so that I think it is a very fitting novel for our times.”

The Berlin-based translator and writer spent years trying to secure a publisher’s interest in an English-language version of the novel. She was intimately invested in Reimann’s work, having in 2019, already translated I Have No Regrets, the first volume of her frank, often funny, life-affirming diaries, encapsulating what the writer described as “the intense clusters of life”, “the agitation, gossip and convoluted intrigues”.

Brigitte Reimann.
Brigitte Reimann. Photograph: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

In it, the woman who told one of her four husbands, “I can’t live without the euphoric rush of a new love”, includes many of the romantic escapades from her brief but dazzling life, in which she was also beset by polio. Charting the reality of the everyday in socialist Germany, she details her time spent as a state-sponsored artist at an industrial plant in the new town of Hoyerswerda where she ran writing classes for the workers. Her stints on the factory floor, during which she sucked in the black sooty air which likely contributed to the cancer that ended her life, also informs her gritty descriptions of industrial life and quotidian challenges of a socialist state, from supply chain issues, to the scorn she attracted for wearing lipstick at work.

Ka Bradley, commissioning editor at Penguin Classics, said: “We’d been ruminating about Reimann for a long time after Lucy brought her to our attention. She’s an exciting but strangely overlooked writer who has never been out of print in Germany but about whom there’s nevertheless a sense of discovery. She presents East Germany in the very capacious, generous and precocious way in which she viewed the wider world, not as the cold, grey dark place confined to history as most of us probably see it, and I think she has the ability to reach a broad variety of readers.”

Considered to be largely autobiographical, Siblings began its inception in 1960 when Reimann’s own brother, disillusioned with East Germany, escaped for the west and she started writing about the painful idea of losing him to “another Germany”.

Reimann, who has been compared to the writers Carson McCullers and Edna O’Brien and who counted Anna Seghers and Ernest Hemingway among her literary heroes, became a cult figure with a reputation similar to that of a beatnik poet.

Her most famous novel, Franziska Linkerhand, which Jones describes as “German history fed through the form of a love letter”, was incomplete when she died, but became a bestseller when it was published in 1974. Written largely as a stream of consciousness, it focuses on a young, ambitious architect who sets out to realise her dream to create humane urban construction in a new town in the GDR despite the obstacles put up by her own colleagues.

The course of the novel reflects Reimann’s own increasing disappointment about the everyday realities of socialism as she experienced it. She would later refer to herself as a “gullible fool” regarding her erstwhile enthusiasm for communism.

Reimann’s books were heavily censored by the East German authorities. Only over the past 25 years have the original, uncensored versions been made available to the wider public in new publications of her work, a phenomenon which has helped create new generations of fans.

Her books’ unusually open depictions of day-to-day life in the GDR, told through the particular viewpoint of a woman, led to them playing an important role in the country, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s as East German citizens sought to critically examine the rationale behind a land that either cosseted them or locked them in, depending on your viewpoint. In the post-communist era they have also offered an insight for younger generations keen to understand their own mothers’ attitudes towards the socialist state in which they grew up.

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

Würfel’s recent nonfiction book, Three Women Dreamed of Socialism, examines the close friendships between Reimann, the grande dame of East German literature Christa Wolf, and the writer Maxie Wander, all of whom had an ambivalent relationship towards socialism. Their lives, like those of many women in East Germany, were far more emancipated than those in the west, she said, making them objects of fascination and inspiration then and now.

“Reimann was part of a generation in which women enjoyed equal pay, they had the right to have an abortion, to get a divorce ... she could live alone, smoke weed, listen to jazz, cut her hair short, whilst in the west women were often held back, couldn’t get jobs or vote without the permission of their husbands – which was why Reimann’s works had a considerable following in the west as well.”

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

“The narrative in the whole of Germany was very clearly towards erasing or forgetting or minimising the east and that included the cultural and literature scene, and the players in that. That, plus Reimann’s early death, led to her being largely forgotten. After all, her books appear to idealise a state that was a dictatorship. And people were encouraged to leave the values and cultural treasures behind because they were told: ‘What you did was inherently wrong.’”

Würfel said only recently had she realised the extent of the impact Reimann had had.

“Women in their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s, in particular, came up to me at readings of my book and said: ‘Thank you for bringing back the heroes of our youth to us’, and I realised what a heartbroken generation there is out there. This was not about her politics, so much as it was about the fact that she made our hearts beat. She showed women both in the east and the west how to live. In short she was one of the coolest chicks in town.”

Meanwhile, the discovery and rediscovery of Reimann continues. Franziska Linkerhand was recently adapted for the stage. In October Reimann’s unpublished debut novel, Die Denunziantin (The Denunciator), which she started writing at 19 and which was so thoroughly censored that Reimann had given up on it, was published for the first time, having been discovered in the Reimann archive in Neubrandenburg by the editor and Reimann specialist Kristina Stella.

Bradley and Jones, meanwhile, have their eyes on future translations. “I feel very protective of her and want to be ambitious on her behalf, especially now that she’s at the centre of cultural conversation once again,” said Bradley. “At 600 pages Franziska Linkerhand is a bit of a doorstop, but it should be next.”


Kate Connolly in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

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