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

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

Reimann’s 1963 work The Siblings (Die Geschwister) is due to be published in the UK and US in February to coincide with the anniversary of her untimely death. Considered a groundbreaking classic of GDR literature, she wrote it in the late 1920s after the construction of the Berlin Wall and tells the story of a young woman’s fervent faith in her post-war generation’s attempts to build a bright and beautiful future based on the ideals of socialism and the heartbreaking impact that her commitment to the project , contrary to the views of her brothers, has for the unity of her family.

“Her voice is really modern and bold, her excitement is contagious, so what stays with you is not so much her obsession with a particular idea of ​​socialism, but her passionate, youthful faith in what the future should be like,” she said. Lucy Jones, who translated the 129-page novel Penguin will release on February 2 as part of its Modern Classics series. “It also captures the apocalyptic mood we’re experiencing right now, so I think it’s a very relevant novel for our times.”

The Berlin-based translator and writer spent years trying to interest the publisher in an English-language version of the novel. She was deeply involved in Reimann’s work, having already translated I Have No Regrets in 2019, the first volume of her candid, often funny, life-affirming memoirs covering what the writer described as “intense clusters of life”, “agitation, gossip and intricate intrigue.” .

Brigitte Reimann.

Brigitte Reimann. Photo: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

In it, a woman who told one of her four husbands, “I can’t live without the euphoric rush of a new love,” contains many romantic escapades from her brief but dazzling life, in which she was also plagued by polio. Describing everyday life in socialist Germany, she details her time as a state-sponsored artist at an industrial plant in the new town of Hoyerswerda, where she taught writing classes to workers. Her stays on the factory floor, inhaling the black, soot-laden air that likely contributed to the cancer that ended her life, also inform her brusque descriptions of industrial life and the daily challenges of the socialist state, from supply chain problems to contempt, which she raised for wearing lipstick at work.

Ka Bradley, Editor-in-Chief at Penguin Classics, said: “We thought about Reimann for a long time after Lucy brought her to our attention. She is an exciting but oddly underrated writer who has never run out of print in Germany, and yet she has something revealing about her. It portrays East Germany in the very capacious, generous and precocious way it saw the wider world, not as a cold, gray, dark place bounded by history, as most of us probably see it, and I think it has the ability to reach a wide readership “.

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

Reimann, compared to the writers Carson McCullers and Edna O’Brien, and counting 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 “a German story fed on 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 centers on a young, ambitious architect who sets out to realize her dream of creating humane urban construction in a new city in East Germany, despite the obstacles of her own colleagues.

The course of the novel reflects Reimann’s growing disillusionment with the everyday reality of socialism she experienced. She later called herself a “naive fool” in reference to her erstwhile enthusiasm for communism.

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

Extremely open-ended, depicting daily life in the GDR told from a woman’s point of view, her books played an important role in the country, especially in the 1970s. Explore the rationale behind the land that either pampered them or shut them down, depending on your point of view goodbye. In the post-communist era, they also gave insight to younger generations who wanted to understand their mothers’ attitude towards the socialist state in which they grew up.

Carolin Würfel, a journalist and author from Leipzig with a focus on feminism and the GDR, who was three years old when the Berlin Wall fell, gave Reimann a chance to “see where the women in my family come from.”

Würfel’s recent book Three Women Dreamed of Socialism examines the close friendships between Reimann, the great lady of East German literature, Christa Wolf, and the novelist Maxie Wander, all of whom were ambivalent about socialism. She said that their lives, like those of many women in East Germany, were much more emancipated than in the west, which made them objects of fascination and inspiration then and now.

“Reimann belonged to a generation where women enjoyed equal pay, had the right to abortion, to divorce … she could live alone, smoke weed, listen to jazz, cut her hair, being in Western women were often held back, unable to get jobs or vote without the permission of their husbands – therefore Reimann’s works also had many followers in the West.”

But when East Germany was subjugated to the West after reunification, much of that country’s culture was also buried, including writers like Reimann, and in the process “people’s self-confidence was maliciously taken away.”

“The narrative throughout Germany was very clear towards the erasure, oblivion or minimization of the East and it involved the cultural and literary scene and its players. This, plus Reimann’s untimely death, led to her being largely forgotten. After all, her books seem to idealize a state that was a dictatorship. And people were encouraged to abandon cultural values ​​and treasures because they were told, “What you did was inherently wrong.”

Würfel said she only recently realized the extent of Reimann’s influence.

“In particular, women in their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s came up to me while reading my book and said, ‘Thank you for bringing back the heroes of our youth.’ is there. This was not about her politics, but about the fact that she made our hearts beat. She showed women both east and 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 (Denunciator), which she began writing at the age of 19, was published for the first time and was so thoroughly censored that Reimann gave it up after being discovered in the Reimann archives in Neubrandenburg by an editor and Reimann Specialist Kristina Stella.

Meanwhile, Bradley and Jones consider future translations. “I feel very protective of her and want to be ambitious on her behalf, especially now that she’s back at the center of the cultural conversation,” Bradley said. “At 600 pages, Franziska Linkerhand is a bit of a stepping stone, but she should be next.”

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