City of Angels: Or, the Overcoat of Dr. Freud by Christa Wolf, Trans. by Damion Searls – Why This Book Should Win
Sarah Gerard’s novel Binary Star is forthcoming from Two Dollar Radio in January 2015. Her essay chapbook, Things I Told My Mother, was published by Von Zos this past fall. Other fiction, criticism and personal essays have appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Bookforum, the Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Slice Magazine, and other journals. She holds an MFA from The New School and lives in Brooklyn.
City of Angels: Or, the Overcoat of Dr. Freud was the first book I wrote about for Three Percent, and I jumped at the opportunity to write about it again now that we’re nearing the announcement of shortlist selections. Having read other books on the list, and even seven months after my first reading of City of Angels, I can say with confidence that I still think it should win.
The book’s translator Damion Searls, a deft craftsman, boasts another book on the longlist this year: Elfriede Jelinek’s Her Not All Her. Though Her Not All Her is also quite impressive, Searls’s work on City of Angels is exceptional. The book is a jagged exploration of memory across three time periods – Wolf’s childhood, the post-World War II years including the rise of the Berlin Wall, and the present-day (1992) opening of Christa’s Stasi files followed by a year spent in Los Angeles researching a missing piece of the past: the correspondent of her late friend Emma, whose letters are signed, simply, L.
Wolf slides and jumps around, making subtle, unexpected connections between places and events by ordering scenes back-to-back, sandwiching them together thematically (the 1992 L.A. riots and the Berlin uprising, for example), or connecting them linguistically (such as her descriptions of cities in states of sickness or health, using anatomical terminology). City of Angels is fragmented but not sprawling; it reads like a personal notebook in which the character Christa diaries but also keeps a record of her research, personal and professional. Though it covers a lot of historical and geographical ground, it holds together beautifully in the narrative of Christa’s present-day self-exploration.
City of Angels is an examination of history as much as it is an examination of memory. Christa claims not to remember the wrongdoing her Stasi file exposes: several years spent as an informant for the German secret police. And throughout City of Angels, we at turns believe her and believe her ability to deny out of necessity. While the newspapers flay her, Christa’s grief is consuming; she is thrown into a depression from which she can only emerge incrementally, through meditations on intelligence and surveillance, the human need for storytelling, translation, war, revolt, political bureaucracy and forgiveness.
Wolf was a lifetime scholar, and City of Angels is dense with her literary and philosophical influences, as well as references to her peers and other artists and thinkers, mostly Germans, or in Freud’s case, Austrian. Freud’s titular overcoat undergoes a slow transformation along with the progression of Christa’s character, and discussions of Freud’s work. But also, a daytime excursion takes Christa and others from the Institute to the homes of Thomas Mann and Bertold Brecht; a dinner conversation elaborates on Arnold Schoenberg’s influences on Mann; Marx, of course, figures largely in her reflections; in a bookstore, Christa buys Art Spiegelmans’s Maus upon someone’s suggestion; and, brilliantly, American culture seeps into the story’s fabric: Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck.
As the setting for the book, Los Angeles forms a warm counter to cold Berlin. Christa goes for drives along Wilshire Boulevard with others from the Institute, eats plein aire lunches, anticipates the next shift of the San Andreas Fault, closely observes the local population in its many colors and textures, watches Star Trek and pontificates on the strengths of the Enterprise crew: “[A]s usual Star Trek was on Channel 13 and I followed Captain Picard and his crew in shameless delight, given over to the outer-space adventures of the Starship Enterprise, where the Picard crew demonstrated that unconditional discipline could go perfectly well with mature humanity ennobled by masculine understatement.” We see that, even or especially in the face of tragedy, humor can be a balm.
In addition to the Jelinek, Searls translated another last year, A Schoolboy’s Diary by Robert Walser, that was notable in particular for his excellent translation, though unfortunately ineligible for the award, as some pieces in it had been translated previously. But as a pair, Wolf and Searls are perfectly suited for each other. Searls brings a light and elegant touch to City of Angels, and his writing is infused with the delicacy and complex inter-weavings Wolf would have intended. Wolf’s background as a critic is clear in her need to fuse unexpected relationships. The book, overall, has the effect of being the work of a rigorous thinker looking back through history with new and difficult insight, and a clear view of the present.