April 2021
Christa Wolf: One Day a Year

Book Cover: One Day a Year: Carrying on regardless
© Seagull Books

... - Carrying on regardless

Fans of Alan Bennett’s Keeping On Keeping On should pick up Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year: 2001–2011.

My feelings towards East German author Christa Wolf (1929–2011) are a mix of tenderness, respect and protectiveness. I love the clarity of her prose and the subtleties of her vision. Her books have accompanied me for most of my adult life, and I eagerly await the day that The Quest for Christa T is reprinted in English, when I will gift it to everyone I know. So I’m thrilled that Seagull Books seem to be bringing Wolf once again to an English audience, with a number of her books appearing in translations by Katy Derbyshire, who captures Wolf’s warm but pared down style.

Wolf is perhaps best known for her fiction (albeit fiction that draws on autobiography), but the One Day a Year books are an unusual form of diary. From 1960 onwards, Wolf kept a thorough diary just one day a year: 27 September. The first collection of these (translated by Lowell A. Bangerter) is sadly out of print, but One Day a Year: 2001–2011, a slim volume documenting Wolf’s final 11 years, is a wonderful standalone read. I’d recommend Christa Wolf to anyone, but One Day a Year is perhaps particularly suited to fans of Alan Bennett’s 2005–2015 diaries Keeping On Keeping On, which share Wolf’s quiet tone, her thoughtful depiction of aging, and her despair at contemporary politics.

I had a surprising jolt of recognition on starting the book. Aged 11 and living in small town Scotland, I hardly had much in common with the renowned author in her early 70s, but, of course, on 27 September 2001 the aftershocks of the 9/11 were making themselves felt across both Scotland and Germany. As well as recounting her days, Wolf notes newspaper headlines and shares her reflections on and conversations around current affairs. Whether she talks about the so-called ‘war on terror’ or Hurricane Katrina or protests in Burma, layers of time are peeled back to uncover my own memories, bringing them into sudden and sharp focus.

Wolf, who had hoped for ‘socialism with a human face’, never lost her criticism of a system in which we are “drenched in objects and objectified ourselves”. At her condemnation of Bush as “an incomparably worse criminal than the men at the top of the GDR”, I feel a pang. Oh Christa, good that you didn’t live to see Trump! And yet Wolf’s careful notes – when she tells of Nazi graffiti or the election of a far-right politician – remind us that the last few years, of Brexit and Trump and AfD, didn’t come out of nowhere.

Plenty of Wolf’s observations are much closer to home though – her daughter’s birthday party, the fragmented dreams she remembers on waking, her struggle to climb the stairs with her stick. It’s certainly no news story that our society tends not to listen to the stories of old people, but reading Wolf’s depiction of aging brings that home. She is honest about her frustrations as walking becomes harder, and her awareness and fear of death: “Another summer over. How many more will there be? That question is always present. We never say it out loud.”

I realise that I may not exactly be selling this book. “Reminders of death and far right politics?” you may be thinking. “Really?” But trust me. Or trust Christa, who knew that “the real point is to carry on regardless, in the knowledge that the meaning of life is life.”

About the author

Annie Rutherford is an incorrigible bookworm and Jill of all (word-based) trades. She is the programme co-ordinator at StAnza (Scotland’s international poetry festival), a German-English literary translator, and runs Lighthouse Bookshop’s Women in Translation book group, among other things. She has been known to read while cycling (she does not recommend it), and can spot a misplaced apostrophe at a distance of fifty yards.

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