Irmtraud Morgner - A contemporary Cervantes who combines political satire with feminist-inspired romance and baroque narrative modes

Irmtraud Morgner, The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice as Chronicled by her Minstrel Laura, Trans. by Jeanette Clausen (University of Nebraska Press, 2000)

"Set in the German Democratic Republic of the early 1970s, The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice—a landmark novel now translated into English for the first time—is a highly entertaining adventure story as well as a feminist critique of GDR socialism, science, history, and aesthetic theory.
In May 1968, after an eight-hundred-year sleep, Beatrice awakens in her Provence château. Looking for work, she makes her way to Paris in the aftermath of the student uprisings, then to the GDR (recommended to her as the “promised land for women”), where she meets Laura Salman, socialist trolley driver, writer, and single mother, who becomes her minstrel and alter ego. Their exploits—Beatrice on a quest to find the unicorn, Laura on maternity leave in Berlin—often require black-magic interventions by the Beautiful Melusine, who is half dragon and half woman.
Creating a montage of genres and text types, including documentary material, poems, fairy tales, interviews, letters, newspaper reports, theoretical texts, excerpts from earlier books of her own, pieces by other writers, and parodies of typical GDR genres, Irmtraud Morgner attempts to write women into history and retell our great myths from a feminist perspective."

"A first English translation of a very unusual novel, originally published in 1974, combines political satire with feminist-inspired romance in a demanding fictional potpourri whose German author (1933-90) may really have been a contemporary Cervantes.... The tale of Beatrice's journey (also Dantesque) through a modern inferno and purgatory, marriages and affairs, artistic endeavors and political infatuations and adventures is brilliantly amplified by Morgner's use of mythic archetypes.... [and] detailed allusions to postwar German history and culture.... Literary antecedents and all, this is a one-of-a-kind novel: richly imagined, more than a little forbidding, preternaturally astute, altogether unforgettable."— Kirkus Reviews

"It presents a magnificent blend of fantasy, realism, history, myths, and fairy tales woven around the woman troubadour Beatrice de Dia... Clausen is to be applauded for taking on the challenge of translating this multifarious work. Her readable translation and extensive glossary provide English readers with a unique example of GDR literature. Recommended for general and academic readers." — Choice

"Irmtraud Morgner's Leben und Abenteuer... has rightly been called the most important novel to reflect on issues of women's emancipation in the GDR. Its fantasy plays and collage elements are part of the message, skillfully balancing a fundamental affirmation of socialist principles, as proclaimed by the GDR state, with frank irritations caused by the male chauvinist praxis of everyday life in the republic of workers and peasants." - Peter Demetz

"Irmtraud Morgner's choice of baroque narrative modes, already indicated in the title of her highly entertaining book about the extraordinary character of a female troubadour, was a successful move for the author in many respects. On one hand it gave her the distance she needed to tackle the ideologically loaded issue of the seemingly eternal battle of the sexes in a free and unrestrained manner; on the other she was able truly to give full expression to her artistic temperament, her predilection for imaginative, creative combinatorial analysis, involving her characters in profound allegorical games without any great psychological depth. Beatriz de Dia is a troubadour from ancient Provence, who uses a Sleeping Beauty trick to end her first life in 1200, in order to begin a new life some eight centuries later. She is such an ideally suited character for the main role in Morgner's literary projects that she is resurrected once again in a later book - as the siren in the 'witches novel' Amanda, the second volume of a trilogy whose final volume never appeared because the author became ill with cancer and died. top All women struggling for the right to determine their own personal development find their great spiritual forebear in Beatriz: in her time she turned her back on the "ocean of masculine egotism", hoping to awake from the sleep bridging the ages at a stage beyond the power structures of matriarchy and patriarchy. But because her castle Almaciz in Provence stands in the path of a new motorway she is woken early, just at the time of the uprisings in May 1968. She soon realises the world still falls far short of her emancipatory ideal - even that 'promised land' the GDR, where she finds her minstrel Laura. She takes the place of Beatriz at the round table after Beatriz herself has a fatal accident when cleaning the windows." - Gerhardt Csejka

"Surprisingly little East German literature (i.e. the literature of the short-lived German Democratic Republic) has been translated into English. There have been a few nods to a few names - most notably Christa Wolf, but also Christoph Hein and Heiner Müller - but most remain inaccessible. Authors that can hardly be found include leading lights such as Volker Braun, Brigitte Reimann, and Karl Mickel, but among the most grievous of omissions has long been that of the brilliant Irmtraud Morgner. Finally, Morgner's work - at least her masterpiece - has been made accessible to an English-speaking audience, a quarter of a century after its (East) German publication.
The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice... is a major novel, a modern masterpiece, a book that ranks as significant as any written in the 1970s. It is among the handful of best novels to come out of East Germany (and, though English-speaking audiences seem not to be aware of it, some damn fine novels came out of (or perhaps stayed in) East Germany). It is one of the best novels that could be called "feminist", and one of the best that could be called "socialist", and it easily transcends these limiting ideological labels. It is a fantasy and a fugue, a fairy-tale and contemporary political novel. It is - a rarity in these times - a work of literature.
The central characters are Beatrice and Laura, sharing the inspiring names familiar from Dante and Petrarch. Trobadora Beatrice de Dia is an historical figure, a twelfth-century French countess about whom practically nothing is known. Morgner appropriates the historical figure, transporting her from the twelfth-century to May, 1968 by means of an artificial and prolonged slumber. Waking up in modernity, in turbulent times, Beatrice makes her way to Paris, her troubadouric talents helping her adjust. In Paris Beatrice meets Uwe Parnitzke, an East German journalist, who describes his homeland as a "Promised Land" of equality and social(ist) ideals. Beatrice is convinced and buys a train ticket for Berlin (East).
Laura Salman is a trolley driver in Berlin. Her first husband happened to be Uwe Parnitzke - and just as Uwe wasn't the best person for Beatrice to run into, neither was he the best for Laura. Eventually Laura and Beatrice's paths cross, and Beatrice offers Laura the position of her minstrel. Laura - "who couldn't imagine exactly what a minstrel was" - is not immediately won over.
Beatrice takes to literally generating poetry, Laura gives birth to a son (Wesselin). Eventually Laura does become Beatrice's minstrel. Beatrice and Laura try to sell a novel to one of the state publishing houses (the venerable Aufbau Verlag, which was also the publisher of this novel), and Beatrice becomes an increasingly important literary figure (getting elected to PEN, among other things). She travels to Yugoslavia and Italy, while Laura handles things in East Germany. Beatrice returns, and Laura marries for a second time. Eventually Beatrice dies.
In fact, the novel is a much more complex tangle of tangents than any summary could suggest. There are seven intermezzi, each of which are described as "wherein the reader learns what the Beautiful Melusine copied from Irmtraud Morgner's novel Rumba for an Autumn". (This is a novel that Morgner wrote in 1964 but was not allowed to publish.) These are longer episodes, stories within the story. The bulk of the novel consists of over a hundred often very short chapters. Most are devoted to the main strands of the story, following first Beatrice and then Laura, but there are many asides. Among them are: transcripts of interviews between Irmtraud Morgner and Laura, various other stories, tales, personal asides and descriptions, letters, laudations.
In marvelous little sketches Morgner captures the political situation and the hopes and absurdities to be found in East Germany at the time.
Many of the issues deal specifically with women's rights (though Morgner generally also addresses the broader implications of these issues, offering more than a simple feminist critique). So, for example, abortion, legalized March 10, 1972 in the GDR:
The news prompted Laura to take off her clothes and stand in front of the mirror for a while, taking stock of her no longer state-controlled assets.
It is only after this law has been passed that Beatrice again returns from abroad, and that Laura gets married again. A whole chapter -- six pages -- is devoted to (and titled) "excerpts from that memorable speech by Dr.Ludwig Mecklinger, Minister of Health Services of the German Democratic Republic, in which he justified the law on termination of pregnancy".
Morgner is aware of the danger of being stamped as being too feminist, and tongue in cheek she offers, early on, a chapter titled: "Wherein Irmtraud Morgner tries by means of a solemn oath to persuade certain male readers to keep on reading". The oath should not be required -- Morgner writes engagingly enough that the focus on so-called women's issues should deter no one -- but Morgner swears that "Beatrice de Dia was a woman who matched today's ideal of beauty completely", just to keep the leering men eager and interested.
The book begins: "Of course this country is a land of miracles" - meaning the GDR. It is a phrase repeated several times, and miracles do abound - from Beatrice's long slumber to the day-to-day "miracles" of the socialist state. Morgner writes with a sharp tongue, unsparing but never cruel. She points out all the flaws of the system, and still has hopes for it.
There are a fill of stories in this novel - always entertaining, often funny, sometimes sad. It fits together beautifully, a marvelous vision. Highly recommended.
The translation is solid, though occasionally awkward, reading a bit stilted. This is certainly also due to Morgner's original, in which a variety of styles are invoked. Jeanette Clausen has done quite well, though perhaps not entirely well enough.
There are numerous mentions of East German-specific acronyms, terms, and figures in the novel. The Glossary that is provided seems adequate to explain these to those unfamiliar with them." - The Complete Review

"Beatrice has slept for more than eight hundred years, in an attempt to escape "the medieval world of men". With highway construction about to demolish her castle, she awakes in Provence in May 1968, to find things are not as she had envisaged. After a sojourn in Paris, she moves to the German Democratic Republic, "a land of miracles". Employment prospects for female troubadours are not good, but she obtains work first operating a poetry generator and then as a writer — and convinces Laura, a writer turned trolley-driver, to become her minstrel. Aided by the magic of her sister-in-law the Beautiful Melusine, who is half-human and half-dragon, Beatrice travels around Italy hunting a unicorn, before returning to help Laura raise her baby son. Meanwhile Melusinian magic has helped Laura find a suitably enlightened lover.
The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice... presents a unique East German socialist magical realism, perhaps a magical social realism. The structure is innovative and the content challenging, and Morgner has an unusual style, making extensive use of sentence fragments and long paragraphs. But none of that hinders enjoyment: Morgner is genuinely witty, intelligently funny, and highly entertaining.
Trobadora Beatrice is a montage novel, with many parts only loosely connected to the central story. The long "intermezzos" are portions of an earlier novel by Morgner (about Laura's husbands and their parents) and the "books" are made up of short chapters, many of which are pieces in their own right, some taken from other sources — poems, industrial "production-line" reports, and travelogues, along with science writings (on physics, artificial intelligence, nutrition, gerontology) and political speeches and announcements (on abortion, the Vietnam War). A sampling of book and chapter titles will give something of a feel for this:
"Flight on a dragon's back", followed by "Trobadora Beatrice's self-criticism above the Luther city, Wittenberg"
"Love legend by Laura Salman, which Beatrice de Dia passes off as her own work to thirteen male and seven female employees of the Berlin S-Bahn"
"Wherein the reader learns what the Beautiful Melusine copied from Irmtraud Morgner's novel Rumba for an Autumn into her 35th Melusinian book in 1964"
"The excerpts read by Beatrice from the communique from the Armed Liberation Forces of South Vietnam about the great victories of the offensive during the month of 30 March to 1 May
It is as if Morgner had taken all her unpublished works, along with whatever other documents happened to be around at the time, and built a novel around them. That may not sound like either the recipe or the ingredients for great literature, but in this case it works superbly. The montage provides variety and changes in pacing, but doesn't endanger the coherence of the work (though a list of major characters at the beginning is helpful in following connections). And it allows Morgner to juxtapose different genres and to approach ideas from several directions: fantastic metaphors, indirect references, and allusions sit next to blunt statement, scientific prose, and political announcements.
Trobadora Beatrice is a feminist novel: it is about women and their relationships with one another, with men, with their children and parents, and with the state, society, housework, and history. It is also a reflexive novel, about writing, the relationship between writers (or perhaps different aspects of the individual writer), socialist aesthetics, and the creative process. And it is a political novel, grounded (fantastic elements notwithstanding) in the politics and history of East Germany, and to a lesser extent of France. (Trobadora Beatrice was a bestseller in the GDR, but one wonders how it passed the censors, since it's not always clear which parts are intended as parody.) For outsiders it offers fascinating windows onto East German social history; this translation comes with a glossary of terminology which they may find obscure. If it is chock-full of ideas, however, Trobadora Beatrice remains first and foremost a novel, centred on people." - Danny Yee

"Of course this country is a land of miracles," Irmtraud Morgner begins her novel, explaining in a short introduction how she came into possession of the manuscript that relates the extended life and unlikely adventures of Trobadora Beatrice de Dia. Laura Salman, the trobadora's modern-day minstrel, foists it on Morgner shortly after Beatrice's death: "the whole world on five pounds of paper", Laura promises, eager to unload the weight that has become too much for her. Morgner tries to explain that "writers don't buy manuscripts, because they can produce their own", but Laura's insistent desperation causes her to relent. She signs over her budget for the month and gets pretty much what she bargained for.
The city where the transaction occurs is Berlin, the land of miracles East Germany. Irmtraud Morgner's 1974 novel, The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice... is one of the most remarkable works to have come out of the short-lived German Democratic Republic (GDR). Widely praised, the novel was a bestseller in both East and West Germany (where it was published in 1976) and is still in print, a popular modern classic. Now, a quarter of a century after it was written (and a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall), it is finally also available in English.
It was always only a selective sliver of Eastern European literature that was translated into English during the time of the Cold War. Samizdat and dissident were the key words, Poland and Czechoslovakia the main areas of interest to American audiences. East Germany was in a unique position, the linguistic connection to a large block of the West - Austria, Switzerland, and, of course, the Federal Republic - giving GDR writers an audience that was not as readily accessible to those from the other Warsaw Pact nations. A large number of titles by GDR authors were published both in the East and the West. Some authors - Christa Wolf, Christoph Hein, Sarah Kirsch, and Jurek Becker, among others - were all also extensively translated. A far larger number, though familiar to western German-speaking audiences, have remained inaccessible to American and English readers, their work generally only available piecemeal if at all, in anthologies or journals. Among them are Volker Braun, Karl Mickel, Brigitte Reimann - and Irmtraud Morgner. Stunningly, the publication of Trobadora Beatrice is the first of any of Morgner's novels in English.
Politics certainly played a role. While authors such as Braun, Mickel, and Morgner were not apologists for the regime and often found themselves at odds with it they continued to profess a firm conviction in Marxist ideals. The dense, purposeful poetry and drama of Braun and Mickel could (feebly) be deemed to defy translation. Surprisingly, the expansive, rich prose of Morgner's wildly imaginative later novels was dismissed almost as easily. Interest in her work in the English-speaking world remained marginal, even after she toured a number of American college campuses (with Helga Schütz) in 1984. In Europe Morgner was considered a pioneering and leading figure of the new feminist literature. Her work found widespread acceptance, especially in West Germany. (After 1969 all her books were published there within a year or two of their East German publication.) Interestingly, her books were also not published in the Soviet Union - because "her erotic scenes were considered pornographic", Jeanette Clausen and Silke von der Emde write in their introduction to this novel.
Irmtraud Morgner was born in 1933, in what was then (and is now) Chemnitz - renamed Karl-Marx-Stadt in the GDR. After studying literature at the University of Leipzig Morgner began her career as an assistant editor for the literary journal Neue deutsche Literatur. She went on to publish three novels between 1959 and 1964. Like Brigitte Reimann's early work - or Christa Wolf's first novel, Moskauer Novelle (Moscow Novella) - these fit the expectations of literary production in the GDR at the time, an approximation of the ideal of socialist realism. Earnest and not without ambition, they were fairly simplistic. The art of the novels was decidedly secondary in importance. Morgner aspired to more in her next effort, Rumba auf einen Herbst (Rumba for an Autumn). It was scheduled to appear in 1966, but permission to publish was withdrawn. Despite this rejection Morgner did not entirely abandon the text, incorporating much of it into the seven intermezzos in The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice.
The 1968 novel Hochzeit in Konstantinopel (Wedding in Constantinople) was her first greater success (and also marked her international breakthrough when it was published in West Germany in 1969). The body of work after that suggests in its titles and subtitles Morgner's increasingly playful approach - as well as certain recurring elements: Gauklerlegende: Eine Spielfrauengeschichte (Juggler's legend: A story of women minstrels, 1970), Die wundersamen Reisen Gustavs des Weltfahrers: Lügenhafter Roman mit Kommentaren (The wondrous journeys of Gustav the world traveler: Mendacious novel with commentaries, 1972), The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice, and Amanda: Ein Hexenroman (Amanda: A witch novel, 1983 ).
After her initial socialist realist experiments Irmtraud Morgner's work did not clearly fit communist expectations. Nevertheless, with the exception of Rumba auf einen Herbst, she was able to publish relatively freely and she continued willingly to work within the constraints of the system.
Morgner was married twice, first to Joachim Schreck (with whom she had a son in 1967), and then to noted poet and author Paul Wiens. Wiens, a respected member of the old guard with close ties to the regime, was among the few prominent cultural figures not to oppose Wolf Biermann's expatriation in 1976. It was later revealed that he had long been an informant for the Stasi (the GDR state security service); he and Morgner divorced in 1977.
Morgner herself received approbation from the regime: she was awarded the GDR-National Prize for Literature, the highest state honor, and in 1977 she was selected to the board of the Writers' Union, an appointment that also implies the government's dubious approval. She was also awarded the prestigious Heinrich-Mann Prize in 1975 (previous winners included Heiner Müller, Christa Wolf, Peter Weiss, and Jurek Becker; Volker Braun and Christoph Hein would go on to win it later).
Morgner was among the more privileged writers in the GDR, allowed to publish in the West and able to travel extensively. She visited France and the Soviet Union with Paul Wiens, and later traveled to numerous other countries, including West Germany and the United States. In 1987-88 she was a visiting professor at the University of Zurich. She suffered from cancer in her last years, and died in 1990.
The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice was the first volume of a planned trilogy. Beatrice de Dia, who dies at the end of the novel, is resurrected in Amanda (1983), which also continues Laura Salman's story. Morgner died before she could complete the final volume of the trilogy, though a version of it was published as Das heroische Testament (The heroic testament) in 1998.
The focal points of The Life and Adventures are Beatrice de Dia, a troubadour who bought her way out of her own medieval times, and (East) Berlin trolley car driver Laura Salman. The book orbits in its odd ellipses around these two inspiringly named women; clusters of other characters - lovers, husbands, diverse divorced pairings, the Beautiful Melusine, Persephone and Demeter, and Irmtraud Morgner herself among them - also figure prominently in the novel. The clash of fairy tale world and workers' state is not as fiery as the basic premise might suggest: Morgner's complex of tales is fanciful, but effect is found in unexpected places.
Thirteen books, over a hundred and fifty chapters, follow the main threads of the story. The seven intermezzos, material that "the Beautiful Melusine copied from Irmtraud Morgner's novel Rumba for an Autumn" into her own Melusinian books, present chapters from several of the characters' lives, a decade or so earlier. These are useful introductions, longer sections presenting background and complementary materials in a somewhat more conventional form.
The book is an intricate montage novel, and the rapid-fire succession of chapters can be dizzying. The connections between the chapters and various storylines are not always immediately evident, and even the elaborate chapter-headings and the "structural plan" (the table of contents at the end of the book) do not greatly simplify the task of unraveling the novel. Chapters range from utterly fantastical fictions to verbatim records to imagined interviews and articles from well-known publications. Among the chapters are ones in which Hadean stories are interspersed in a monograph on animate matter and nutrition, an excerpt from Krupskaya's memoirs and one from an East German sex manual, a provisional appraisal of the Vietnam war as prepared by a member of the Stockholm Institute for International Affairs (SIPRI), an imagined interview with the publisher of the Melusinian books in the West German weekly Der Spiegel (which, in turn, includes an extended quote from GDR author Peter Hacks), a passage from Aleksandra Kollontai's diary, and Volker Braun's Song of Communism (with the memorable opening lines "Someday, and it will be soon, / The rivers will flow uphill").
Morgner, the Beautiful Melusine (copying the works of Morgner and others), Laura, Beatrice, and others are all presented as the authors of specific chapters. Voices and points of view shift, meld, and separate throughout the novel. Morgner also invokes the iconic figure of Bertolt Brecht, referred to here only as "the famous poet B.", in support of some of her theses and her approach. Brecht, who spent his last years in East Germany (albeit as an Austrian citizen, with the neutral passport always in reserve), notoriously incorporated the work of friends, colleagues, and lovers into his own, generally without properly crediting them. Even though he took advantage of the women in his circle, he at least recognized their talents, and Morgner expresses her admiration in her backhanded compliment (in a passage that is attributed to the editor in chief of Brecht's publishers, Aufbau Verlag):
In contrast to most of his colleagues, he acquired not domesticated women but brilliant ones. Whom he put to work for him. Producing ideas and plans is a pleasure; carrying plans out is hard work. Thus the oeuvre of the famous poet, who surely did not have more ideas or plans than other great poets, turned out to be astonishingly extensive. He also had female collaborators who provided material for the production of ideas. And incidentally, he stole like a genius.
Authorship is often difficult to attribute in Trobadora Beatrice, and numerous characters (notably the Beautiful Melusine) present the work of others as their own. Even some of Beatrice's stories are actually written by Laura.
Morgner explains the qualities of the montage novel when she has Laura offer such a work, to be - at least nominally - written by Beatrice, to the venerable Aufbau Verlag (who were also the publishers of Morgner's book). The editor in chief protests that what Laura proposes "is no novel but a collection of stories" (which don't sell well). Laura insists that she is offering "the novel form of the future".
Writing is "a daily, life-essential activity" for Beatrice. Laura explains that the form she adopts is the one that comes naturally to her, indeed the only possible one:
For Beatrice, writing is an experimental process. Short prose is compressed air, in concentrated and very intense form. Apart from temperament, short prose is in keeping with a normal woman's life rhythm, which is socially and not biologically conditioned and constantly diverted by the interruptions of household responsibilities. Lack of time and unforseeable interruptions force her to quick drafts without leisurely fine-tuning. I can go either full speed ahead or not at all.
The last sentence is not an excuse, only a weary admission - the slip from third to first person (which the editor catches) underlining the tired confession of the author.
The novel does move full speed ahead, beginning with the Beatrice's impatient leap into modernity. Beatrice de Dia is based on an historical figure, a twelfth-century French contessa about whom practically nothing is known. Morgner uses the blank slate of part of a name (de Dia) and a few lines of poetry ascribed to the trobadora to create a figure for her purposes. Morgner's choice fell on this contessa rather than a better-known figure (or a completely fictitious one) because de Dia is emblematic of the weak legacy of women artists in patriarchal societies. There are hints of her talents in the few poems that have survived, but she was unable to make her mark, either in her own times or after. Never taken particularly seriously, it is almost impossible to judge her now. By literally bringing the trobadora into the twentieth century Morgner provides her with another opportunity to prove her worth.
(Significantly Morgner, in her introductory Resolutions, written after Beatrice's death, tells Laura Salman that she is "sorry that word of her deceased friend's fame hadn't reached me", calling all the fantastic episodes that come after - in fact the whole novel - into question. Morgner's ignorance suggests that Beatrice's larger than life modern adventures and fame and influence also vanished traceless, that they were ultimately as illusory as anything the historic contessa de Dia might have done.)
Unappreciated as a woman and artist in her time Beatrice seeks to escape the "medieval world of men". Persephone obliges: in exchange for the promise of future service she offers Beatrice 810 years of sleep. Beatrice is awakened slightly prematurely, after only 808 years, when a French building crew wants to blast her long-obscured château out of the way in order to build a highway. The year is 1968, the month May: unrest of every sort is in the air.
Beatrice's adventures in modern times neatly cover a five-year span. While parts of the novel -- in particular the reflective intermezzos - include scenes and background from earlier times the French elections of May, 1968 (won by the "reactionaries") and those of March, 1973 (in which the left-wing parties markedly improved their showing) essentially frame the novel. Beatrice wakes just before the elections in 1968, and she tumbles out a window to her death after the results of those of March, 1973 are announced. It is this political conflict that Morgner uses as a background to the novel, rather than any closer to home (such as the Prague Spring) - a safer but still unusual choice.
While she slept Beatrice was hypnopedically kept up to date with the goings-on in the world - and taught modern French - by her sister-in-law, Marie de Lusignan, known as the Beautiful Melusine. Still, she finds what she wakes to is not quite what she had expected or hoped for. Slowly making her way to Paris, befuddled by this modern world, she endures a series of humiliations, disappointments and unwelcome sexual advances.
Without funds, starving, and exhausted, Beatrice collapses outside of Lyon and spends seven weeks in hospital, completely missing the French elections that re-establish, more or less, the old order. For more than a year she then travels around France, trying to establish an identity and earn a bit of money. By the summer of 1969 she is walking the streets, and in the fall she settles down and marries one of her clients, a grocer. The simple life is a relief, but not enough for the curious Beatrice. She falls in love with a member of the Red May commune, begins reading Lenin and Marx, and enrolls in a German course at the Society for Friendship France-GDR. It is there that she is first introduced to the visiting East German journalist Uwe Parnitzke. He tells her about the Promised Land he comes from, where there are equal opportunities for all, and invites her, giving her both his address and that of his ex-wife, Laura Salman. Beatrice is eager to go. What truly convinces her is the fact that he has been divorced twice: "What a country it must be, thought Beatrice, in which a man like this is rejected twice."
It is only in Book Four that Beatrice finally arrives in the GDR - the Promised Land and land of miracles, where women supposedly enjoy complete equality. Asked for the reason for her journey at the border crossing she says: "To settle in paradise", an answer that meets with predictable suspicion. Allowed to enter the first person Beatrice addresses, a woman in uniform, immediately turns and runs away - and then throws up. Though she is not identified in that chapter the woman turns out to be Laura Salman, suffering from morning sickness.
Beatrice expects the socialist paradise to provide her with the opportunity to work, but finds that female troubadours are not in great demand. Fobbed off on a circus where there is "no position for a powerful woman with a good imagination" she is soon the subject of a letter published in the local Karl-Marx-Stadt newspaper protesting "the disparaging misuse of a progressive woman's name". The letter is signed Laura Salman. The incident, seemingly straightforward, is a typical example of Morgner's carefully structured satire. The letter -- a barely exaggerated example of such published censures - is amusing because of its style and because, unknown to the author, it is the real Beatrice de Dia that is being denounced as a fraud. Only incidentally is it then revealed that Laura had not even seen the circus act in question, or written the letter: a student penned it, and signed Laura's name (with her permission) because the student "believed a proletarian voice would carry more weight". Additionally, Beatrice is moved to a traditional communist self-criticism by the letter - which she recites while flying on a dragon's back (that of Melusine) over Wittenberg, the city where Luther set the Reformation in motion.
Beatrice and Laura are finally united in Berlin, marking the beginning of a close friendship and working relationship. Beatrice tries all manner of literary production, beginning with the most mechanical: she has a poetry generator built to her specifications. (Morgner dutifully prints out a selection of the resulting work - in Morse code.) Both this and her later, more inspired efforts are generally resounding successes. Beatrice is inducted into PEN, and also brings her art to the people, presenting her work to assemblies of workers at readings. She eventually even attempts three "Bitterfeld fruits", stories meant to fit the ideals of the Bitterfeld Weg, the cultural policy that unsuccessfully tried to bring the proletarian experience and the production of art closer together in the GDR. (Beatrice's first experience with Bitterfeld - riding past it in a train - comes in one of Morgner's most overt criticisms of cultural policy: "after the Bitterfeld stop, overpowering odors had penetrated the train", giving Beatrice a headache.)
Trobadora Beatrice is almost continuously on the move. She settles down briefly - in Paris, and later in Berlin - but most of her time is spent traveling and seeking. Though the East German scenes dominate, Beatrice herself actually spends less than half of the five years between waking and her death in the GDR. It takes her nearly two years to reach the promised land, and by January 1, 1971 she is off again, embarking on a quest in search of the mythical unicorn, the one species still absent from the land of miracles - and one whose discovery could reshape the convictions of the entire nation. The novel, however, remains centered in East Germany, with Laura. Word of Beatrice's adventures comes only through telegrams, letters, and reports delivered to Laura by messengers such as Aspasia and Tamara Bunke (a German confederate of Che Guevara's, killed in Bolivia in 1967). Among the places Beatrice visits are Odessa, Los Angeles, Calcutta, Zagreb, Genoa, Rome, and Venice.
Political issues are selectively addressed. Whereas the situation in France is accorded great significance, Morgner chooses to say practically nothing about the domestic situations in either the United States or the Soviet Union, despite briefly sending Beatrice to both. Events such as the moon landing are also conspicuously absent from the book (Beatrice is working as a prostitute in Paris at that time). Vietnam plays a larger role, and Morgner presents several documentary chapters addressing aspects of the war. An early one is an interview of an East German scientist, discussing the American use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, a later one offers excerpts "from the communiqué from the Armed Liberation Forces of South Vietnam about the great victories of the offensive during the month of 30 March to 1 May 1972".
East German politics are also only lightly touched upon. Besides cultural policies abortion is the one major exception. Passage of the law on termination of pregnancy in March, 1972, legalizing abortion, is an emphatic turning point in the novel. Morgner goes so far as to include some six pages of excerpts from a speech by the GDR Minister of Health Services justifying the law to the People's Chamber, historic words worthy of a place in her fiction. It is also a few days after the law is passed that Beatrice finally returns from her lengthy sojourn abroad, and that Laura finally marries again. Without specifically tying these events to the newly won right Morgner clearly implies that it is an momentous step towards achieving equality and that it has made the GDR a better place for women.
Laura's reaction to the news starkly and simply suggests the significance of the moment:
The news prompted Laura to take off her clothes and stand in front of the mirror for a while, taking stock of her no longer state-controlled assets.
Women's rights and the role of women in society are central concerns throughout the novel. While Beatrice was lost in her slumber Persephone and later the Beautiful Melusine worked on reinstating ancient matriarchal conditions. Beatrice chooses a third way, "which was to be neither patriarchal nor matriarchal but human". The search for such equality is a driving force behind almost all of her actions.
The difficulties women face in the modern world - in the GDR and elsewhere - are presented both through the actual experiences of Beatrice and Laura as well as through other examples. Morgner makes clear that it is not only nominal rights but also prevailing attitudes that are of significance. When Beatrice asks Laura to commission a canso Laura can't find any women to take the job (Sarah Kirsch is too busy). She turns to male poets, and they are asked a simple question to determine whether they are fit for the undertaking:
What would you do if you woke up as a woman one day ? Ten of the eleven men asked reacted with embarrassed silence, revulsion, shock; one of them was actually revolted by the idea, as if it were comparable to Gregor Samsa's transformation into an insect.
In an interview with a Soviet physicist who is also a chess champion the Beautiful Melusine is told that no woman has achieved greatness in chess "because a woman is absolutely incapable of fanaticism". Children and the demands of childcare do not permit a fanaticizing of the intellect, he says. He also acknowledges that if he took over some of the care of his own children from his wife - "if not only she had equal rights, but I did too" as Morgner cleverly puts it - he would be nowhere near as good a chess player as he is now. The physicist also suggests that a change in the world order could be extremely positive:
If women, freed from their sociologically determined burdens, were to obstruct and foil the work of research, a new way of thinking could accrue to science. Intellectual fanaticism has produced outstanding scientific and artistic results. Intellectual realism could produce results that would be no less outstanding. Of a different kind. It is a virtue for which we lack the vision, for the time being. The vision determined by material interests. Morality can trigger secondary changes, but not fundamental ones.
This is a daring mode of thought - "absolutely selflessly sensible" the Beautiful Melusine calls it - but the physicist also realistically admits that he does not practice what he preaches.
Morgner's descriptions of motherhood are powerful, and Laura's affection for her son Wesselin is particularly moving. Nevertheless, children are always a burden, a responsibility left almost entirely to women. In the introductory scene, where Laura tries to give Morgner the manuscript, each woman has a child hanging on her hand. The toddlers cannot be ignored, regardless of the action around them. A watchful eye must always be kept on them, and there are no men around willing or able to take charge.
Laura and Beatrice are strong women, but not idealized characters. They are faced with numerous personal and professional difficulties and are not always able to resolve these. More than a decade before Beatrice's arrival Laura had a child with Uwe Parnitzke. Their daughter died in infancy, in 1958, and while no one seems to blame her outright, all (including Laura herself) see the death as a failure on her part. Not surprisingly, she and Uwe divorced the next year. Laura does then become a strong mother figure, after the birth of Wesselin, but the circumstances around her are very different by that time. Independent- and equality-minded Beatrice has influenced her - and there is no husband (who would come with his own demands and needs) on the scene.
On the other hand the persevering Beatrice, who can cope with almost all situations, finds herself completely out of her depth when charged with taking care of Laura's baby, leading her to desperately beg for otherworldly assistance for what are the most mundane of problems. But, while Beatrice may be incompetent, her lover at the time is of no help either - and he takes the easier out, literally fleeing the scene.
Morgner is aware of the danger of being pegged as a feminist writer and alienating male readers, even though she has Beatrice strive for equality and not for matriarchal dominance. She mixes humor and rational argument in making her case, and is not above appealing to the baser instincts of some of her readers: early on there is a chapter titled "Wherein Irmtraud Morgner tries by means of a solemn oath to persuade certain male readers to keep on reading", in which she swears that Beatrice "matched today's ideal of beauty completely" and even gives her enticing measurements (36-24-35).
Trobadora Beatrice is a large, seemingly complex book. Characters are mutable, miracles - of both the supernatural and the far more mundane East German sort - fairly commonplace. Freely using myth (ancient Greek as much as modern Marxist) and history, the books is resolutely modern. Morgner's outlook is consistently cosmopolitan and progressive, and she freely acknowledges the faults and failures of East German society (and, more generally, Western civilization) at that time. Despite the many (and sometimes overwhelming) disappointments in that Promised Land Morgner still saw great promise there. Trobadora Beatrice suggested some of the necessary fundamental changes in attitude that its author believed were necessary to achieve a better society.
In Trobadora Beatrice Morgner also presents a literary experiment that is both art and entertainment. Despite her leanings, and the political cast of the novel, Trobadora Beatrice is neither a feminist nor a Marxist screed. Morgner was an extremely able writer, and Trobadora Beatrice is both written well and deftly constructed. There is adventure here, and romance, and lots of sharp and sometimes bitter irony, as well as slapstick. There are a fill of stories in this novel, and they are exciting, clever, and poignant. Many of these can easily stand on their own, but Morgner has made even more out of them in artfully weaving them together.
In justifying the montage novel she offers to the publishers Laura says:
A mosaic is more than the sum of its stones. In the composition they have a strange effect with and against each other under the eye of the viewer. Reading should be creative work: pleasure.
With The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice Irmtraud Morgner has arranged her stones - many of them gems in their own right - to stunning effect. The book is thought-provoking, challenging, humorous, and outrageous. It is entertaining throughout. Reading it is creative work, and a great pleasure.
Jeanette Clausen's translation is generally solid. The English version adequately captures the shifts in tone and varied narrative voices that Morgner employs, and it reads consistently well. Certain lines defy translation, though little harm is done with Clausen's faithful rendering. When the exotic foreigner Beatrice arrives in Berlin and two men she is scrutinizing address her, "asking a figure that the trobadora took to be a train number", the reference is surely too oblique to be understood: the number is certainly 6 - "sechs" in German, pronounced very much like "sex".
Occasionally, Clausen's choices can be questioned. In the original the significant opening line reads: "Natürlich ist das Land ein Ort des Wunderbaren." Clausen's version - "Of course this country is a land of miracles" - is not entirely accurate. "A place of wondrous things" (or "wonderful things") is closer to Morgner's meaning. Elsewhere Morgner uses the German word "Wunder", and Clausen translates this (correctly) as "miracle" as well, making it impossible for readers of the English version to differentiate between the two concepts.
Clausen glosses many of the acronyms and unfamiliar terms in the text itself, with a minimum of disruption to the story. A glossary is also provided at the end of the novel, giving information about some of the individuals, events, and concepts in the book. The glossary is useful but not entirely adequate, and more annotations would have been welcome. Figures such as Peter Hacks and Gräfin Dönhoff, though only receiving brief mentions in the novel, are among the many that should be described in the explanatory notes and are not. The annotations themselves are also not always satisfactory: to say that Paul Wiens was "married to Irmtraud Morgner for some years" and not even hint at which years these were is not especially helpful.
"Of course this country is a land of miracles", Morgner begins the novel, and she closes it with almost exactly the same words. The GDR may have been a flawed and ultimately a failed political experiment, but small and lasting miracles were possible even there. Morgner's work -- The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice in particular -- can be counted among them." - Elizabeth Morier

"If the East German writer Irmtraud Morgner had not existed, it would take a leap of imagination almost as bold as those which typify her literature to invent her. Little in her family background or the narrow ideology of her GDR environment encouraged the often surreal, always iconoclastic novels that she produced over a thirty-year period until her untimely death from cancer in May 1990.
Born in Chemnitz, Saxony, in 1933, Morgner lived all her life in the GDR. Her relationship with communism was of profound importance for her career. An initial belief that the socialist ideal could be realised - and that it was her duty as a writer to help achieve this - ceded painfully to a recognition that the ideal had been perverted beyond repair. Her writing mirrors this trajectory and looks increasingly askance at twentieth-century civilisation and its discontents. In her last interview, in 1990, Morgner said that her home had been in literature.
Her dark good looks, flamboyant dress, guttural laugh and provocative tone made Morgner a striking presence on the East Berlin literary scene. Her novels were equally eccentric: satirically grotesque rather than merely critical; wilfully oblique rather than confessional; sexually liberated but laced with tristesse. They demand attention to detail, sensitivity to allusion, and open-mindedness to cultural reference. But the uniqueness of Morgner is that her novels are buoyed up by a brilliant wit, and feature unlikely departures and improbable dénouements. They invoke myth, legend, fairy tale, and expose their conventions. They muddle chronology, bend the laws of physics, and deflate pomposity with earthy obscenity. The reader gets Foucault and phantasmagoria, Marx and metamorphoses, Descartes and double entendres.
Morgner's novels are full of the fantastical impossibilities which literary fiction can indulge: trains become boats pulled by sea-horse power (Die wundersamen Reisen Gustavs des Weltfahrers, 1972); medieval poets are raised from the dead (Leben und Abenteuer der Trobadora Beatriz nach Zeugnissen ihrer Spielfrau Laura, 1974), witches are conjured up (Amanda. Ein Hexenroman, 1983) and puppets brought to life to wreak havoc in the East German provinces (Gauklerlegende. Eine Spielfraungeschichte, 1970). The aim is to shake the reader out of the complacency of received 'wisdoms' so as to see the world anew. All means are permitted in these dramatic meditations on power, gender, desire and disenchantment, which home in on the individual's attempts to find existential orientation.
True to Morgner's aversion to dogma, no one of her novels is quite like another. Her most subtly lyrical work, the minimalist Gauklerlegende, contains barely 1000 lines of text over 100 pages. It stands at the opposite end of the spectrum to the voluminous Beatriz - a montage novel - and Amanda, both of which stretch to more than 650 pages. Hochzeit in Konstantinopel (1968) fuses a holiday diary on the Dalmatian coast with a series of beguiling short texts set in an imaginary no-man's land, whilst Rumba auf einen Herbst (completed 1965, published 1992) uses interludes featuring Persephone and Orpheus to divide four successively narrated but simultaneously occurring days-in-the-life of four inter-connected, emotionally displaced East Germans. Although Morgner's sympathies were with the oppressed of both genders, foremost amongst her concerns were the manifold restrictions impeding women's self-realisation. In Beatriz and Amanda, she confronted the issue with a millennial breadth of vision and a rhetorical and theoretical panache to match its epochal importance.
The daughter of a train driver, Morgner grew up in a household without books. At the age of twelve she chanced upon a copy of Goethe's Faust and was hooked. She studied Germanistik at Leipzig University, then moved in 1956 with her husband, the writer Joachim Schreck, to East Berlin. She gave birth to a son in 1967, but divorced Schreck in 1970 when she married the GDR poet and writer Paul Wiens. After the reunification of Germany, Wiens was revealed to have been one of the East German Stasi's top 'unofficial collaborators' in the literary field - so good he was even 'loaned' to the KGB. Morgner herself had discovered the truth of his double life somewhat earlier: files in the Berlin Gauck Authority - which also contain letters received by Morgner which Wiens handed to his Stasi officer - now reveal the real reason why she divorced him so suddenly in 1977.
It is a shocking story of the infiltration of the state into the most intimate spheres of life: Morgner's marriage to Wiens literally brought home the system's corruption. In Amanda Morgner used allegory to respond to a betrayal of which she did not dare speak openly and to address the complexities of collaboration and resistance - the unhappy progeny of the GDR's 'real existing socialism'. As a result, she fell ever more under the watchful eye of the Stasi.
Morgner was awarded the GDR National Prize for Literature in 1978 - presumably a 'reward' for choosing to remain in the GDR while numerous of her colleagues were emigrating westwards and denigrating their erstwhile home. It was a tightrope walk between extra-literary quietism and literary subversion that Morgner performed throughout her career. Sceptical of posturing and speechifying, she wanted her books to do the talking.
State censorship meant that this was not always possible. Morgner's third novel, Rumba, was banned in 1965; the avant-garde late 1960s novels which followed were subject to delays and minimal print-runs; she battled for two years for permission to publish Amanda. Morgner's career in the GDR was an improbable victory against the odds. It took a heavy toll in terms of her health.
Morgner was a prominent writer in the GDR and was fęted by West German feminists. But how is it possible that her name is absent from the rollcall of celebrated German writers of the late twentieth century? It is perhaps a legacy of the unwritten, but pervasive, rules of Cold War literary engagement, which frequently rewarded outspoken political allegiances ahead of the subtleties of art. Morgner, notably, did not stylise herself as a 'dissident'. However, the time has now come to re-assess her reputation and to understand that her literary ambition reached far beyond the logic of superpower one-upmanship. That Morgner, for all her seriousness, found support in humour and irony will facilitate her appeal to an English-speaking readership. Their acquaintance with this scandalously overlooked writer is long overdue." - Geoff Westgate

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