Cassandra – Christa Wolf (Translated by Jan Van Heurck)

Cassandra

Anger be now your song, immortal one,

The Illiad I.1 (Trans. Robert Fitzgerald)

‘The last thing in my life will be a picture, not a word. Words die before pictures.’

Allegorical novels can be among the very finest and the very worst. Moralizing is a constant temptation and when twinned with a lack of sympathy for one’s fictionalised opposition this results in a Pretty Bad Book. To this extent poor allegorical fiction resembles both hagiography and humpbacked vilification in its intention to beatify, sanitise, caricature, or damn its subject rather than represent or explore human nature and its manifestations in distinct but related historical, geographical, and political contexts. To that extent, to call a Good Book allegorical is at most to identify one aspect of its author’s intentions, because a common humanity must serve as the grounding of almost any novel worthy of the name. The greatest works resonate beyond their particular moment because they do just this; and likewise the greatest allegorical novels use a particular moment to reflect upon another. Sometimes it is the similarity veiled by an apparent difference which is so striking; sometimes it is that so similar a set of people could be so different. These are obviously versions of the same thing. Thus, the greatest allegorical novels find a way to say something truly interesting about both their apparent subject and their (more or less) hidden subject. One or the other won’t do.

All this, the Troy of my childhood, no longer exists except inside my head. I will rebuild it there while I still have time, I will not forget a single stone, a single incidence of light, a single laugh, a single cry. It shall be kept faithfully inside me, however short the time may be. Now I have learned to see what is not, how hard the lesson was.

Christa Woolf’s Cassandra takes as its apparent subject the recollections of the eponymous prophetess and daughter of the Trojan king Priam as she waits to be executed by Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra ouside the gates of Mycenae. However, Wolf’s story is definitely not a straightforward recapitulation of Homer, Virgil, or the Epic Cycle. This is most clear when Cassandra speaks of ‘Achilles the brute’. No heroes here: just violence and deceit. In Wolf’s war the most beautiful of Priam’s daughters finds herself in the midst of an economic struggle between Troy and the Greek states falsely dressed as a question of honour and idealism. The priestess watches in horror as her father’s court is slowly infiltrated and increasingly controlled by the bland but insidious Eumelos who wishes only to protect the state against those who would betray it. The enemy seems less those beyond the walls and more the new party of Trojans who subvert Troy in the name its perpetuation. Thus power deceives not only its objects but itself and in doing so hastens its own destruction. Propaganda, censorship, and surveillance: So far, so Cold War.

How many realities were there in Troy besides mine, which I had thought the only one? Who fixed the boundary between the visible and invisible?

This is a question we might ask of Cassandra itself. Where does allegory begin and end? Where is the apparent story and where the hidden? Where the visible and where the invisible? It’s also a question Wolf is asking of the other Trojan War narratives. Why is that tale of gods and armoured men the story? We can also turn the question back: why is Cassandra’s narrative the one we should trust? After all, she doesn’t seem to trust herself.

   Will I split myself in two until the end before the axe splits me, for the sake of consciousness? In order not to writhe with fear, not to bellow like an animal – and who should know better than I how animals bellow when they are sacrificed! Will I, until the end, until that axe – will I still, when my head, my neck, is already – will I—?

Why do I simply refuse to allow myself this relapse into creatureliness? What is holding me back? Who is there left to see me? Do I, the unbeliever, still see myself as the focus of a god’s gazes, as I did when a child, a girl, a priestess? With that never pass?

Wolf’s writing is searching, clawing at the truth, or some truth. Inseparable from its subject and subject-matter, the tumbling consciousness is feverish in its expression as thought and language move toward and away from resolution until the very end. This is a consciousness divided against itself within a state divided against itself. Indeed, division is everywhere: in the dual nature of Apollo, in the gods’ gaze, the torment and the desolation; and in the prophesying of Germany’s future, the future of many times and places, the fall of the USSR, its wall breached. Yet Cassandra is nothing if not resistant to quite so totalising a summation of its aims. Cassandra sweeps back and forth between love and hatred, male and female, madness and sanity, belief and apostasy, the city and the natural, life and death.

Who lives will see. It occurs to me secretly that I am tracking the story of my fear. Or more precisely, the story of its unbridling: more precisely still, of its setting free.

One of the most powerful and interesting aspects of Cassandra is Wolf’s discussion of a beauty which does not exist and which is yet the pretext for war and repression. Once you go far enough, you have to keep going. Time and again the structures of Terror have become their own end. The end is no longer in sight and may have never been possible. We should be careful when mixing biography and criticism – although Wimsatt and Beardsley’s warning against ‘author psychology’ in their ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ is far too strong a prohibition – but it is interesting that Christa Wolf opposed the reunification of Germany despite her implied criticism of the East’s surveillance culture in Cassandra. (She herself was a Stasi informant at one point long before the novel’s composition). This suggests that it is the idea of utopia – socialist or otherwise – and its attendant terrors which Wolf critiques. Beyond a certain point everyone knows it never existed in the first place; and yet they cannot stop themselves. Honour demands that the image remains. In the paradise

we had invented, we were defending everything that we know longer had. And the more it faded, the more real we had to say it was. Thus out of words, gestures, ceremonies, and silence there arose a second Troy, a ghostly city, were we were supposed to feel at home and live at ease.

This is all only a first-pass reading. Cassandra deserves several readings for the quality of language and thought alone. I think an awful lot passed me by, especially at the beginning as I settled into Cassandra’s habits of speech. Without any dissembling I can say that I have failed to do justice to the aspects of the novel which deal with female experience, with the feminine, the binaries Wolf creates between Greek and Trojan, with Cassandra’s life itself. That’s one set of concerns to pay more attention to when rereading. I’ve been told by several people that Wolf’s later novel Medea is even better than Cassandra, so that’s definitely going on the list. Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian is one of my favourite books and, although the two are very different, Cassandra has reminded me how much I want to reread that. I’ve also had Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles on the shelf for a few months after a very generous Christmas present from a sister-in-law of the entire Orange Prize 2012 shortlist. Miller is quoted on the back of my copy of Cassandra and hers is yet another approach to Achilles and the nature of passion and conflict I want to read.

The last thing in my life will be a picture, not a word. Words die before pictures.

I began by making several fairly reductive comments about allegory and the past and present moment. I suggested that Good Books overflow their setting, their moment, and touch on something human. It is very difficult to talk about Cassandra without wanting to go off in several different directions at once. Now that suggests there is something in the novel which we have to grasp after, something which reaches back and forward in time, and which is expressed in language which runs ahead and returns saying something we did not expect. ‘The last thing in my life will be a picture not a word.’ There is something beyond language for Cassandra: a picture, or pure experience, something will momentarily outlast the word she might use to describe it. This is part of what Wolf’s language is grasping at, and part of the reason why she cannot reach it. Perhaps. There is an awful lot I did not understand in Cassandra. I think that’s extremely promising.

Once again limb-loosing love shakes me,

bitter-sweet, untamable, a dusky animal

Sappho

Cassandra is published by Daunt Books

My thanks to Daunt Books for this review copy.

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6 thoughts on “Cassandra – Christa Wolf (Translated by Jan Van Heurck)

  1. There’s a real sense in your review of parts of the novel remaining slightly out of grasp, which is as you say very promising. It’s a poor novel that one can wholly grasp, particularly if one can wholly grasp it on a first reading.

    • I’ve decided to take this as a compliment. The book is very resistant to short-form reviewing, I think. There are so many perspectives one could take on it. Mine was, in its way, the most straightforward.

      • Well, I did think you were intentionally suggesting that the novel is one that stretches the reader, and that challenges any simple interpretation. I thought you brought out some interesting themes and made the novel sound very intriguing.

        Writing up books like this one is particularly difficult. Sometimes, as here, I think the best one can do is to share the challenge with the readers of the review. Certainly it’s an approach I’ve adopted from time to time.

  2. sounds like one I would like would you say wolf use the cassandra story as an alliuson as events in present or near past germany ? just I now german fiction tends to do this a lot ,I must admit I ve yet to read wolf ,all the best stu

    • I’m unsure of the extent to which Wolf is alluding to specific events rather than a general mood and tendency in East Germany and the Cold War generally, but it’s definitely a novel which emerges from that context. I recommend it.

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