The book I submitted for consideration for the first round of the LBC's Read This ! selection was Christa Wolf's In the Flesh.
In hindsight I now have to laugh at some of the qualms I had about putting this book up. There was no question in my mind concerning the literary quality -- both the story that is related and (especially) the presentation of that story easily convinced me that this was a worthwhile text. Admittedly, it is not an easy or comfortable book, but at less than 130 pages I also didn't think it was too much of an imposition to make on the panel of LBC reader-judges either -- just in case it really wasn't to someone's liking. No, my concern was that I was choosing an author and a book for whom public awareness didn't need to be raised. Oh, sure, every author and book can use more attention and mentions, but the LBC provides the opportunity for raising a book out of obscurity, and the new Christa Wolf -- well, that hardly struck me as obscure.
Translated literature seems to have much greater difficulty meeting with any success than anything originally written in English, but Wolf has done quite well: In the Flesh lists a dozen other titles of hers that have been translated into English, and many of them are still in print. Previous works were published by major houses -- FSG and Doubleday among them -- and she's always been fairly widely reviewed (admittedly more likely in the NY Review of Books than your local hometown paper, but still). In the Flesh had a nice write-up in Harper's in January, and I was certain decent coverage would follow; until the current, foreign-literature-averse administration took over, The NY Times Book Review, for example, surely wouldn't have passed it by.
On the other hand: this particular book of Wolf's wasn't published by a major house; it came out at one of those remarkable keepers-of-the-flame, David R. Godine (and getting some attention for the fine work they're doing is already something). It probably wasn't going to make it into all your local bookstores (shockingly, I've yet to come across a copy at my local Barnes & Noble). It is translated fiction, which seems to be having an ever-harder time getting any attention. It hasn't exactly been widely reviewed. And, consulting what seems to be the ultimate barometer of literary success in our time: its Amazon-ranking is dismal: at 430,051 when I last checked it is the lowest-ranked of the five nominated titles -- though two others are in that same obviously-no-one-has-bought-a-copy-yet 400,000-range.
Wolf struck me as one of those few dozen international authors whose new work is made available pretty much as a matter of course in English and then is taken up and discussed by the literary establishment. Maybe not a truly popular author, but one I assumed my audience -- certainly at the Complete Review (and the Literary Saloon), but also, to a great extent (as far as I can tell) at the LBC -- didn't really need to be pushed towards. I'm fairly certain now I was wrong, in part because Wolf seems to have faded (or been pushed) from a once more prominent place. (Something to wonder about: why ? the fall of East Germany ? a superseded feminism ?)
So I am glad I overcame my concerns and did nominate In the Flesh, because it is an important book and, I think, a very good book, and I am certain it is deserving of that literary dialogue that an undertaking like the LBC appears to offer (and which has been so conspicuously absent elsewhere -- so far -- with respect to this book).
All this is a very roundabout way of getting to the meat of the matter, which is the book itself. In the Flesh describes a hospital stay: the narrator is seriously ill -- fighting for her life, in fact, though there is little she can do, reduced to a passive figure that is poked and prodded and treated. The setting is East Berlin, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and in her daze the narrator shifts between descriptions of what is happening to her -- the medical procedures, how she feels, what she (over)hears -- and memories from the past. Her own decrepit state mirrors that of the East German state, and it is in this use of illness as metaphor that the book is particularly impressive.
I usually don't like books in which the narrator is in some way dazed (drunk, drugged, dreaming, ill), and I'm not that big on autobiographical fiction (which this also is), but In the Flesh does both without annoying me. The narrator is word-person, the literary providing the last hold for her -- but words (including literary creation) can only do so much, especially when one has to face a stark reality such as the complete failure of one's body -- or nation. Wolf conveys those failures -- and her narrator's difficulty in dealing with them in any but a second-hand way, through words and literary re-imaginings -- expertly. Even in the closing scene the narrator can't simply give in to emotion but has to reference it -- a brilliant ending.
The writing is masterful -- coming across even in translation (by John S. Barrett). The shifting perspectives, her fading in and out of realities past and present, and the different story-threads make this a book that one might call 'difficult', but I think that one can simply go with the flow and enjoy it. Much of the story isn't pleasant -- the descriptions of her condition are certainly disturbing, and the pain and the sweating can get to be a bit much -- but it is still a compelling and fascinating story, on a number of levels, from her personal word-struggles to the picture of East Germany it offers to the stories of some of the other characters.
In the Flesh might not have quite the broad appeal of Case Histories: it's a darker, harder-hitting little book -- and probably not something for the beach. But it is worthwhile; I hope some of you will have a look.