Flâneurs and Flâneuses:
Walking through Christa Wolf's "Unter den Linden" and Paul Auster's Oracle Night
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San Francisco State University
The flâneur is a figure that highlights characteristics of both the Romantic artist and the modern city dweller. Romanticism is an aesthetic movement that developed at the end of the eighteenth century and lasted into the 1830s. Of Romanticism the Literature Encyclopedia specifically says: "It is characterized by an emphasis on the creative role of the individual and artistic imagination in restoring wholeness and contentment to a human soul assaulted by modern, often urban, existence. It lays great stress on the visionary, the passionate and the natural, in opposition to reason and economic pragmatism." Romanticism's influence is seen in the Western image of the artist as an individual that is uninhibited, tormented and passionate.
From this tradition, the flâneur figure emerged; he is emblematic of modernity. He does not create but rather observes the rhythm of urban culture as he strolls city streets. The OED defines him as "a lounger or saunterer, an idle 'man about town.'" The image of this figure, a lone man walking through urban chaos, arose as a result of a decadent fin-de-siècle European culture experienced within the metropolis. It is as if the figure of the Romantic artist was developed and modernized into that of the individual concerned with leisure and one who embraced the image of the technologically innovative bourgeois city. The French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) regarded the flâneur as an anonymous and idle figure that observed city life and, through the process, became a modern hero. Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) regarded the flâneur, along with
Baudelaire's interpretation of the figure, as a direct product of nineteenth century commodity culture. Most recently, Chris Jenks has interpreted the flâneur through post-modernity, as a narrative device, an attitude towards knowledge and social context (148). The two narrators of the works that I will discuss in this paper both continue the tradition of the flâneur through Baudelaire's approach but also surpass it. Their stories are told using Romantic motifs, but also, as Jenken suggests, these flâneurs function as narrative devices that mirror the social contexts in which they do their flaning.1
The first flaning experience I discuss occurs in Christa Wolf's "Unter den Linden" (1974). This story is a labyrinth that leads the narrator and the reader through a puzzling and confusing search for the narrative "I."2 Through the narrator's dream we are presented a variety of characters involved in the intellectual milieu of East Berlin and the city's most famous boulevard, Unter den Linden (under the Linden trees).3 In this narrative of love there is a story of betrayal that exists between reality and fiction. The female narrator experiences alienation from her society through a dream that recalls reality. Personal unfaithfulness is also symbolic of the narrator's relationship to GDR society and her own struggle for feminine self-realization within it. Like the Romantic artist she feels assaulted by a modern and primarily urban existence, and, like the flâneur, she flanes through East Berlin in search of self-identity.
The second flaning experience occurs twenty years later in a different city and country alienated from the socialist model which Wolf's narrator inhabits. The flaning takes place in a capitalist New York unsympathetic to the creative pursuits of the artist, here represented by a male narrator. Paul Auster in the novel Oracle Night (2003) uses some of the same narrative structures and literary motifs borrowed by Wolf from Romanticism to present a tale that also portrays the search for the self. These include the use of the Doppelgänger4 and the mixture of reality and fiction used to deliver a story of both personal and societal betrayal. In both works, the personal betrayal occurs often through love triangles, in which the narrators sometimes unknowingly participate. The societal betrayal occurs with the narrators' self-development in more-than-hostile social envi
Auster's novel, set in a New York of the 1980's, has a narrator who seeks to re-acquaint himself with the artistic "I" after a long illness. Like Wolf, Auster blurs reality and fiction but, in contrast, exposes the reader to the problems of creating art within an American capitalist society obsessed with production. Whereas Wolf's story posits the problem of selling-out to intellectual and institutional pressures within a socialist society, Auster's novel presents a closer look at an artist who is struggling to create, not against the pressures of a state censor but that of a market. The comparison of these two works brings about an inquisition into the way Romantic literary structures work in two post-modern narratives. One mixes romanticism and feminism to subvert the GDR's grip on the developing of a young woman, the other uses Romantic motifs (the Doppelgänger, the leitmotif) to question the develo
pment of an artist within a society that places higher cultural value on the entrepreneur, leaving the artist to starve on a pedestal. This paper explores the works of two writers who have traditionally had different aesthetic agendas but who have nonetheless built layered narratives using literary devices that combine the Romantic tradition with that of the modern flâneur to investigate the search for the "I" within their respective metropolises.
Walking/Waking down the Street
"Unter den Linden" is a story told within a circular frame. The story begins and ends with the image of the flâneuse,5 the narrator, strolling alone on the boulevard, uttering the phrase: "Unter den Linden bin ich immer gerne gegangen. Am liebsten, du weißt, allein" (7) ["I have always liked walking along Unter den Linden. And most of all, as you well know, alone" (69)].6 These sentences are found at both the beginning and the ending; the story packed in between them concerns the search and discovery of the female "I" (or das Ich). This subjective inner voice is found as the female narrator walks down Unter den Linden, the long and famous street in East Berlin. The hazy memories the narrator experiences on her walk and the mélange of characters she encounters create a haunting presence that question boundaries between dream and reality. The unnamed narrator relates how the street came back to her in a drea
m after she had tried to avoid it. Along this dream walk she encountered individuals previously known to her. Appearances are made by the narrator's recently deceased friend Max, her old friend Peter, a strange, walking and talking goldfish, and a mysterious blonde girl who acts as the narrator's Doppelgänger. The narrator recognizes herself as this girl upon a rude and emotional awakening that leaves her sobbing.
In looking closer to the beginning and ending sentences we can deduce narrative aspects central to this work: the importance of das Ich and the familiarity of the author's address (expressed in the familiar or informal "you," in German expressed as du). Helen Ferhevary writes that this particular familiarity between reader and writer (the utilization of the du) in "Unter den Linden" is reminiscent and perhaps a tribute to the well-known eighteenth century literary Salon organizer Rahel Varnhagen:7 ["Unter den Linden"] bears a motto derived from Rahel [. . .], is inspired by Rahel's written accounts of her dreams, and is addressed to an unnamed Rahel, as the mask of a potential literary tradition with the intimate appellation Du" (74). Varnhagen's epigraph, which precedes Wolf's story, references a female intellectual who was herself the victim of persecution. Varnhagen
was not only an important part of Berlin's literary eighteenth century society, but also significant to Wolf's story; she too was a regular flâneuse on Unter den Linden and was known to have recorded her dreams in a journal.
This literary reference holds even deeper significance for an analysis of the author's familiar narrative appellation since the theme of the quote is closely connected to the Bildungsroman tradition. The epigraph reads: "Ich bin überzeugt, daß es mit zum Erdenleben gehört, daß jeder in dem gekränkt werde, was ihm das Empfindlichste, das Unleidichste ist: Wie er da herauskommt, ist das Wesentliche" (qtd. in Wolf Unter den Linden 5). ["I am convinced that it is part of life on earth that everyone be hurt where he is most sensitive, by that which is most unbearable: Essential is the way in which he overcomes this" (69)]. This is what I will refer to as the Varnhagen test throughout the text. Wolf's narrator must surpass the unbearable, including betrayals by her lover and friends to recover her sense of self within a communal society unsympathetic to individual concerns. Thus
, the Varnhagen test is essentially an aspect of the Bildungsroman. As Roman Struc details in his study of the Bildungsroman and Wolf's novel Nachdenken über Christa T. (1983), Bildungsromane are made up of "experiences of the protagonist which the reader must convert into a Bildung for himself" (200). Wolf uses the familiar du because the narrator tells a story of the search for das Ich to her listeners, i.e. Wolf's readers.
The narrative's beginning tells Wolf's readers of the narrator's survival from her metaphorical trial: "Nicht mehr bin ich an die Tatsachen gekettet. Ich kann frei die Wahrheit sagen," ["I am no longer chained to the facts. I can freely tell the truth"(69)] is her liberated proclamation. With a free voice she breaks out of the chains imposed upon her reality. Like Varnhagen, she has survived what was completely unbearable: the pressures to conform cast her in a trial from which she was only lucky to have emerged unbroken, a self-confident woman.8 The actual trial involves the university administration of the Humboldt Universität, a state institution, and the mysterious blonde girl (with the narrator sitting by her side). The blonde girl is disciplined by the administration because of her three-month absence resulting from a devastating affair with a man who was presumably her professor (the
narrator's friend Peter) but whom the girl will not name. The private trial the narrator experiences is much more intimate and involves a painful process of self-realization through betrayal.
The dream begins on a June summer day, when the narrator is summoned to testify for some unnamed reason (only later do we realize that the narrator's and the blonde girl's trials are one and the same): "Ich sagte es keinem und wollte es selbst kaum wahrhaben"(8) ["I did not tell anybody and almost refused to believe it myself" (70)]. This identifies the major event in the dream, that of the narrator being officially summoned to appear and testify on some account. It emphasizes that it is an experience she did not want to share with anyone; it would not be until she survived the dream that she could begin to speak. The narrator tries to avoid the order to testify and hopes to get lost in the city, somehow steering clear of Unter den Linden. Yet, hard as she tries, she cannot escape it. Even the bus driver is part of the plot against her: "Aber schon der Busschafner war im Komplott-mit wem, bleibt dahingestellt . .
. Aus nichtigem Anlaß kam er mir grob." (8) ["However, even the bus driver was part of the conspiracy--with whom shall remain unsaid. He was rude to me for no reason whatsoever" (70)]. With a disrespectful and menacing grin, the bus driver deposits her where they want her: "vor der Staatsoper, Unter den Linden" (8) ["in front of the State Opera, Unter den Linden" (70)]. Not only does the site emphasize the State, but is also situated on the Bebelplatz, which makes a reference to censorship, since it was the site of the well-known book- burning during the Nazi regime in which all books considered subversive and degenerate were destroyed (1931). The bus driver's creation of the Staatsoper as the narrator's designated bus stop is yet another way in which the narrator regards her experience as one of an individual bound by her oppressive society.
As she walks, the street changes from a place of pleasure to one of discomfort, confusion and borderline terror. She must pass the Varnhagen test (the epigraph of the story) as she walks; she must relive what previously made her weakest, a series of betrayals etched unto her subconscious. No matter how hard she tries to evade the street, Unter den Linden beckons and she cannot help but follow it wherever it may lead: "Man weiß nur, man ist bestellt und hat Folge zu leisten" (8) ["One only knows one has been summoned and must obey" (70)]. She has to follow the orders in her dreamlike destiny with a submissive air of indifference: "Jedes Kind wei§ aus dem Märchen, daß man unbekümmert loszulaufen hat und sich vorbehaltlos und freundlich allen Dingen zuwenden soll" (9) ["Every child knows from fairy tales that one must run off guilelessly and should turn one's attention to everythin
g without prejudice, in a friendly manner" (70)]. She knows she is in a socialist dream and must thereby adapt her behavior to be unassuming and "friendly." The GDR had to come up with new fairy tales that transmitted socialist values and expectations of individuals within the communist ideology. In this GDR tale there are characters like a big fish that needs the narrator's help in deciphering Cyrillic letters, her own dream censor (who is less strict than the narratorÕs reader and helps her pick out clothes), and a traffic warden who reprimands her for crossing the street against the light, who teaches her that "Rot ist Rot, und das ist eine prinzipielle Frage" (36) ["Red is red, and that is a matter of principle"(90)]. What the narrator learns from this state official is not just that one should wait for the green before crossing but that rather one should stay on the officially sanctioned path to success, the Red and Soviet influenced path. If a member of a communist soc
iety deviates from this path they must be ready to face the unpleasant consequences.
"Im Traum holt man nach, was man immer versäumt hat" (9) ["In your dreams you catch up with what you've always missed out on" (71)]. It is in this subconscious state that the narrator can explore and express her own desires and fears within a society that emphasizes the collective. As she finds herself in front of Humboldt University, she notices a young couple walking towards the statue of Alexander von Humboldt. The turning point at which the narrator realizes that she is dreaming is when the girl from the couple enters her dream; this girl is referred to as the "dunkles (or dark) motif" (12). Perhaps the fact that the girl vanishes into the university invokes this darkness, as, in Wolf's story, it is officials within the institution who are symbolic of restraints placed on individual and intellectual freedom (they are the ones who demand the blonde girl's interrogation and trial). As soon as that girl disappears, the beautiful blonde girl makes her first appearance as she waits on a bench for Peter. She is to become both the narrator's opponent and her double, though at times it remains unclear whether this girl is sometimes also the narrator. This blonde girl was also summoned to testify and also survives the trial with the narrator by her side. As the narrator struggles with this opponent, she faces a continuing search for das Ich in the experiences, both her own and the blonde girl's. Only upon the narrator's awakening do both figures merge into the shape of a self-confident dark haired junge Frau (young woman).
As the story continues, the narrator both dreams and walks on with flashbacks of real and fictitious persons interweaved throughout her walk. We learn that her friend Peter betrayed not only his wife with the young blonde girl, but also his career, changing his history dissertation to better agree with official expectations. He is the epitome of the sell-out; he changes his intellectual pursuits to fit that of a ready made and approved mold, ready to revise history according to the censor's wishes. The blonde girl, we learn, was a history student at Humboldt University where she had a disastrous affair with a professor, which led to her expulsion from the university.
It is strange that in this GDR tale the narrator explicitly states that the history and political significance of Unter den Linden is of no concern to her:
Daß die Straße berühmt ist, hat nie gestört, im Wachen nicht und erst recht nicht im Traum. Ich begreife, daß sie dieses Mißgeshick ihrer Lage verdankt: Ost-West-Achse. Sie und die Straße, die mir im Traum erscheint, haben nichts miteinander zu tun, die eine wird in meiner Abwesenheit durch Zeitungsbilder und Touristenfotos mißbraucht. (7)
[It has never bothered me that the street is famous, not during my waking hours and most certainly not in my dreams. I am aware that it has suffered the misfortune on account of its location: East-West axis. This street and the one appearing in my dreams have nothing in common. The one is abused by newspaper pictures and tourists' photographs in my absence. (69)]
The politicized street belongs to kitsch and the masses, while the other Unter den Linden stands "undamaged" for the narrator: "die anderen halt sich auch über lange Zeiträume unbeschädigt für mich bereit" (7) ["the other stands at my disposal, undamaged, even over longer periods of time" (69)]. Yet she admits that with both streets one can "mit einander verwechseln" (7) [confuse one with another]. Wolf here refers to the wishful erasure of history, of the disposal of socialist kitsch, which can only occur in a dream since censorship was a personal obstacle for her. She can find her sense of self on a certain street which happens to be at the heart of Berlin's history. The "east-west" axis is central to the story even when the narrator claims to not be interested in such historical aspects. But in this, she contradicts herself, for when she finds herself in the "dream" street she
stands before some of the boulevard's most famous landmarks. These include Alexander Humboldt's statue in front of the university bearing his name, the Brandenburg Gate, the State Opera and the State library. In this way, Wolf highlights the individual young woman's experience in a street dominated by state knowledge and power. Wolf posits her narrator against the street's history by beginning with the Varnhagen epigraph; however she makes her narrator "unconcerned" with the street's history because she wants to show a woman's experience specifically within the context of socialist East Berlin. In recalling the role of the post-modern flâneuse, the narrator reflects her social context to Wolf's readers. Through her, readers witness urban history in the making; a journey through which their Bildung, (or education) is further developed.
The narrating flâneuse takes Wolf's readers on a historic walk through East Berlin. In fact, history is a recurrent motif throughout the story. The appearance of historians, aspiring history students and the narrator's "unbeschädigt" (scar-free) Unter den Linden shows her ironic view towards the development of history in a city split by cold-war politics. Wolf's sarcastic tone is itself a rebellion against collective history and instead calls for self-realization within a socialist society. GDR Berlin had one of the most notable historical borders: a wall built to "protect" its residents from the dangers of capitalism. Yet, of most importance to Wolf is not the erasure of borders between socialist and capital worlds but the erasure of limitations placed on the self by those institutions, individuals and the narrator herself.
Various critical interpretations of Wolf have noted the search for the self as a recurrent theme in her fictional works.9 The focus on the female individual within a socialist society at the heart of Wolf's early novel Der geteilte Himmel (Divided Heaven, 1963) concerns the writer in her later fictional works including Nachdenken über Christa T. (The Quest for Christa T., 1969), Kein Ort Nirgends (No Place on Earth, 1979) and "Unter den Linden." As Waldstein notes, Der geteilte Himmel focuses on Wolf's own role in constructing a new community that she herself inhabits whereas her later works are concerned with inserting "her own personal experience into the writing process" (430).10 "Unter den Linden" and Nachdenken über Christa T. are both Bildung works which aim to educate the reader about the
difficulties experienced by women who lead lives unacceptable to their communities.
Ludo Abicht, in his review of "Unter den Linden," which he calls a "Kafkaesque 'trial' nightmare" (167), also parallels the figure of the blonde girl with that Wolf protagonist, Christa T:
She too was unable to integrate her personal problems and needs with the objective demands of the society she lived in. Thus she had to become a victim, but a victim of what? Only of her subjectivism, or of the inability of the system to deal with her deviant behavior? If there is criticism in the story, it is not so much directed at the university officials, but rather at the opportunism of intellectual careerists like Peter. (167)
As Abicht suggests, the solutions lie not with Peter or with the blonde girl, who is expelled after partaking in an affair with her professor; rather, it arrives with the apparition of the narrator as a girl who is self-confident and content after overcoming the burdens of the summons and subsequent trial:
Christa Wolf does not tell us how that woman had reached her state of happiness, but it is clear that it wasn't through some existential acceptance of absurdity or an individualistic escape into the inner soul. The full development of the individual is a need in capitalist as well as socialist society, but in the latter it is a challenge that can be, and therefore ought to be met. (167)
Abicht sees Wolf's story as a demand for the realization of the importance of self-development within a society that places its emphasis on collective ideology. Anna Kuhn also relates the way that Wolf tends to leave an open-ended narrative for the readers, so that they can play with the text in imaginative ways. Rather than closing a story off, Wolf uses narrative techniques popular with Romantic writers who experimented with ways of making literature that was self-aware: "the ideological point of these experiments is to give the reader a first-hand experience of creative freedom"(173).11
Sonja Hilzinger has also linked her narrative technique to that of the German Romantic tradition (Waldstein 430). The Romanticism in Wolf's use of such methodology, as the portrayal of a dream and the Doppelgänger, is essential to the structure of "Unter den Linden." German Romantic writers such as E.T.A. Hoffmann used these motifs in their stories. Wolf directly nods to Hoffman in her story "The New Life and Opinions of a Tomcat" which is a reworking of his "The Life and Opinion of a Tomcat." The symbolic tie between Romanticism and feminism is essential to the search for the feminine "I" within Wolf's East Berlin:12 The Doppelgänger of the narrator is seen both as the young and eager blonde girl that the narrator is weary of and finally as the self-confident brunette she becomes. The girl is demanding, impulsive, passionate yet calculating; she lets desire take over her but manipulates it. She tempts her professor with her ardent looks in lectures with one goal in mind, seducing him. The narrator is told the story of the blonde girl by "Herr Unnamed," who is presumably the girl's professor and lover (disguised through the dream as Peter). In other words, Peter tells the narrator of the narrator's actions disguised in the dream through the blonde girl. The narrator too, stands in the same exact place where the blonde girl once stood to meet her lover: "Heute aber taste ich noch nach dem rauhen Steinpfeiler, an den ich mich gelehnt habe, als tauge er zum Beweis dessen, daß auch Sie, Mädchen, einst hier gestanden haben. . . Soweit kann es mit einem kommen. Aber wenn sagte ich das?" (41) ["Today, however, I am still groping for the rough stone pillar I leaned against, as if it were proof of the fact that you also stood here once, my girl. . . That's how far things can get out of hand. But why am I telling you?"] (94).
The narrator's relationship to the girl is both sympathetic and disapproving. The narrator experienced the same betrayal as the blonde girl. She too had been summoned and also had to deal with the heartbreak caused by her lover/professor. However, she is critical of the blonde girl's reckless actions. It is the repetition of her poor impulse control that gets her to where the narrator is close to the end, sobbing and searching for a lover whom she has acquitted. Finally, as the narrator realizes she was the blonde girl but has now become a self-confident junge Frau, she is once again free to live and is unchained from her past mistakes. In Wolf's twist to the Bildungsroman the narrator learns of her experiences from someone else while simultaneously educating the reader.
Wolf ends by having our heroine tie the beginning to the end: "Ich Glückliche wußte gleich, wem ich es erzählen könnte, kam zu dir, sah, daß du hören wolltest, und began: Unter den Linden bin ich immer gerne gegangen. Am liebsten, du weißt es, allein" (74-75). ["I was lucky, for I knew immediately to whom I could tell it, came to you, saw that you wanted to hear, and began: I have always liked walking on the Unter den Linden. And most of all as you well know, alone" (118)]. The search for the feminine "I" ends with the lucky narrator, former Mädchen and now wiser junge Frau, who knows to whom to tell her story. The former was "dieses Mädchen mit seiner unsinniger Leidenschaft" (43) ["that girl with her pointless passion" (95)] who let herself be led astray by impulse; of this new woman she says: "Alles, was anderen mißlang, würde ihr
glücken" (74) ["At everything in which others failed, she would succeed"].
At the end of the sifting of flashbacks, dreams, copies of characters, the reader comes away with the impression of having survived a trial along with the narrator, a woman in search of a self who must struggle against betrayal by both her lover and a bureaucracy that wants to castigate her for her deviancy. "Unter den Linden" is then a Bildungsgeschichte that details the finding of the feminine "I" in a socialist society. The story's Bildung (education or development) concerns not only our narrator's development as she overcomes betrayal, but it also concerns itself with the reader's Bildung in that Wolf asks the reader to question reality.
Paul Auster's novel Oracle Night (2003) also deals with love and betrayal; here too exists the age old conflict between the (male) self and his society, told à la Wolf, through a narrative structure and a style that merges reality and fiction.
Here betrayal takes two forms: one concerns love, the other involves the artist and the market. There is first the betrayal (perhaps imagined) of the narrator by his wife. There is also the wife's betrayal by the narrator when he finds himself in the dark corners of a brothel. The narrator is also concerned with the artist's betrayal to his craft. This is shown in the narrator's attempts to find good paying writing projects that go against his aesthetic principles. Because he is a young writer he is forced to sell part of his creative force to commercial projects in tune with the needs and tastes of American popular culture.
The male "I" struggles to reconcile creative and financial pressures, which proves to be an exhausting project for the mind of a man who is ailing. At the time the reader first encounters him, the narrator is distressed and disconcerted by his relationship to the city, he is weak and vulnerable to the menacing metropolis. It is as if the bowels of the city constantly work to swallow the Romantic writer and modern flâneur: On January 12, 1982, the narrator collapsed at the 14th street NYC subway station, fell down a flight of stairs, suffered broken bones, ruptured internal organs, endured neurological damage and as a result had a four-month stay at St. Vincent's hospital (192). Auster's narrator emerged from the experience like a child; he was a stranger to the city and to himself. The novel begins with the words: "I had been sick for a long time. When the day came for me to leave the h
ospital, I barely knew how to walk anymore, could barely remember who I was supposed to be" (1). Like Wolf's tale, this last sentence frames the story with a man's search for the "I" after surviving a traumatic experience.
Part of the narrator's recovery plan is to set out on small outings. On what Auster calls "the morning in question," September 18, 1982, after four months of recovery walks around his Cobble Hill neighborhood, the narrator, novelist Sydney Orr, decides he wants to write again and purchases a blue notebook at a new stationary store: "I suddenly got it into my head to stock up on a fresh set of supplies: new pens and pencils, new notebook, new ink cartridges and erasers, new pads and folders, new everything" (3). The decision by an artist to create after a long hiatus is important. It is as if after lying dormant inside a weak body, the narrator's artistic impulse has decided his body can withstand the mental process associated with creation, a decision that proves harmful to his physical recovery. He flanes around his Brooklyn neighborhood as if he were in a Wolf-type dream: "walking pr
oduced an odd, airy lightness in my head, a free-for-all of mixed-up signals and crossed mental wires. The world would bounce and swim before my eyes, undulating like reflections in a wavy mirror. . . I had trouble telling where my body stopped and the rest of the world began" (1-2). Orr has trouble differentiating between his physical self and his "world," that of New York City, which is a reflection of the struggle to distinguish his individual experience from the chaos of urbanity.
Auster's novel walks readers through the process of writing fiction. Because the narrator is a writer, the reader is educated (after all it is a Bildungsroman) about the dangers that fiction has on the narrator's reality. Auster uses different methods to achieve this and inserts lengthy fictional works written by the narrator within the main plot. This results in a narrative structure that involves a circle of interweaving events similar to Wolf's "Unter den Linden." The many layers of fiction (a story within a story) embedded in the text serve to influence and distort the narrator's "actual" life. The narrator finds his sense of self at the end of the novel through the intersections of his and his characters lives.
As in Wolf's story, Auster uses the Romantic motif of the Doppelgänger in a way that two versions of the self (a younger and older) are presented; Oracle Night's narrator tells a story of his life that happened twenty years before. Auster also uses the dream motif, not as the primary underlying structure of the work, but as a repetitive reference. In Auster's novel, dreams function as a way of terrifying the narrator; he tiptoes across a subconscious filled with the experiences of his characters, which threatens his precarious physical state. True to the image of the Romantic artist, his body is so weak that his creative work takes over his life and almost destroys what is most dear to him, his marriage with his beloved wife. In relating back to Varnhagen and Wolf, his trial also deals with betrayals, both between him and his wife as well as that of his creative work. He must overcome his weakn
ess as a man in order to first live and then create again. As an artist he must not only struggle with the financial but the creative forces that push and pull him in different directions. As a man, he must deal with the possibly imagined betrayal of his wife and his own infidelity.
Auster uses the motif of the Doppelgänger in the way a writer tries to reconcile his new self, his "new everything" with his old self after a near-death experience. Like Wolf, he uses the dream to relate what happens in reality with what is happening within Orr's fiction. He also uses a narrative technique that details the artistic process; therefore, readers are able to see how the artist-narrator constructs his characters. Auster wants readers to know that this is literature about literature: his manuscript within a manuscript within a manuscript formula is interwoven with footnotes that give additional information on the narrator's life as well as presents illustrations that detail records the narrator's made-up character might have found.
Like previous Auster works, Oracle Night is about the process of becoming an artist. Roy C. Caldwell believes the New York Trilogy to be a "Bildungsroman déguisé, texte qui racconte [Auster's] propre developpement comme artist ["a disguised Bildungsroman, a text that narrate's Auster's own development as an artist"]" (qtd. in Merivale 185-86).13 It is crucial too that Orr is a young married artist creating within a capitalist society. Auster's narrator is constantly diverted from his artistic work and has to write film scripts to help alleviate the financial difficulties experienced by him and his wife. Wolf's narrator, living in socialist GDR Berlin, does not have to deal with the same market demands to produce, but rather has to worry about her actions within the university bureaucracy. In comparing "Unter den Linden's" narrator's friend Peter to Sydney Orr,
one sees how different societies work to pressure artists and historians in the creation of intellectual and artistic goods. Peter in the end conforms to the university officials by changing his dissertation, Sydney's work is detracted by his agent's push of lucrative projects; both characters struggle with their intellectual integrity and change their ideal product to better fit the social systems they inhabit.
Oracle Night uses some of the same devices employed in previous Austerian works, namely Leviathan (1992) and The Locked Room.14 In both of these, there exists the mournful elegiac modernist romance: "my story about him which is really my story about me" (Merivale 193). The Locked Room like Oracle Night "provides a full repertoire of post-modern (that is, Nabokovian) examples of the main features of elegiac romance: the erotic triangle, double burial, and the inherited manuscript" (Merivale 193).15 Oracle Night presents this plot structure with the love triangle formed through John Trause, a well-published author who acts as Orr's writing mentor, Orr, and his wife Grace, to whom Trause is a family friend. This same love triangle is also found in Wolf, in between Herr Unnamed, the blonde girl and the narrator. There it is mirrored with
the blonde girl, Peter and his ex-wife Marianne. The love-triangle functions as a place where betrayal is repeated and where trust between partners is routinely tested. Rivalries are likely to form, as one person will always be left out. Both textual triangles are heterosexual: two persons of the same sex form an opposition in attempt to obtain the object of desireÑin Wolf, Herr Unnamed/Peter; in Auster, Grace.
Orr writes in the blue Portuguese notebook purchased from the mysterious owner of the "Paper Palace."16 Encouraged by a conversation he had with Trause a few weeks earlier, he begins to re-write "the Flitcraft episode" from Dashiell Hammet's detective novel The Maltese Falcon (1930).17 Orr's Flitcraft is an unhappily married book editor named Nick Bowen, nearly killed by a gargoyle head that breaks off from the facade of a West Village building:
Several moments go by before he can reconstruct the sequence of events, and when he does, he picks himself up from the sidewalk understanding that he should be dead. The stone was meant to kill him. He left his apartment tonight for no other reason than to run into that stone, and if he's managed to escape with his life, it can only mean that a new life has been given to him--that his old life is finished, that every moment of his past now belongs to someone else. (23)
Convinced that he's been given an opportunity for a new life, Bowen flees to Kansas City, carrying with him the unpublished manuscript of legendary author Sylvia Maxwell, entitled Oracle Night. There he begins to work with a World War II African-American veteran named Ed in his telephone book underground archive. However, after Ed's death, Nick Bowen gets trapped underground.
A là Wolf, events that blur the line between Orr's life and that of his character Nick, occur just hours after he begins to write. In a twist to the concept of the "artist losing himself in his work," Orr appears to disappear between the lines of his novel. The first time occurs a few hours after he begins to write, and his wife is shocked to find that Orr has been at home:
Grace looked surprised. "Didn't you hear me knock?"
"No, I'm sorry I must have been pretty wrapped up in what I was doing."
"When you didn't answer. I opened the door and peeked inside. But you weren't there."
"Of course I was. I was sitting at my desk."
"Well, I didn't see you. Maybe you were somewhere else. In the bathroom maybe."
"I don't remember going to the bathroom. As far as I know I was sitting at my desk the whole time."
Grace shrugged. "If you say so Sydney," she answered. (24)
Orr vanishes into his writing as if he's in the process of becoming his character (though he specifically makes Nick physically unlike him, he makes Nick's love interest, Maxwell's niece, be the exact spitting image of his wife).18 Soon after he locks his character in an underground bomb shelter, Orr is confronted with the news that his wife had a similar dream in which both she and Orr are trapped in a bedroom after making love:
Whereas Grace finds the blurring between the dream and real life to be a "wonderful thing," Orr not only finds it weird but also "chilling" (121). For Grace the dream was a passionate event, for Orr it was a nightmare that downright shook him. It transplanted an unpleasant situation that he had created for his characters, reenacted with Orr and Grace as its players. Wolf's narrator too finds the dream a trying experience. An activity as pleasurable as taking a walk on your favorite street or having an intimate dream, turns instead into an awful experience that leaves both narrators trapped in a situation which they must find a way out of.
"I [Orr] know you never go into my workroom. But if you did, and if you happened to open the blue notebook I bought on Saturday, you'd see the story I've been writing is similar to your dream. The ladder that goes down to an underground room, the library bookcases, the little bedroom at the back. My hero is locked in that room right now, and I don't know how to get him out."
". . . I woke up [Orr's wife, Grace]. And there you were on the bed with your arms around me, hugging me in the same way you did in a dream. It was a wonderful thing. It felt like the dream was still going on, even after I'd woken up." (121)
As Orr's life spirals downwards parallel to his character, events spin out of control, threatening his marriage and leaving his pregnant wife almost dead. The novel ends with Orr experiencing self-realization; he finally figures out who he was "supposed to be":
I saw myself tearing up the pages of the blue notebook. . . I had my face in my hands and was sobbing my guts out. I don't know how long I carried on like that, but even as the tears poured out of me, I was happy, happier to be alive than I had ever been before. It was a happiness beyond consolation, beyond misery, beyond all the ugliness and beauty of the world. Eventually, the tears subsided, and I went into the bedroom to put on a fresh set of clothes. (216-17)
Orr wrecks the work that almost destroyed him and finds that he is ready to face the next stage of his life without the blue notebook. No matter how disheartened he was by previous events, he survived his trial and came out a better, stronger man, ready to take care of himself and his wife in the metropolis. Wolf's narrator too cries: "Vor neid und Kummer began ich unter all den Leuten heftig zu weinen. Davon erwachte ich. Mein Gesicht war naß. Ich konnte mir nicht erklären, warum ich so heiter war" (74) ["sob[s] heavily among all those people out of envy and sorrow. That woke me up. My face was wet. I could not figure out why I was so cheerful" (118)]. Orr realizes that like the narrator, the tempest has passed. He has grown as a man and as an artist in the same manner that Wolf's narrator becomes a woman.
Bringing these two texts together, I would like to call attention to the importance of the authorial "I" as seen in the destruction and reconstruction of both Wolf and Auster's narrators. Both Auster's Orr and WolfÕs Mädchen survive trials that allow their self-realization, and both texts rely on Romantic motifs to structure narratives that question the author's presence and absence though the narrators search for the "I." Wolf does this by addressing the reader specifically within her text. Auster imposes layers of narrative that the reader must sift through. Wolf's text has a particular importance in terms of its connotations as a story of female self-realization and as an individual voice searching to recognize itself against the collective society that socialism implies, Auster's narrative holds particular importance in the creation of the young artist struggling to create within a capitalist society. At the end of tears, betrayals, jealousy, temptation, seduction an
d destruction, both narrators come through their narratives as mature characters that have ultimately found themselves.
I would like to end by restating the Rahel Varnhagen epigraph at the beginning of "Unter den Linden:" "I am convinced that it is part of life on earth that everyone be hurt where he is most sensitive, by that which is most unbearable: Essential is the way in which he overcomes this" (69). These two flâneurs/flâneuses must almost be destroyed, whether physically or mentally, by that which hurts an individual the most: betrayal. Both the girl and Orr come out wet-cheeked but intensely happy. They flane in their respective cities as self-realized individuals.
|| According to the OED, in its entry for flâneur, Iris Murdoch coined the verb "to flane" in her novel Under the Net (1954): "The fishermen were fishing, and the flâneurs were flaning." (203).
|| While first published in 1974, it was written in 1969.
|| The story is set in East Berlin contemporary to the time in which Wolf was writing. I will refer to East Germany, known in the English-speaking world as the German Democratic Republic, by the abbreviation "GDR" throughout the essay.
|| A Doppelgânger is defined as "the apparition of a living person; a double, a wraith" (OED).
|| I use the term flâneuse to refer to the female counterpart of the flâneur. I first came across this reference in Katharina von Akum's essay on the visibility of women in the Weimar Berlin metropolis.
|| Translations within the essay when quoted are from Heike Schwarzbauer and Rick Takvorian. Unquoted translations are my own.
|| Rahel Varnhagen (1771-1833) was born in Berlin to a wealthy Jewish family. At the age of twenty-four she started holding weekly literary salons at her home. They were quite famous; but were interrupted during the French Occupation when a wave of Jewish persecution began. Of significance too is that she fell in love with Karl August Varnhagen over a spring walk on the Unter den Linden. They could not marry because marriage between Jews and Christians was forbidden at the time. Many German Romantic writers heavily relied on dreams for creative expression, Varnhagen was known to write her dreams down in a journal. www.dieterwunderlich.de/Varnhagen.htm Reference to Rahel Varnhagen in Wolf's epigraph to "Unter den Linden" can be found in
Kay Goodman's article "Poesis and Praxis in Rahel Varnhagen's Letters" (124).
|| For a look at Wolf's division of the "lucky" and "unlucky" individuals within GDR Berlin see Brigitte L. Bradley's "Christa Wolfs Erzahlung 'Unter den Linden': Unerwunschtes und Erwunschtes 'Gluck'".
|| See Charlotte Koerner's article on Wolf's Der Geteilte Himmel for a look at the prospect of female Selbstverwiklichung or Self-Realization as a productive member of a new socialist society.
|| This development of Wolf's literary project could be characterized as the "Suche nach Heimat im Sinn von verwirklichten sozialistischen Verhältnissen" (Hilzinger qtd. in Waldstein, 430) [the search for the home, in the sense of the realization of socialist conditions]. The "home," in this case, integrates the possibility of self-realization within the GDR.
|| Kuhn's chapter "No Place on Earth" focuses on the re-discovery of Romanticism by Wolf. She considered her own 'outsider' status within GDR society as analogous to certain Romantic writers, most of the essay focuses on Wolf's novel No Place on Earth (1979), which deals with the German Romantic figures Heinrich von Kleist and Karoline von Günderrode and attempts of self-preservation made by the artist.
|| For a look at Christa Wolf's ties between Romanticism and Feminism see Robert Sayre and Michael Lowy's "Romanticism as a Feminist Vision: The Quest of Christa W." New German Critique 64:1995 pp 105-134. For a broader view into Wolf's collected stories also see Bernhard Greiner's book article "Mit der Erzählung geh ich in den Tod: Kontinuität und Wandel des Erzählens im Schaffen von Christa Wolf." Erinnerte Zukunft:11 Studien zum Werk Christa Wolfs. ed. Wolfram Mauser. Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann, 1985.107-140.
|| Caldwell's essay is in Annick Duperay, ed. L'Ouvre de Paul Auster: approches et lectures plurielles. Acts du colloque Paul Auster. Arles, Actes Sud, 1995. (82).
Duperray's is a collection of essays from a 1994 conference on Auster's works held at the University of Provence.
|| The New York Trilogy was originally published in the United States as City of Glass (1985), Ghosts (1986) and The Locked Room (1986).
|| Merivale takes the notion of the elegiac novel from Arthur Saltzman's essay on Leviathan in Barone's Beyond the Red Notebook: Essays on Paul Auster. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press: 1995.
The color red is usually a significant one in Auster's work (think of his Red Notebook). In Oracle Night blue is the predominant color. Not only does Orr purchase a blue notebook (even when he did have a choice of red), but when he later tries to purchase the last remaining notebook from Chang, a red one, he is denied the purchase (184). Maybe if he had bought the red notebook he would not have torn it up at the end. John Trause, his writer-friend also writes in the same kind of Portuguese blue notebook (38). When he relates this detail to his wife Grace, she tells him that blue is a "very calm. Very serene [color]" (44). Orr answers that it is also a reference to sadness as in "I've got the blues,' but Grace quickly tells him that blue also stands for loyalty. As they go through the meanings of various colors, Grace observes that red is the color of passion and Sydney notes that red stands in for the red flag of socialism (44-45).
Sam Spade, the detective, retells femme fatale Brigid O' Shaughnessy the story of a man who decides to walk out on life after a construction beam falls to the ground, barely missing him. The man deserts his family but quickly returns to the same middle-class patterns he previously wanted to abandon.
In some definitions of the Doppelgänger, the wraith is a sign of someone's impeding death. The fact that Orr makes Nick's love interest be Grace's double could be read as a foreshadowing of a coming death.
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---, "Unter den Linden." In What Remains & Other Stories. Trans. Heike Schwarzbauer and Rick Takvorian. Chicago: Chicago UP 1995.
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