Irmtraud Morgner (born Chemnitz, 1933) was a railway engineer’s daughter. She studied German literature at Leipzig, graduating in 1956. After two years with the magazine neue deutsche literatur, she became a freelance author.
It is difficult to describe to a potential Morgner reader what awaits them. Unpacking the title of her tour-de-force Leben und Abenteuer der Trobadora Beatriz nach Zeugnissen ihrer Spielfrau Laura: Roman in dreizehn Büchern und sieben Intermezzos [The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice as Chronicled by Her Minstrel Laura: A Novel in Thirteen Books and Seven Intermezzos] (1974) is hard enough. Explaining how a 12th-century female troubadour ends up in événements Paris in 1968 is equally challenging.
A hackneyed summary of Morgner’s career might claim that Morgner started a socialist realist; that she fell out with the East German cultural régime; that she then suffered for her art; and that finally she produced work which cocked a snook at the censor. This is over-simplistic. Morgner’s attitude to her own country was always complex. Morgner asserted in 1966 that ‘ich bin hier geboren, hier ist mein Land, ich bin daran gefesselt in Haß-Liebe’ [‘I was born here, this is my country, I'm tied to it in a state of love and hate’.
Morgner’s earliest novel Das Signal steht auf Fahrt [The Signal Says All Clear] (1959) was classic socialist realism, requisite positive conclusion attached. Nonetheless, Morgner was already interested in other themes. In Das Signal, Morgner’s 58-year-old engine driver Hans Hübner was not classic ‘positive hero’ material. Hübner is the first male Morgner character chided for relying on patriarchal notions of knowledge and heritage. But he learns to communicate and starts to seek a new understanding of the world, rather than hiding behind what he already knows.
In Rumba auf einen Herbst [Rumba to an Autumn], published posthumously in 1992, old Pakulat is proud to be in control of family, property and, by association, his identity. However, he too realises that it is no longer worthwhile for the 1960s older generation to shore themselves up self-protectively. Morgner’s view of the construction and development of knowledge is more idiosyncratic than that. In Die wundersamen Reisen Gustavs des Weltfahrers: Lügenhafter Roman mit Kommentaren [The Wondrous Journeys of Gustav the Global Traveller: Mendacious Novel with Commentaries] (1972), Gustav’s Wertsammlung (collection of valuable objects) consists of household ephemera, tokens of what he has learnt. They have no monetary value. This attests to personal knowledge-building, not just adherence to knowledge and values imposed from outside.
Mid-1960s circumstances compelled Morgner to make ‘personal knowledge-building’ an extra-literary principle. Following the December 1965 East German Socialist Party Congress – stigmatising pessimism and individualism in contemporary GDR culture – functionaries reversed a decision to publish Rumba. Rumba was daring in both technique and content (focusing on individuals’ and groups’ reactions to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis). Its originality became politically dangerous. Parts of Rumba appeared for a decade in other Morgner works approved by the censor. Morgner thus established her own literary Wertsammlung that rescued her capital. Such externalisation of banned output betokened self-retrieval; Morgner’s diary suggests it was therapeutic. Such procedures never became didactic. Morgner preferred to coax her reader towards (self-) knowledge – ‘auf du und du, auf gleicher Ebene’ (‘as intimate collaborators, on the same level’).
Far from luxuriating in the reforms which the GDR claimed to have brought women, Morgner concentrated on ways for women to reclaim influence. Her watchword was ‘in die Geschichte eintreten’ (‘step into history’): women should be encouraged to put behind them the eons during which history had not acknowledged them. For example: Beatriz, as a troubadour, sings and is not sung about. She acts assertively instead of waiting for male courtly attentions: object has been transformed into acting subject. Trobadora Beatriz was hailed as a ‘Bibel aktueller Frauenemanzipation’ (‘bible of modern female emancipation’). However, Trobadora Beatriz is not a compendium of principles but a primer inculcating a frame of mind (open; adventurous; hopeful). Linear plot coexists alongside multiple other modes; the reader picks their individual route through the mosaic.
The chronology of Morgner’s oeuvre is complicated by questions of censorship. Rumba was never published in Morgner’s lifetime. The first novel Morgner published after the Rumba crisis, Hochzeit in Konstantinopel [Wedding in Constantinople] (1968) does not pander to the censor; Morgner is playfully subversive. The story ‘Kopfstand’ expresses doubt over the socialist-realist cultural policy that had done so much to encourage works like Das Signal steht auf Fahrt. Morgner never stopped expressing concerns about the GDR – even when remaining silent could have aided her. Hochzeit in Konstantinopel is a turning point. Irony enables writer-reader collusion, exposing the ignorance of scientifically well-versed characters in the text – notably the narrator Bele’s fiancé Paul. No wedding takes place in Hochzeit (Bele tires of Paul and leaves him); it is not set in Constantinople. These are Hochzeit’s prime ironies. Morgner is laying the ground for the apogee of confidence in the reader, of ironic play as productive force represented by Trobadora Beatriz.
Works after Trobadora Beatriz feel disillusioned. Amanda: ein Hexenroman [Amanda: a Witch’s Tale] (1983) was intended as second book in a Laura Salman trilogy. This never transpired: Morgner died in 1990 after a long illness. In Amanda, Morgner no longer feels it sufficient to plead for the ‘Menschwerdung der Frau und des Mannes’ (‘turning women and men into true human beings’). She now calls for the reinstatement of all that male-defined history had shunned and repressed as female. This aspiration is expressed when Amanda emerges as the fantastic half (‘hexische Hälfte’) of Laura’s character, invoked to allow Laura to round out and complete her personality. Beatriz, who had died at the end of Trobadora Beatriz, is reincarnated in Amanda – but deprived of her voice. She therefore turns to writing and vows to produce Laura’s full story, having concluded that the latter had been represented in a one-sided way. The greater prominence of Laura’s character, enabled by Beatriz’s enhanced narrative and Amanda’s encouragement, corrects the feeling that Laura has been only half-portrayed before. Then again, this ameliorates only what Morgner sees as society’s customary way of viewing women – as ‘halbiert’ (‘cut in half’) by multiple responsibilities and minimal influence.
Following Geoffrey Westgate, ‘[i]f Irmtraud Morgner had not existed, it would take a leap of imagination as bold as those which typify her literature to invent her’. She was a pioneer. But the contours of her work continue to be redefined. Both Rumba and Das heroische Testament: Roman in Fragmenten [The Heroic Testament: Novel in Fragments], published posthumously 1998, were reconstructed by Rudolf Bussmann, Morgner’s close friend. Continued evaluation of Morgner’s Nachlass at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach will yield more information on the genesis of her texts and on her political and aesthetic views.
Compiled by Geoffrey Plow (London)
Das Signal steht auf Fahrt: Erzählung (Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1959)
Ein Haus am Rand der Stadt: Roman (Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1962)
Hochzeit in Konstantinopel (Berlin/Weimar: Aufbau-Verlag, 1968)
Gauklerlegende: Eine Spielfraungeschichte (Berlin: Eulenspiegel Verlag, 1970)
Die wundersamen Reisen Gustavs des Weltfahrers: Lügenhafter Roman mit Kommentaren (Berlin/Weimar: Aufbau-Verlag, 1972)
Leben und Abenteuer der Trobadora Beatriz nach Zeugnissen ihrer Spielfrau Laura: Roman in dreizehn Büchern und sieben Intermezzos (Berlin/Weimar: Aufbau-Verlag, 1974)
Amanda: Ein Hexenroman (Berlin/Weimar: Aufbau-Verlag, 1983)
Der Schöne und das Tier: Eine Liebesgeschichte (Frankfurt a.M.: Luchterhand, 1991)
Rumba auf einen Herbst: Roman [ed. by Rudolf Bussmann] (Hamburg/Zurich: Luchterhand, 1992)
Das heroische Testament: Roman in Fragmenten [ed. by Rudolf Bussmann] (Munich: Luchterhand, 1998)
‘Apropos Eisenbahn’ in Eröffnungen: Schriftsteller über ihr Erstlingswerk (Berlin/Weimar: Aufbau-Verlag, 1974, pp. 204-210; repr. in Irmtraud Morgner: Texte, Daten, Bilder [ed. by Marlis Gerhardt], pp. 17-230)
Die Hexe im Landhaus: Gespräch in Solothurn (Zurich/Villingen: Rauhreif, 1984)
Translations into Foreign Languages
The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice as Chronicled by her Minstrel Laura: A Novel in Thirteen Books and Seven Intermezzos [Translation of Leben und Abenteuer der Trobadora Beatriz nach Zeugnissen ihrer Spielfrau Laura: Roman in dreizehn Büchern und sieben Intermezzos by Jeanette Clausen] (Lincoln, Nebraska/London, 2000)
Lewis, Alison: Subverting Patriarchy: Feminism and Fantasy in the Works of Irmtraud Morgner (Oxford/Washington DC: Berg, 1995)
Martin, Biddy: ‘Socialist Patriarchy and the Limits of Reform. A Reading of Irmtraud Morgner’s Life and Adventures of Troubadora Beatriz as Chronicled by her Minstrel Laura’ (Studies in Twentieth Century Literature, 5, 1980, pp. 59-74)
Plow, Geoffrey: Irmtraud Morgner: Adventures in Knowledge, 1959-1974 (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2006)
Rossoll, Hildegard: Weltbild und Bildsprache im Werk Irmtraud Morgners: eine Analyse unter besonderer Berücksichtigung von Amanda: ein Hexenroman(New York: Peter Lang, 1999)
Westgate, Geoffrey: Strategies under Surveilance: Reading Irmtraud Morgner as a GDR Writer (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002)
Wölfel, Ute: Rede-Welten: zur Erzählung von Geschlecht und Sozialismus in der Prosa Irmtraud Morgners (Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 2007)
Interviews/in the Media
Berger, Doris: ‘Gespräch mit Irmtraud Morgner’ (GDR Monitor, 12, 1984/85, pp. 29-37)
Huffzky, Karin: ‘Produktivkraft Sexualität souverän nützen: Ein Gespräch mit der DDR-Schriftstellerin Irmtraud Morgner’ (Frankfurter Rundschau, 16 August 1975)
Kaufmann, Eva: ‘Interview mit Irmtraud Morgner’ (Weimarer Beiträge, 9, 1984, pp. 1494-1514; repr. as ‘Der weibliche Ketzer heißt Hexe: Gespräch mit Eva Kaufmann’ in Irmtraud Morgner: Texte, Daten, Bilder ed. by Marlies Gerhardt, 1990, pp. 42-69)
Lemmens, Harrie: ‘Frauenstaat’ (Konkret, 10, 1984, pp. 54-61)
Rudolph, Ekkehart: 'Irmtraud Morgner' in Aussagen zur Person: 12 deutsche Schriftsteller im Gespräch mit Ekkehart Rudolph (Tübingen/Basle: Erdmann, 1977, pp. 157-177)
Schwarzer, Alice: ‘“Jetzt oder nie! Die Frauen sind die Hälfte des Volkes”’ (Emma, 2, 1990, pp. 32-38)