Karl-Heinz Jakobs, 1986

In the fall of 1985, the German faculty at Oberlin College again invited Helga Schütz to be German Writer-in-Residence, just as I had said we would do in my March 1985 conversations with GDR Writers’ Union functionary Eberhard Scheibner. We proposed that she spend approximately three months in Oberlin during the spring 1986 semester, from mid-February to mid-May, and asked her to let us know by no later than the end of October if she would be able to accept the invitation. Predictably, her application for a visa to travel to the US was again denied, so I proceeded to contact Karl-Heinz Jakobs, a prominent GDR prose writer who had been living in West Germany since 1977. (For more information on Helga Schütz, see the previous snapshot in this series.)

Jakobs was born in 1929 in the East Prussian village of Kiauken. After WW II he pursued several trades other than writing before finding work as an editorial assistant and journalist. These early jobs included construction work, mining, and masonry—employment that entailed international travel. In 1967-68, he worked for ten months building walls as part of a construction crew that hoped to aid economic development in Mali. Manual labor, especially masonry, had a great attraction for him; Jakobs said he “couldn’t live on poetry alone.”

In 1956, Jakobs began two years of study at the Johannes R. Becher Literary Institute in Leipzig, after which he devoted himself full time to freelance writing. As for his studies at the Becher Institute, he became convinced while there that “all good East German writers come from Leipzig.” His first novel, Beschreibung eines Sommers (Description of a Summer, 1961), met with unprecedented success in East Germany, selling a half-million copies. Among his later works from the pre-Oberlin period are six additional novels (two of them based on travel experiences in the Soviet Union and Africa), three collections of stories, and a volume of essays. In 1983, he published a largely autobiographical book about the events that followed the revocation of Wolf Biermann’s East German citizenship—Das endlose Jahr: Begegnungen mit Mäd (The Endless Year: Encounters with Mäd), another work critical of the GDR’s government.

Jakobs was one of the more vociferous of the writers and intellectuals who protested the expatriation of dissident GDR writer/singer Wolf Biermann in November 1976. His harsh criticism of the ruling SED Party led to his dismissal from the Berlin Writers’ Union as well as from the executive committee of the GDR Writers’ Union, and finally to expulsion from the SED Party in 1977. Because of his deteriorating relations with the GDR authorities, he was given a three-year “visa” and asked to leave the country for that period of time. When it expired in April 1984, the visa was extended for four more years; however, Jakobs decided not to return and stayed in West Germany.

Although restricted in some ways by this special arrangement, just as Jurek Becker had been after moving to West Berlin, Jakobs increased his commitment to confront the problems of the communistic GDR directly. He maintained that the typical path of an East German writer led to schizophrenia, because one always had to paint the details but leave the whole out of sight. Early during his years in West German limbo, Jakobs broke with this schizophrenic tendency and wrote Wilhelmsburg (1979), a novel that examined the dynamics of a provincial city in a nameless, German-speaking socialist state. The hero brings to mind the typical GDR citizen: he is a man who keeps his opinions to himself for fear of the consequences, a man who says “yes” even when he thinks “no.” Just prior to the novel’s publication, Jakobs told the Westfälische Rundschau that an East German writer conscious of history must tell “what happened, and what happened unjustly. The moment of hesitating at this is gone for me.”

Our choice of Jakobs as a substitute for Helga Schütz most assuredly angered officials in both the GDR Writers’ Union and the Ministry of Culture. For Jakobs, much like the two GDR writers in exile who preceded him—Bernd Jentzsch in 1982 and Jurek Becker in 1979—had evolved into an outspoken critic of the Honecker regime, the GDR state, and its brand of socialism. I like to think that the GDR authorities, when they realized that we had chosen Jakobs to be our German Writer-in-Residence in spring 1986, regretted their decision to deny Helga Schütz this opportunity. From their perspective, she certainly would have been a far better representative of the GDR than dissident writer Jakobs.

My memory of Karl-Heinz Jakobs’s Oberlin residency is a bit sketchy, but I can recall some things very well. He occupied the office adjacent to mine in Rice Hall and spent a lot of time there, so we had plenty of contact and now and then I was able to observe him at work. He was an exceptionally disciplined worker, spending many hours writing every day. I was surprised to see that he wrote the first draft of his prose texts with the electric typewriter, not by hand as most writers did before the advent of personal computers. He would draft a short story, essay, or chapter of a novel from beginning to end, then would proceed to revise the pages in a really unique way. He would begin this process by making handwritten changes within the text and scribbling notes in the margins. Using scissors, he would then cut the pages into sections, each one a full paragraph or more. These he would reassemble on his desk and then Scotch tape them to the wall. While the strips of paper were hanging on the wall, Jakobs would review and rearrange some of them, thus creating a new whole. This “collage” technique of writing and editing is very common today, now that we work on computers with cut-and-paste features.

The picture of Jakobs in the photo galleries reminds me that he was a good-natured and sociable person, quite laid back, someone with whom you would enjoy having a beer and casual conversation. He came to our house and joined us for dinner frequently, and my wife Ulrike and I always enjoyed his company and our conversations. I recall that he was somewhat lonely that semester, and there were understandable reasons for that. His English was very poor, something that limited his ability to engage socially with persons outside the minuscule German-speaking community in Oberlin. Also, apart from mealtimes in the German House, he did not socialize with students. The downsized German faculty was not large enough to offer him adequate companionship, but Ulrike and I did our best to provide him with some semblance of a social life. We also introduced him to what by the end of his stay had become his favorite sipping whisky: Kentucky bourbon!

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