“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”
Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye
Ulrich Plenzdorf, Berlin prose-writer, playwright, film director and scenarist, was the second author from the GDR (the first being Christa Wolf in 1974) to visit Oberlin College as Max Kade German Writer-in Residence. In April and May of 1975, he and his wife (Helga Plenzdorf) lived and took their meals in a dormitory, along with undergraduate students. Nearly everyone who met him found it difficult to believe that Uli (as he came to be called) was already in his early forties, so easily did he relate to young people and their problems. How else can one describe him? Soft-spoken, extremely modest and approachable, fond of sports cars, detective stories, jazz, and drinking beer out of a can, yet more opposed to smoking than the Surgeon General, casually clad in a leather jacket and blue jeans (for further information, see the snapshot entitled “Blue Jeans”)—this is the Ulrich Plenzdorf who made a lasting impression on many of us.
Plenzdorf, the son of working-class parents who were active members of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), was born in Berlin in 1934. After completing his Abitur in 1954, he studied philosophy in Leipzig, and served as a stagehand for the state-owned DEFA film studio from 1955-1958. Following a year of military service, he completed a four-year training program at the Babelsberg Academy for Film and Television in 1963. He then worked as a screenplay writer for the DEFA studio in Babelsberg. Plenzdorf had not published extensively prior to his arrival in Oberlin; he had written seven screenplays, five of which had been produced. Nevertheless, he had achieved widespread international acclaim for his controversial yet highly regarded short novel, Die neuen Leiden des jungen W. (The New Sufferings of Young W.), which in 1972 propelled him to the top among young writers of the GDR. Hence, Ulrich Plenzdorf’s residency at Oberlin College—like that of Christa Wolf the previous spring—was generally viewed as a prestigious coup.
Plenzdorf’s innovative novel parallels and parodies Goethe’s epistolary masterpiece, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sufferings of Young Werther, 1774), one of the most important works of the Storm and Stress period in German literature. It presents the story of a young revolutionary in a socialist society, Edgar Wibeau, who breaks off his apprenticeship in the small town of Mittenberg, flees the restraints of a broken home and escapes to the “freedom” of the metropolis (Berlin), where he lives alone in a dilapidated garden house, makes music, “not just any old Händelsohn Bacholdy,” but “genuine music,” plays and sings a “Bluejeans Song,” paints in the abstract, dances by himself, admires J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, has an affair of the heart with a young kindergarten teacher, Charlie, who later marries her stodgy twenty-five-year-old fiancé. At her suggestion, Edgar briefly joins a work-brigade as a housepainter, but he finds it difficult to conform to their rules. In the end, he “crosses the Jordan” as he tries to invent a new electric paint gun: “It was probably better that way,” Edgar asserts from the other side of the Jordan. “I wouldn’t have lived through this failure anyway. . . . But I never would’ve really gone back to Mittenberg. I don’t know if you understand me. That was maybe my biggest mistake. My whole life I’d been a bad loser. I just couldn’t swallow anything. Idiot that I am, I always wanted to be the winner.”
Edgar Wibeau, one of the most intriguing characters in all of East German literature, is a frustrated teenager who rebels against the conformity that was so prevalent in every segment of GDR society. While he is not against socialism per se, he is in favor of almost everything the SED Party officials and others in positions of power were against, preferring to live a life without rigid constraints and picky regulations, opting instead for individualism and creative self-expression, while rejecting phoniness and stodginess in favor of that which is genuine and natural. Edgar bears a resemblance in some ways both to Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and Goethe’s Werther. And in many respects, he is also very much like the free-spirited Ulrich Plenzdorf I met in Oberlin back in 1975, a true GDR “original.”
Die neuen Leiden des jungen W. was first published as a screenplay in Sinn und Form (March 1972), the leading literary journal in the GDR. Plenzdorf wrote a prose version as well, which was published in East Germany by the Hinstorff Publishing House (1973) and in West Germany by the Suhrkamp Publishing House (1976). The book became a phenomenal success, selling over 4 million copies in 30 languages. In West Germany it was adopted as required reading for high school students, and it was also made into a film for West German television. The stage version of Die neuen Leiden des jungen W. was performed extensively to full houses in Eastern and Western Europe; it saw 60 stage productions in German theaters alone. By the mid-1970s, mainly as a result of this work’s extraordinary popularity, Plenzdorf had become the most discussed, reviewed, and performed GDR writer since the death of Bertolt Brecht in 1956. A leading and influential contemporary critic, Marcel Reich-Reinicki, rated Plenzdorf’s short novel among the significant literary documents of the post-WW II era.
During his stay in Oberlin, Ulrich Plenzdorf visited German language and literature classes on all levels and participated actively in my Intermediate German course, where he discovered how passionately involved American students had become in Die neuen Leiden des jungen W. Upon his return to the GDR, he helped me secure permission from Hinstorff for a textbook edition of his famous novel. I began preparing the textbook edition in the fall of 1976 and completed work on it during the summer and early fall of 1977. It was published by John Wiley & Sons in 1978 and remained in print for about fifteen years. It was the only work by an East German author to be published in its entirety, in a special textbook edition, in the English-speaking world.
While in Oberlin and with my assistance, Ulrich Plenzdorf purchased a car, a bright red Chevrolet two-door coupe. From the sale of his books in West Germany and West Berlin, he had been able to accrue a significant amount of hard currency in the form of West German marks, a sizeable portion of which was siphoned off by the GDR Copyright Agency. He had a bank account in the West, where his share of the book royalties were deposited, and he used this money to purchase goods that were unavailable in the GDR and to fund his travel in Western countries. In Berlin he had a spiffy Renault sports car, the only such vehicle I ever saw in East Germany, which he liked to drive in a “sporty” manner. The Chevy looked rather sporty, but it definitely was not a sports car. However, Plenzdorf enjoyed driving it like a sports car, pushing the vehicle to its limits and beyond. After a short while, less than two weeks as I recall, all the double clutching and downshifting he did led to a dropped transmission. Although the car was brand new, the transmission, clutch, and some other parts had to be replaced. The Chevrolet dealership honored the warranty, but they told Plenzdorf to be more careful and indicated that they would not do this a second time.
In May of that year, after their Oberlin residency had ended, Helga and Uli embarked on a grand auto tour of the United States. From Ohio they drove in a northwesterly direction toward the West Coast, along the way visiting some of our breathtakingly beautiful national parks and the Rocky Mountains before reaching the Pacific Ocean. After sightseeing in California, they drove through the southwest and the Gulf Coast states to the East Coast. When I saw them in Berlin that summer, they told me this had been the trip of a lifetime for both of them, as they literally “saw the USA in their Chevrolet.”
As I conclude this snapshot on Ulrich Plenzdorf’s stay at Oberlin College, I want to express my gratitude for the advice, assistance, and encouragement he gave me as I was preparing to take my first sabbatical leave in 1975-1976. Like Christa and Gerhard Wolf the year before, Uli helped me develop and shape the project I proposed to undertake involving GDR writing and writers who were active in the 1970s. Moreover, when I was working on the project in East Germany, he continued to assist me in meaningful ways. Helga Plenzdorf always treated me like a member of their family, as did Uli, and the friendship that began in Oberlin grew stronger over the years. In retrospect, I realize that I could not have produced an 840-page book like DDR-Literatur im Tauwetter (GDR Literature During the Thaw), nor most of my other major publications on GDR literature, without the strong and unwavering support of the Plenzdorfs and Wolfs. I remain very indebted to them.