[This page by Astrid Köhler]
Maxie Wander (1933–1977)
Maxie Wander came to fame as an author with just one book: Guten Morgen, Du Schöne; Good Morning, My Lovely. Born Elfriede Brunner in a proletarian quarter of Vienna, she left school at the age of seventeen, and did a number of jobs as a factory worker, a secretary and a writer of film scripts. In 1956 she married the Austrian-Jewish writer Fred Wander with whom she moved to East Berlin.
This move was largely motivated by Fred Wander’s experience as a Holocaust survivor and bound up with the anti-fascist founding myth of the GDR. In the couple’s view, both Austria and West Germany lacked sufficiently strong anti-fascist conviction. They were not blind to the faults of the GDR, but their basic agreement with the principle embodied in that state outweighed the points of very real criticism. In East Berlin, they brought up three children, wrote travel books and did journalistic work. They were part of a large artistic circle and particularly close friends with Christa Wolf and Gerhard Wolf.
In the early and mid-1970s, Maxie Wander conducted a large number of interviews with women of all ages and from all walks of life. In 1975, having finished collecting her material, she embarked on a book that was to become an important part both of documentary literature (in East and West Germany) and of women’s literature in the GDR – while outstripping either. Guten Morgen, Du Schöne appeared in 1977, by which time Wander was suffering from incurable cancer. Before her early death in November 1977, she did experience the immediate positive reception of the book, but not the immensity of its success. In the GDR alone, 60,000 copies were sold within one year, but it also became a success when it was published in West Germany in 1978. Moreover, a dramatisation of it took the theatres by storm.
Guten Morgen, Du Schöne is in the form of 19 monologues by women, talking about their day-to-day lives and expressing their opinions and concerns. These turn out to be highly diverse and even contradictory; and the range of topics covered is impressively wide. One recurrent theme pertains to the stress placed on women by the persistence of sexist attitudes in an allegedly egalitarian society. Another, related one, is the question of how to deal with the “Doppelbelastung” (double burden) of being a wife and mother as well as being in full time employment, as was the case for more than 90% of women in the GDR. The book also touches on the sensitive subjects of suicide, mental breakdown and psychosomatic illness, which are seen in a social context and not as the exclusive responsibility of the afflicted individual, and is not afraid to include the most intimate and private details of women’s lives.
The voice of the interlocutor or interviewer of these women is not explicitly present, although it can be deduced from various asides and modes of address in the texts. Thus, as Christa Wolf suggests, the 20th protagonist in the book can be seen as Wander herself. Equally, the number 19 can be read as an invitation to the (implicitly female) reader to insert herself into the text, and hence to participate in the dialogue instigated by Wander. For indeed, Guten Morgen, Du Schöne, so far from being a random or a representative collection of discrete interviews, has been carefully composed to instigate and thematize a series of dialogues both between the protagonists themselves and between them and the reader. The voices of many more than just 19 women have gone into it, and the protagonists in it are not traceable, individual women, but composite characters whose personalities and opinions have been carefully calibrated to produce a highly complex texture that defies the monochrome tendencies of “socialist realism”. It is thus less the book’s content (i.e. aspects of GDR society that were rarely talked about before) but rather the intensity of its articulation of these themes that make it outstanding. And though it did ‘give women a voice’, as was often said of it, this should not be taken to mean simply taping and repeating these voices.
However, some of the book’s stylistic features, particularly the mode of orality, were taken as signs of straightforward authenticity (i.e. the protagonists being ‘real’ women), and the further reception of Guten Morgen, Du Schöne was very much marked by this. Thus, when it appeared in 1978 with Luchterhand Verlag in West Germany, the book bore the subtitle: “Frauen in der DDR” (Women in the GDR).It was shorn of one of its two epigraphs, the number of monologues had gone down to 17, and their order and title lines had changed. Titles that in Wander’s original had often been poetically suggestive (e.g.: “Brot und Kaviar” – bred and caviar) and accompanied simply by a first name (e.g. “Steffi”) turned into what looked like the elements of a sociological study: first name, initial of surname, age, profession, marital status, number of children plus a title with social impact (e.g.: “Die Ehe abschaffen” – let’s abolish marriage). As a result, the impression arises that this book might be used as a source of sociological information: look for, say, women of a certain age, or profession, marital status etc., read the appropriate interviews, and you have all the first-hand information you need.
In literary terms, this was a decisive step away from the poetic qualities of Guten Morgen, Du Schöne and towards the antipoetic jargon of documentary literature. The book was thus re-constricted to fit the confines of the genres it had deliberately exceeded. Interestingly, in successive GDR editions, too, the sociological information was added to the title lines, but Wander’s poetic titles remained.
Be that as it may, the book enjoyed a huge and long-lasting success, and Maxie Wander remained an important figure in GDR literature long after her early death. In 1979, her widower Fred Wander published some of her diaries and letters (Tagebücher und Briefe, later re-issued as Leben wär eine prima Alternative; Life would be a great Alternative), and in 1996 more material followed under the title: Ein Leben ist nicht genug; One Life is not Enough. But her greatest contribution to German literature is her silent presence in Guten Morgen, Du Schöne.
Further Reading in English
Robert Gillett and Astrid Köhler, ‘Manipulating the Medium: Maxie Wander’s Guten Morgen, Du Schöne and the Concept of “Protokollliteratur” in East and West’, in Literature, Markets and Media in Germany and Austria Today, ed. by Arthur Williams et. al. (Bern: Peter Lang, 2000), pp. 139-58
Patricia Harbord, ‘Beyond Paper Heroines. Maxie Wander’s Guten Morgen, Du Schöne and its Reception in the GDR’, in Determined Women. Studies in the Construction of the Female Subject, 1900-1990, ed. by Jennifer Birkett and Elisabeth Harvey (London: Macmillan, 1991), pp. 146-72
Arthur Williams et. al. (eds.), Contemporary German Writers, their Aesthetics and their Language (Bern: Peter Lang, 1996)
Further Reading in German
Christa Wolf, ‘Berührung’, neue deutsche literatur 2 (1978), 53-62 (later published as the foreword to Guten Morgen, Du Schöne)
Sabine Zurmühl, Das Leben, dieser Augenblick. Die Biografie der Maxie Wander (Berlin: Henschel, 2001)
Interview books by other authors
Monika Stenzel and Ulrike Jackwerth, He, du Glückliche! 29 Lebensgeschichten (Halle: Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 2018). Interviews with women who once lived in the former GDR and their daughters.
Laura Wyss, Frauen erzählen ihr Leben: 14 Protokolle (Stuttgart: Huber Frauenfeld, 1976). Interviews with Swiss women.
Greta Taubert, Guten Morgen, du Schöner. Begegnungen mit ostdeutschen Männern (Berlin: Aufbau, 2020). Interviews with East German men.