The World’s Most Difficult Books – No Place on Earth, Part 1

August 28, 2012

So, my copy of No Place on Earth has finally arrived, and I’m ready to make a start on my blog challenge to read the World’s Ten Most Difficult Books as defined by The Guardian. I plan to follow a similar format to Leigh Butler’s wonderful Ice and Fire reading blog; that is, I will read a few chapters each week, note what happens and my reactions to it. I hope to post once a week.

Before I get into No Place on Earth, some background information. Christa Wolf was born on March 18, 1929, in Landsberg, which is now Gorzow, Poland. Her father joined the Nazi Party and she became a member of the girls’ version of the Hitler Youth. In 1949, she joined the Socialist Unity Party and studied German literature at universities in Jena and Leipzig. She wrote numerous novels during her lifetime including The Divided Heaven, The Quest for Christa T., A Model Childhood, and Cassandra. She won several awards including the Heinrich Mann Prize in 1963 and Thomas Mann Prize for literature in 2010. She died on December 1, 2011 at the age of 82.

Published in 1979, No Place on Earth describes an imaginary meeting between the poet and dramatist Heinrich von Kleist and the poet Karoline von Gunderode. At a gathering of literary friends in the early summer of 1804, the two slowly come together, allied in that they cannot accept the world in which they must live.

This book has been a personal nemesis of mine ever since it was set as one of the books for my second year German university course. Now, this course was very well thought out. It paired a piece of classic German literature with a more contemporary work. We had studied Heinrich von Kleist’s play Penthisilea, and, as No Place on Earth has Kleist as a main character, the two seemed a natural pairing. We were expected to read it in the original German, Kein Ort. Nirgends. There were 25 of us in my class, and all of us struggled with this book. One unexpected advantage was that it bonded the class in loathing of this book like no other, a bond which lasted the rest of our university careers and beyond.

This was before the age of Amazon and the Internet, and despite tireless research by the entire class, we were only able to locate one copy of the English translation in the whole of Edinburgh. This, naturally, was in the possession of the tutor, the wonderful Dr Karin McPherson, who guarded that copy as a dog guards her bone. Eventually, one of my classmates managed to pry it from her, and immediately distributed it to the rest of us. Sadly, the English translation didn’t make getting to grips with the novel any easier…

So, please join me next week when I will tackle pages 3-25 of No Place on Earth to see if, twenty years later, I can start to conquer this Everest.

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