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Peter Härtling: Eine Frau (A Woman)

For many European cultures, the apotheosis of the bourgeois novel was the nineteenth century. Middlemarch and Madame Bovary are two of the best-known examples (and two of the finest novels ever written). Germany came a bit late to the table, with Buddenbrooks being the crowning achievement. However, though not nearly as well known, at least outside Germany, this novel approaches the standard of that great novel.

Härtling’s achievement is not just to tell the story of a bourgeois family in a bourgeois style – though that is in itself a fine achievement – but to tell of the life of a unique though not necessarily unusual woman. Katharina Wüllner was born in Dresden in 1902 and the novel follows her story from her birth to what must be just prior to her death in 1970. Her father is a well-to-do manufacturer and her mother Jewish. She has an older sister – Elle – who is killed in a car crash in her early twenties and two brothers, Dieter and Ernst, the latter of whom will kill himself in Italy during World War II. Katharina, against her background, early on becomes sympathetic to left-wing causes and, indeed, sleeps with a man more for his political views than for his sexual appeal. She will remain sympathetic to such causes all her life and will join a demonstration against a right-wing newspaper when in her sixties.

After a relatively rich but not particularly eventful childhood, she marries Ferdinand and moves with him to Prague. Ferdinand runs a factory and it is here that she sees in Ferdinand, but also generally, the racism that will soon typify Germany. Though the racism of Ferdinand (and other Germans) is directed against the Jews, it is also directed against the Czechs. Katharina tries to help a poor Czech family, four of whom work for her husband, but is politely but firmly rebuffed. Härtling paints a picture of the creeping racism and belligerence of the Germans towards their neighbours. Katharina and Ferdinand have four children – two twins, Peter and Paul (who will become Hitler Youth and then fight for their country, with Paul being killed), Camilla and, finally Annamaria.

They then move to what was then Brünn, now Brno where the political situation deteriorates. Peter and Paul go off to war and Camilla gets married. Ferdinand will also have to fight and is killed. Katharina’s father, after seeing his firm go bankrupt during the Great Crash, dies and her mother comes and lives with them. While they more or less survive the war, they have to flee the advancing Russians at the end of the War and end up in Stuttgart. Katharina works in a factory and survives but has to look after Annamaria’s son, Achim, when Annamaria leaves her first husband and remarries. She survives all of this and other vicissitudes.

Härtling has told us the story of a woman who survives change, adversity and all manner of troubles. She has also survived them as a woman, as she struggles not only against the racism she sees around her, but also sexism, from her father who does not see any point in education for girls, to the struggles she has with Ferdinand to become an equal partner in his firm. Somehow Katharina keeps her head up, does not give up, does not back down, even if she does not always win. And Härtling has created a memorable character and memorable novel.

Publishing history

First published 1974 by Luchterhand
First English translation 1988 by Holmes & Meier