book review: Medea by Christa Wolf

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MEDEA by Christa Wolf
★★★★★
Nan A. Talese, 1998
originally published in 1996

 

About a year ago I read and loved David Vann’s take on the Medea myth, Bright Air Black. It follows the original story very closely and offers few surprises in terms of plot for those already familiar with the tale, but it endeavors and succeeds in giving Medea a narrative voice, allowing her to tell her own story. Christa Wolf’s Medea, published 20 years earlier than Bright Air Black, is another feminist victory for this narrative, but interestingly, Wolf’s and Vann’s interpretations of Medea’s character couldn’t be more different. I love them both.

Vann’s is very straightforward. Though he at times renders her character sympathetic in a way that’s deeply unsettling, his Medea is every bit as violent and vindictive as you’d expect. Wolf approaches the narrative from a different vantage point altogether. What if Corinth stood something to gain from Medea being painted as a monster? This is the question Wolf explores in this politically-driven retelling, narrated in a series of monologues by Medea, Jason, Glauce, and other individuals in the royal court at Corinth.

The first thing that struck me as soon as I finished Medea’s first chapter and started reading Jason’s was how startlingly different their narrative voices were, which I think is such an incredible and impressive feat to accomplish in a book like this, which hinges on different characters’ perspectives telling the same story. The other thing that struck me was the mastery and lyricism of Wolf’s prose (translated beautifully from the German by John Cullen).

It’s possible they sense my unbelief, my lack of faith in anything. It’s possible they can’t bear that. When I ran over the field where the frenzied women had strewn your dismembered limbs, when I ran over that field, wailing in the deepening darkness, and gathered you up, poor, broken brother, piece by piece, bone by bone, that’s when I stopped believing. How could we be meant to come back to this earth in a new form. Why should a dead man’s limbs, scattered over a field, make that field fertile. Why should the gods, who demand from us continual proofs of gratitude and submission, let us die in order to send us back to earth again. Your death opened my eyes wide, Apsyrtus. For the first time I found solace in the fact that I don’t have to live forever. And then I was able to let go of that belief born out of fear; to be more exact, it repelled me.

I mean, that’s stunning.

What I love so much about mythological retellings; the reason I read the same stories over and over again written by different authors, is that each retelling offers something new, each author interacts with the original story in a different way. That’s clear in the stark contrast between Medea and Bright Air Black, how one can render Medea as a victim and the other as a villain, while both staying, in their own way, true to the original myth. Wolf’s retelling is also concerned with the greater political context of Corinth at the time of Medea and Jason’s arrival – it reflects on how a community is willing to turn a blind eye to its leaders’ faults, which is relevant not only in our current political climate, but also to Wolf’s own life, when you consider that she grew up in the GDR. This is what I mean when I talk about the universality of myth, and how it belongs to everyone, and how individuals from different cultures and different backgrounds can all draw different conclusions from the same story, and why Euripides’ and Seneca’s versions of Medea remain so important thousands of years after they were written. Wolf’s Medea, beautifully written, thoughtful, and resonant, is the perfect reminder of this story’s relevance.

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