CASSANDRA: A NOVEL AND FOUR ESSAYS by Christa Wolf
translated from the German by Jan van Heurck
I read and adored Christa Wolf’s Medea years ago — a fiercely human and political retelling of the myth — and have been wanting to read Cassandra ever since. Oddly, I’ve been misremembering for years that these books have the same English-language translator; they do not, and I think that factor alone might be responsible for the fact that I had a stronger reaction to Medea than I did to Cassandra. Jan van Heurck’s translation here is serviceable, but John Cullen’s Medea translation really sings in a way this one does not. (Hannah, whose favorite novel is Cassandra, has assured me that the German-language prose in Cassandra is much stronger than in Medea, but knows other English-language readers who share my assessment of the two.)
In this volume published by FSG in the 80s, Wolf’s novel Cassandra is published alongside four essays which were originally presented as a lecture series. The first two are travel diaries that detail Wolf’s journey to ancient sites in Greece, the next is a personal journal entry, and the final one is a letter. Through these essays the reader comes to not only see what a passion project this novel was for Wolf, but also to see the myriad of factors from her contemporary sociopolitical perspective that influenced her perception of the Cassandra character. She writes of the ways in which her concept of Cassandra evolve throughout her research:
The character continually changes as I occupy myself with the material; the deadly seriousness, and everything heroic and tragic, is disappearing; accordingly, compassion and unilateral bias in her favor are disappearing, too. I view her more soberly, even with irony and humor. I see through her.
The novel, which comes first in this bind-up, is essentially a monologue from Cassandra’s perspective, narrating her account of the Trojan War as her death draws nearer. Like Medea, this is a very political retelling, focused not only on Cassandra’s life but also the machinations of the Trojan court, notably subverting the romantic notion that the war was waged for Helen’s honor and beauty, instead exposing that that was a smoke screen for Greek occupation, actually driven by an interest in Troy’s trade routes.
This book in both of its halves — novel and essays — is a beautiful and thoughtful meditation on the destructive effects of war on the individual. I’m glad I finally made the time to read it, I only wish I were capable of reading it in the original German, in which I suspect it may have affected me a bit more.