At unease reading Die Katrin wird Soldat
A couple of months ago, I started working on a new project in which I intend to compare French and German egodocuments from the late 18th century up to World War 2 in order to assess the changing image of the enemy nation (France for the Germans and Germany for the French). In a first step, I am reading various first-person texts written in the context of Franco-Prussian or Franco-German wars in order to get a sense of the type of image and emotionality I will be able to analyze.
One of my first readings (beyond texts written by men that usually have a strong military aspect) is Die Katrin wird Soldat. This novel by female writer Adrienne Thomas (here is the English Wikipedia bio page and here the somewhat more detailed German one) was published in 1931 and made her author world-famous. Although it is written in diary form, the novel is more narrative than introspective. It begins in 1911 on the 14th birthday of narrator Katrin (when she receives the empty diary as a birthday present) and ends in 1916. The first half to two thirds of the novel presents the pre-war period, the second part delves into the narrator’s war experience as a Red Cross Volunteer. This 2009 review of the book (in German) emphasizes strongly the pacifist message it contains. Needless to say, the book was forbidden by the nazi regime, also because the author was Jewish.
Although the years 1911-1914 are basically just a form of introduction of the narrator’s character and her blooming into adulthood, they are quite lengthy, also in their writing: while the second half (taking place in war times) is composed mainly of short paragraphs, short sentences, expressions of exhaustion or disgust resulting in writing than one had rather not write about it, the first half has a much more novelistic writing. In terms of what it will bring to my research project, the closeness to the male form of writing about World War One in the second part of the novel is really interesting. In terms of narrative economy, I spent the first 3 hours reading the book thinking: “When will the war finally begin?”.
One of the reasons why I was almost looking forward to getting to the war narrative is the total unease I felt reading the excruciating long passages on the main character’s relationships to men (it got even worse when I started looking into her bio for this blogpost and realized how autobiographical this whole thing is). When the novel begins, the narrator is 14, spending her summer vacation on the countryside with her wealthy parents and older sister in a luxury hotel. She has a crush on a 20-something student who is in fact infatuated in her sister. While everyone is doing their thing, she starts singing at the hotel piano. A 30-something man comes in, hears her, and offers to go an a walk in the forest with her. At a later point, he invites her for another walk. She is fascinated by him, falls in love. The man also has a mistress who is said to be jealous of the narrator. The whole relationship is based on the man’s admiration for the narrator’s singing voice, but it is – especially written from the point of view of the girl, who is for instance not completely at ease with being alone with him in the forest and yet loves it – a very awkward start into the story.
The narrator eventually leaves her vacation place and gets back home to Metz – one of the really interesting things about the novel is this situation at the border between France and Germany, and an author who, to some extent, identifies with both nations. Some time later, she is first kissed in the dark by an unknown boy, then kissed again by him in a scene where she is petrified and repeatedly asks him to leave the room, from which he concludes that since she didn’t shout or run away, that must mean that she wants him to kiss her. They kiss again and she falls in love with him.
They are a couple for some time. Although they never kiss in the public space, they sometimes do when nobody is looking. At some point, under a bridge, the boy starts unlacing her coat and kissing her breasts. She is, again, petrified. He promises never to do it again, but then, he engages in parallel in a relationship with an actress with whom he has sexual intercourse. When the narrator finds out, she is heartbroken and doesn’t want anything to do with the boy anymore. At some point though, they get back together: namely at the point when the boy says he has broken up with the actress, saying that the narrator must understand that boys have needs, and that whenever he was doing “things” with the actress, he was always thinking of her, the narrator. Hearing that argument, the narrator forgives him completely.
After reading that passage, I was just hoping for the war to be declared, and him to leave to the front as quickly as possible. Obviously I will have to learn to deal with the codes of that period really fast if I want to be able to keep reading these texts…
Trying to understand what made me so uncomfortable – apart from the fact that the narrator goes from one rape situation to the next as if this was what becoming a woman is about -, I realized that the narrator’s own sexual desires remain completely absent from the story. The one thing she wants is to look into the guys’s eyes and kiss him. That’s it. That’s what interiorized denial is about, and what our society has been about for hundreds of years. And probably what is making me shout inside my head while I sit reading in the library.