Günter Kunert was born in Berlin in 1929. As his mother was Jewish, he was not allowed to complete his education. After the Nazi authorities rejected him as “unfit for military service”, he began a short-lived apprenticeship at a clothes shop. When the war was over, he commenced a course in Graphic Design at the Academy of Applied Arts in Berlin-Weißensee. Kunert financed his education by writing satirical poems and stories for the magazine “Ulenspiegel”. After five semesters he abandoned his studies to concentrate on his writing. In 1950 Kunert’s first volume of poetry, ‘Wegschilder und Mauerinschriften’, appeared. Johannes R. Becher, who subsequently became the East German Culture Minister, recognized the talent of the young author, a member of the Socialist Unity Party, and encouraged him. However, his acquaintance with Bertolt Brecht (around 1951/52) had a more marked affect on his creativity.
During the 1960s Kunert’s sceptical, pessimistic verse clashed increasingly with the cultural authorities’ prescriptions for wholesome literature. Meanwhile, the widely read author was awakening interest in West Germany. His only novel, ‘Im Namen der Hüte’, was published there in 1967. Nine years passed before it was printed in the GDR. Kunert gained an international reputation and obtained permission to travel abroad. In 1972 he accepted a guest lectureship in Austin, Texas, and spent a year as ‘Writer in Residence’ in Warwick, U.K., in 1975. After signing the writers’ protest against Wolf Biermann’s extradition in 1975, he was ejected from the Party. In 1979 he acquired a several-year visa, which enabled him to move to West Germany. Kunert and his wife settled in Schleswig-Holstein. He is now a freelance writer and lives in Kaisborstel near Itzehoe.
Kunert, a prolific author, maintains, “Writing is a kind of obsessional neurosis.” He has published around twenty books in the last five years. His extensive catalogue of works testifies to his attempt to “renounce his pathological existence through writing.” It includes poems, short stories, fairytales, essays, photographic satires, travel journals and children’s literature. The author manages to look back on his life under two German dictatorial regimes without bitterness. East Germany, at least, did have good points: “Arguments in the GDR were always ruthless and direct. That keeps you on your toes, and I feel it helped my writing.”
Kunert’s memoires, published as ‘Erwachsenenspiele’ in 1997, are as laconic and concise as his poems. Two years later the poetry collection ‘Nachtvorstellung’ was published to mark his 70th birthday. This compilation of both free and rhyming verse expresses the experience which comes with age without a trace of weariness. Reviewer Kurt Drawert explains, “On the coordinates of myth and modernity, longing and futility, history and guilt, the poems move with a beauty which is their actual structure, their whole essence.” Kunert was President of the P.E.N. Centre of German Speaking Writers Abroad.
Günter Kunert died on 21th September 2019 in Kaisborstel.
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