Translating Wolfgang Hilbig: A link to my latest conversation with Isabel Fargo Cole

It was Wolfgang Hilbig’s story collection The Sleep of the Righteous, published in 2015 by Two Lines Press, that brought the late German author and his translator, Isabel Fargo Cole, to my attention. It might seem as if they arrived hand-in-hand, after all her translation of his novel I (Ich) appeared from Seagull Books around the same time, but of course, she has translated works by a variety of German language authors before and since those two titles emerged. But it would be fair to say that her efforts to champion Hilbig, her deep appreciation of his work, and her ability to be able to bring his  convoluted sentences and filmic imagery to life in English continue to win him more admirers with each subsequent release. Most recently, she was awarded the Helen & Kurt Wolff Prize for her translation of Old Rendering Plant.

Photo credit: Emma Braslavsky

I have had the pleasure of interviewing this gifted translator twice now, and both times, when her generous responses to my questions arrived in my email, I read them with excitement and renewed appreciation. The latest interview was published at Splice this past week. You can read it here. In this piece, we talk about the most recent Hilbig release, The Tidings of the Trees, and the ways in which this work differs from last fall’s Old Rendering Plant. My questions were derived from my own reading of the book and were not sent until my review had been submitted for publication.

In the years since our first contact, I have read and reviewed Isabel’s translations of Klaus Hoffer and Franz Fühmann, and have added the works of several other authors she has translated to my library as well. But Hilbig remains central. So I am thrilled and honoured to be  speaking with her in person in San Francisco on Tuesday night, July 24, as the Center for the Art of Translation celebrates her work, her recent award, and the release The Tidings of the Trees.

Details about that event can be found here. If you are in the Bay Area, please come out and join us!

Searching for traces of the past with Wolfgang Hilbig: A few thoughts and a link to my review of The Tidings of the Trees

He may confound some readers, but for my money, the enigmatic East German writer Wolfgang Hilbig is fine company. His landscapes are evocative, filmic spaces, obscured by the mists of a troubled history of secrets and shame. His narratives are restless. His characters are misfits, unable and unwilling to conform.  Their tales explore the dynamics of loss from personal, social and political angles. And even within the scope of a novella, these stories expand far beyond the confines of the pages, haunting and reworking themselves within the reader’s mind long after the book is finished.

Or, at least, that has been my experience.

The most recent Hilbig release from Two Lines Press, The Tidings of the Trees, traverses a terrain at once familiar and yet quite distinct from the watery byways of Old Rendering Plant. This is a complex, magical tale that examines the importance of stories to hold onto and preserve the memories that the State is intent on erasing. As ever, translator Isabel Fargo Cole deftly  captures the unique rhythms and energies of this text, and Hilbig fans will be pleased to know another work, The Women, is forthcoming in November.

I was honoured to have the opportunity to write about The Tidings of the Trees for Splice, a small UK-based press and exciting new online critical journal that is well worth checking out. My review of the latest Hilbig translation can be found here.

A poetic Pentecost: At the Burning Abyss by Franz Fühmann

I am not certain what has become of the person who first alerted me to the poetry of Georg Trakl, but it wasn’t very long ago and came backward through an interest in Celan. Then, over the last few years, Seagull Books released three volumes containing all of Trakl’s poems including significant variants and early versions, in new translations by James Reidel. I read and wrote about them all even though I had no particular confidence in myself as a reviewer of poetry. I’ve also explored other translations and biographical accounts of the troubled Austrian poet’s short life. So when I became aware of At the Burning Abyss: Experiencing the Georg Trakl Poem by Franz Fühmann, my interest was piqued. Finally, to be fully prepared, I recently read Fühmann’s autobiographical story cycle, The Jew Car.

I thought I was ready.

But no, nothing could have fully prepared me for the experience of experiencing At the Burning Abyss.

Fühmann was an important literary figure in postwar East Germany; a gifted, versatile writer who was no stranger to either reading poetry or fledgling efforts to write it when he first encountered Trakl. It was early May, 1945, just prior to the surrender of the Wehrmacht. As a young soldier in the German army, Fühmann had been granted a few days sick-leave following a stay in the hospital, and was taking advantage of the opportunity to visit his family. As bleak as things looked for Germany at the time, a reckless hope was still smoldering. Sitting with his father after dinner on the evening before he was due to leave for Dresden, he opened the volume he’d chanced to pick up in a used bookstore on his way home. One poem in particular, ominously titled “Downfall,” resonated:

Over the white pond
The wild birds have taken flight.
In the evening an icy wind blows from our stars.

Over our graves
The night bends its broken brow.
Under oak trees we sway on a silver barge.

The city’s white walls ring for ever.
Under vaults of thorns
O my brother we blind clock-hands climb towards midnight.

He knew nothing of Trakl but a conversation with his father that night revealed that the latter had served alongside “daft old Georgie” in the early days of the First World War. But beyond recollections of an eccentric character, Fühmann learned no more about the poet for many years. He would never see his father again, and his poetry book would soon be abandoned along with his coat and backpack a few days later. But the verse had worked its way into his consciousness and would keep him company and inspire his own desperate scribblings during his years in a Soviet POW camp in the Caucasus.

The Franz Fühmann who emerged from captivity in 1949 was a born again Socialist. He had seen the error of his ways, faced the reality of the horrors of Aushwitz, and rejected the false tenants of Nazi ideology on which he had been raised and indoctrinated. The final story in The Jew Car depicts the arrival of his fictional alter-ego in East Germany, his train journey into a new homeland marked with the composition of a suitably ambitious piece of Socialist-inspired realist poetry. However, his reunion with the decidedly anti-realist imagery of Trakl would occur before long.

Slowly, and steadily, the poems will challenge everything that he thinks he knows about reading and writing poetry, ultimately challenging his Socialist idealism and his own self-awareness.

At several points in At the Burning Abyss, Fühmann reminds his reader that the he is not writing an autobiography, insisting that he is engaged in a meditation on the experience of reading Trakl. However, this experience acts as a fundamental force within his own biography and cannot be read apart from it. His account of his personal response to Trakl is presented in first person singular against a broader examination of how a poem, and a couple of select pieces in particular, can and should be understood. This second thread is conducted as an extended first person plural conversation with the reader. His questions and concerns become our questions and concerns, we are invited to seek answers together.

He wants to know how the poem works on the unconscious, what gives it meaning, and what allows it to work across time and place. At the core of his examination is a conviction that the experience of a poem is necessarily subjective; that:

… a poem does not become a poem because it fulfils certain formal rules, but because a reader constitutes it. Until then it merely appears to belong to the genre of poetry, a dead form, interesting only once the interest in the poem as an artwork awakens.

The reader may take decades or even a century to appear, but if he does not, the poem does not come into being as poetry: there is no objective poetic form that legitimizes something a priori as a poem in the sense of an artwork.

This is then, a highly idiosyncratic engagement with the Trakl poem, but one that assures the reader that his own personal engagement with a poem, any poem, has its own validity. One should not be afraid of understanding wrong, or relating to something others eschew as unworthy. For, as he quotes Rilke in the opening sentence of the book: “poems are not feelings…they are experiences.”

For Fühmann, “Downfall” is the first Trakl poem that strikes him, across two decades from the time of composition, to capture the very moment in which he came to it. The blind clock-hands toward midnight climbing recur and echo throughout the text, joined in time, by other lines from other poems that become refrains, driving and troubling the attempt to resolve the dissonance that grows the further he explores Trakl’s poetry and life.

In his reading, an indication that the Trakl poem might reflect Decadence triggers his initial crisis of faith, if you will. Anxiously, Fühmann opens his text and lands, randomly on a poem filled with shocking imagery—“Night Romance.” He finds a “dreaming boy” with a “face decaying in the moon,” a murderer, a dead man, and a “nun with lacerated flesh” praying “naked before Christ’s travails.” All the features of decadence assembled and yet, somehow, the verses hold an undeniable appeal. Thinking of other poems, Fühmann’s anxiety increases:

What was this morass on which I’d lost my way?

And so it goes. The discussion turns to meaning. How literally can images be understood? Much of the focus turns on the poem “Decay,” but Fühmann insists that Trakl’s entire oeuvre can be seen as one great poem, so the discussion has broad application. Images of decay in all its aspects frequent his poetry, as do “autumn, “evening,” and “garden.” What weight can be applied to the startling images that appear, and to what extent is an exact explanation—a resolution of poetic riddles—possible or even desirable? If a mystery can be answered, is it answerable universally or for the reader alone? And, what role does the poet have in relation to the misery he or she records?

Of course, the questions, Fühmann raises are directly related to the threat Trakl poses to his schooling in the Socialist poetic form encouraged within the GDR. There is no place for mystery—a poem should be understood “at first go.” To rid himself of this contrary influence, Fühmann tries to destroy his Trakl books, but find himself unable to do so. He looks for comfort elsewhere, translating Vitězslav Nezval into German, for example, and finds himself sliding headlong in Surrealism! He seeks refuge in alcohol. For a long while, he struggles to mediate the conflict between the literature (and the grounding ideology) to which he is committed and this Austrian poet about whom, apart from his father’s cryptic recollections, he knows little. Having long professed to having little interest in the writer’s life, he suddenly desires to know all he can.

Shocked by his first encounter with Trakl’s awkward visage inside the covers of the slender biography he finds, Fühmann makes his way through the book in a single, fevered night. He is drawn into the account of “an unliveable life: an existence that fell to poetry.—An existence that fell to drugs and incest; a fall into decay, a plunge into suicide; a life at the zenith of European poetry.” What follows then, is a biography within this memoir, which includes the complete text of the sole eyewitness account of Trakl’s final days in a Krakow hospital.

Continuing to alternate between the analysis of what poetry can tell us about its author and, more critically, what it reveals about ourselves, Fühmann’s personal journey of self-discovery moves forward with an intensity that is powerful, irresistible and fundamentally human. The experience of the Trakl poem changes him and allows him to heal in a way doctrine never could. The reader can feel his pain and his passion, appreciate his conflicts and share his exhilaration when everything finally falls into place. “I believe in poetry,” he says, “because it works like fate—provided you stand within its magic circle.”

Well said, indeed.

At the Burning Abyss by Franz Fühmann, is translated with great dedication and affection by Isabel Fargo Cole, and published by Seagull Books.

The seduction of ideological extremes: The Jew Car by Franz Fühmann

For months The Jew Car, Franz Fühmann’s autobiographical story cycle, sat on my shelf unread. I had bought it in anticipation of the recent release, in translation, of his last major work, At the Burning Abyss: Experiencing the Georg Trakl Poem. However, for some reason, I could not bring myself to read it. I have never been especially attracted to World War II literature, and with the current resurgence of neo-Nazi sentiments and far-right movements in North America and Europe, I was uncertain if I wanted to venture into a series of stories in which an East German writer traces a path from his enthusiastic adoption of fascist rhetoric as a youth, on through his experiences as a German soldier during the war, to his eventual rejection of Nazi ideology and acceptance of socialism in a Soviet POW camp. I wondered if I had the heart for it, and yet the translator of both volumes, Isabel Fargo Cole, advised me that Fühmann’s personal reflections in At the Burning Abyss would have greater impact and resonance with the background afforded by The Jew Car.

Born in 1922, Fühmann grew up in the predominantly German Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, the son of an apothecary who encouraged the development of a strong German nationalism. From the age of ten to fourteen, he attended a Jesuit boarding school in Kalksburg but found the atmosphere stifling. In 1936, he transferred to a school in Reichenberg, where he lived on his own for the first time and became involved in the Sudeten Fascist movement. After the annexation of Sudetenland in 1938, he joined the SA. 1941, he was assigned to the signal corps serving in various locations in the Ukraine before being moved to Greece as Germany’s fortunes declined. He was captured by Soviet forces in 1945. During his years spent as a POW, he would embrace socialism and upon his release in 1949, he finally found himself on German soil for the first time, settling in the GDR where he would spend the rest of his life.

Originally published in 1962, the stories in The Jew Car, which is subtitled Fourteen Days from Two Decades, follow the trajectory of Fühmann’s life between the ages of seven and twenty-seven. Presented with dramatic colour, they offer an attempt to explore the progression of his ideological development during this period. Through an engaging, often ironic voice and well-framed narratives, we watch Fühmann’s fictional alter-ego confront the psychological seduction of the persistent propaganda machine and engage in the mental gymnastics required to continually readjust to accommodate or explain away any evidence that failed to fit with what he has been led to believe.

The title story opens the collection. Set in 1929, the seven year-old narrator is caught up in a wave of rumours sweeping through his grade school. The children listen with a mixture of rapture and fear, to breathless tales of a four Jews in a yellow car who are said to have been travelling through the surrounding countryside, snatching and murdering innocent young girls. When our hero happens to spy a brown car carrying three people one afternoon, it becomes, in his imagination, vividly transformed into the feared mysterious vehicle exactly as described. At school the next day, he is the centre of attention, holding his classmates in thrall until the one person he dearly wishes to impress the most, the girl “with the short, fair hair” neatly puts him in his place. Yet rather than causing him to question his hasty assumptions about the car he actually saw, his humiliation is turned into an increased, abstracted hatred of Jews.

And so the process begins.

Fühmann manages to capture the mixture of naïve enthusiasm, patriotic fervour, and boredom that he and his friends regularly encounter as the tides of history are building around them. He is young, the air is charged with excitement mingled with fear of the dreaded Commune and the anticipation of liberation. At times his young narrator is surprised to catch the worried looks on the faces of his parents and other adults. His faith in the Führer is unshakable and he believes that the German Reich will not abandon the Sudeten German population to murderous cutthroats. This conviction is well captured in the story “The Defense of the Reichenberg Gymnasium.” (September, 1938) Although no violence has yet occurred in his corner of the region at this point, when an alarm summons him and his comrades from the Gymnastic Society to defend the Reichenberg gymnasium from imminent attack, he is ready and eager:

I was excited: I’d never been in a battle like this; the occasional school scuffles didn’t count, the scouting games and the stupid provocations of the police in which I and all the others indulged; now it would turn serious, a real battle with real weapons, and I felt my heart beating, and wondered suddenly how it feels when a knife slips between the ribs. My steps faltered; I didn’t think about the knife, I saw it, and as I passed Ferdl, a sausage vendor who stood not far from the gymnasium, I even thought of stealing off down an alley, but then I scolded myself and walked quickly into the building.

But, as uneventful hours begin to stretch well past lunch time, boredom and hunger start to set in. Ultimately it is decided to send forth a series of provisioning parties to remedy the situation. Young Fühmann is assigned to the third group:

It was a puerile game we were playing, childish antics, and yet murderous, and the awful thing was that we felt neither the puerility no the murderousness. We were in action, under orders, advancing through enemy territory, and so, the five-man shopping commando in the middle and the three-man protective flanks to the left and right, we casually strolled up the street, turned off without incident, made our way back down the parallel street through the tide of workers, Germans and Czechs coming from the morning shift, cut through the arcade, side by side, and at discreet intervals each bought twenty pairs of sausages with rolls and beer.

Fühmann is a gifted storyteller whose poetic prose and ironic tone are pitch perfect, especially in the earlier stories. He creates a portrait of his younger self that is not sentimental or idealized. His moments of empathy for individuals otherwise thought to be inferior are quickly reframed with racist convictions. He does not speak too much about his involvement in direct anti-Semitic actions (though he will in later works). What comes through most strikingly in The Jew Car is the sense of rational isolation that surrounds the individual. Information is strictly mediated, so that otherwise intelligent individuals lose any frame of reference or develop extreme responses to the continual routine of work and deprivation. His steadfast devotion to the military structure will start to weaken as he discovers poetry, although his first published efforts during the war are very much on message. Fühmann will not become a dissident poet until much later, long after the war is over.

The tone of the later stories is soberer, more contained. The narrator describes his conversion to Socialism in terms that border on the religious. He talks about having “scales fall from his eyes” during his training, describes reading Marx, encountered before but now understood in a new light. But he never provides detailed justification—he believes with conviction and is not ready to be swayed. The final tale which describes his arrival in East Germany after his release from imprisonment to join his mother and sister who have been relocated there, is forced and marked by Soviet style melodrama.

In his afterword to the 1979 reissue of The Jew Car, which aimed to address some of the editorial changes made to the original publication, Fühmann noted a shift in tone that impacted the overall flow of the collection:

Probably even while writing I began to sense the inconsistency in this work, expression of a fractured mindset, a switch from self-irony to affirmative pathos that had to lead to a decline in literary quality such as that between the first and last story…

However, although they are autobiographical in nature, these stories are essentially fictionalized—this is not an essay or memoir. That lends the collection a particular power and energy. Yet, there is a clear sense that the ending is idealized and incomplete, as indeed it is. As Isabel Cole’s Afterword goes on to explain, Fühmann’s infatuation with the socialist vision of the GDR will fade as he chafes against the rigid restrictions imposed on individual and creative expression. He will, nonetheless, remain in East Germany for the rest of his life. In 1982, two years before his death, he will publish an in-depth exploration of his personal evolution through his discovery of and affection for the poetry of Georg Trakl. To that work, At the Burning Abyss, my attention can now turn…

The Jew Car by Franz Fühmann is translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and published by Seagull Books.

This review, together with my review of Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann represents my contribution to this year’s German Literature Month. Also related: See my recent interview with translator Isabel Cole, primarily regarding Wolfgang Hilbig, but also touching on Fühmann, which was published at 3:AM Magazine this past month.

Live in wonder. Write in wonder: Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann

As far as I’m concerned no one has ever died and very rarely do I consider anyone alive except in the theatre of my thoughts.

Coming to the close of Ingeborg Bachmann’s 1971 novel, Malina, one might be inclined to wonder if there is anything that can be said about the reading experience. The deeply internalized, fragmented, and operatic-toned narrative, can be—has been—parsed, analyzed, and examined and yet it retains a certain incorruptible integrity. It’s not an easy read, not so much for its technical difficulty, as for the absorbing, exhilarating, and disturbing intensity that pulls you in and holds you hostage until the surreal, dramatic finale in which the narrator virtually writes herself out of existence.

Malina is simultaneously invigorating and draining, richly detailed and frustratingly opaque. To read it is to be caught up in the narrator’s increasingly desperate effort to command her own narrative. And there is an uncommon grief that lingers long after the last notes are struck.

The novel, the only one Bachmann completed before her tragic death at the age of forty-seven, begins almost formally, with a list of characters. There is Ivan, born in Hungary, who works with money at a business that, to protect his future, is designated an “Institute for Extremely Urgent Affairs.” His young sons, Béla and András, who live with his ex-wife, spend time with him regularly. The titular character, Malina, is a forty-year-old civil servant who works at the Austrian Army Museum. Reserved and cerebral, and he shares an apartment with the narrator—a woman who refers to herself only as “I” (Ich—a writer of some renown, although, as in all things, she routinely absents herself, even from the opening credits where she describes in her vocation simply as “a profession (crossed out twice and written over).”

The time is: “Today,” the place: “Vienna.” The narrator’s anxious nature is evident from the first pages of the introductory section which sets the stage for the drama that will unfold in three acts. As she sketches out the essential map of her Vienna neighbourhood and draws the basic lines that connect her to Ivan, her love interest, and Malina, her housemate, she finds grounding in Place that eludes her in Time. “Today” is an almost overwhelming quality for her from the outset—an indication that this “today” will become an increasingly unstable measure as the narrative progresses. “I’m just afraid ‘today’” she warns us, “is too much for me, too gripping, too boundless, and that this pathological agitation will be a part of my ‘today’ until its final hour.”

Malina is then, in a sense, a persistent unravelling of time and the narrator’s psychologically fragile relation to it. Its threads, wound around Ivan in the beginning, and lost through the nightmarish middle chapter, will never quite be gathered again as her personality slowly disintegrates in the final part.

In the first chapter, “Happy with Ivan,” the narrator recounts her first fortuitous first encounter with Ivan in front of a florist’s shop and her immediate knowledge that she is meant to be with him. As far as she is concerned he has rediscovered her, reanimated her buried self, and made her feel whole. He completes her, she claims, in a way she longs to be completed:

At last I am able to move about in my flesh as well, with the body I have alienated with a certain disdain, I feel how everything inside is changing, how the muscles free themselves from their constant cramps, how their plain and diagonally striped systems relax, how both nervous systems convert simultaneously, because nothing takes place more distinctly than this conversion, an amending, a purification, the living, factual proof which could also be measured and labelled using the most modern instruments of metaphysics.

It is a relationship of physical convenience, no matter how the narrator revels in the perfection of their mutual understanding. Ivan is an unadventurous man. He offers little, but expects her to maintain a pleasant demeanour, present a feminine appearance, accompany him on outings with the children, and write joyous stories, rather than the morbid-titled tales he notices in her room. One senses he would prefer her to conform without question, and in her insistence that this is exactly what she wants as well, the narrative takes on a forced, uncomfortable tone. Meanwhile, Malina is, initially, an ambiguous presence who together with Lina, the housekeeper whose name curiously mirrors his own, provides order to what would otherwise be a chaotic home. He looks after her with a detachment that belies the long-standing intuitive connection she claims they have. As a result, we encounter a very strange dynamic within which the narrator herself is a continual source of uncertainty. It is at once unnerving and irresistible.

Malina’s fragmented, inventive text continually defies narrative expectations. One-sided phone conversations, unfinished letters, portions of a story the narrator is writing to please Ivan, and the transcript of an interview are woven in to what is at times a frenetic, highly descriptive narrative—an episode where the narrator is left alone to care for the children for a few hours is priceless. Gaps, unfinished sentences, and repeated efforts at composing correspondences leave curious spaces that can’t quite be filled in. Is the narrator being intentionally elusive, or is her memory or concentration slipping? Is she addressing a reader or talking to herself?

In the second chapter, ‘The Third Man,’ everything shifts. Place and Time are no longer fixed and a long series of nightmarish dreams, punctuated by Malina’s bedside interrogations and ministrations, unfolds like an extended feverish psychosis. The narrator’s father is a persistent cruel and violent presence. He repeatedly tortures, rapes and murders her childhood self in scenes that echo the atrocities of the Second World War as much as the complicated emotional brutality of familial dysfunction implied by the recurring allusions to settings from War and Peace. The imagery is relentless, hellish:

When it begins the world is already mixed up, and I know that I am crazy. The basic elements of the world are still there, but more gruesomely assembled than anyone has ever seen. Cars are rolling around, dripping paint, people pop up, smirking larvae, and when they approach me they fall down, straw puppets, bundles of raw wire, figures of papier mâché, and I keep going in this world which is not the world, with balled fists, arms outstretched in order to ward off the objects, machines which run into me then turn to dust, and when I’m too afraid to go on I close my eyes, but the colours, glaring, explosive, raving, spatter me, my face, my naked feet, I again open my eyes to see where I am, I want to find a way out of here, next I fly up high into the heavens because my fingers and toes have swollen into airy, skycoloured balloons and they are carrying me to the heights of nevermore, where it’s even worse, then they all burst and I fall, fall and stand up, my toes have turned black, I can’t go on anymore.

This stream of torment and horrific dreams, is regularly interrupted with segments of dramatic dialogue in which Malina alternately calms and challenges her. There is little comfort to be found:

Malina: You don’t have to believe everything, you better think about it.
Me:        Me?
Malina: It isn’t war and peace.
Me:        What is it then?
Malina: War.

The final chapter, “Last Things,” brings with what appears to be a resumption of calmer, more rational narrative, but the illusion is short lived. The recorded dialogues between the narrator and Malina continue and become a more prominent feature of the text—almost a necessary prop against which she can frame her thoughts. They also take on a denser, more philosophical tone and, as her relationship with her housemate takes on a greater, more threatening quality, Ivan’s influence declines, and her own grip on her own identity starts to slip. Security in her own gender shifts, she finds it difficult to write, and becomes aware of the changing nature of sentences of all sorts. As a writer, she is acutely sensitive to sentences as if they have a tangible existence and are, for her, part of the very fabric of reality. Early on in the novel she marvels at the perfection of the sentences she and Ivan have shared access to—they hoard telephone sentences, chess sentences, sentences about life in general—but she worries, quite tellingly, that they have no feeling sentences. During her dream sequences, when her father has her imprisoned, her sentences take on an animated form, keeping her company and rising up in her defense, and later, arriving as messages inscribed on stones (“Live in wonder,” “Write in wonder”). But as her affair with Ivan grows cold it is reflected in the way their sentences change (“the chess sentences are lying fallow”), and as her fragile personality starts to disintegrate written sentences also begin to fail her.

One could argue, or at least I would, that Malina is, most strikingly, a novel of the marvel, the power, and the betrayal of the sentence. That may sound self-evident, of course, it is after all, composed of sentences. Dazzling sentences. Sentences that call and echo across the whole of the unconventional narrative expanse. There is an inherent musicality at play, not only through the direct musical notation and cuing that infiltrates the text toward the end, rising to a devastating crescendo in the closing passages, but throughout the work which can be read as an elaborately staged performance. Bachmann commands a wide range of sentence styles—long and winding, rushed and impertinent, suspended and unfinished—to orchestrate a rich and troubling exploration of the dynamics between men and women, the limits of personal identity, and the question of what it means to be alive.

Malina was intended to be part of a proposed Death Styles trilogy. The other novels exist in unfinished form and carry elements and  stories of characters that pass through this one. It is unfortunate that the complete effect will forever remain unrealized. That in no way diminishes the power or impact of Malina, or the influence it has had on many other writers including Thomas Bernhard, Christa Wolf, and Peter Handke.

Translated by Philip Boehm with an illuminating afterword, “Death Arias in Vienna” by Mark Anderson, Malina is published by Holmes & Meier.

Lost in time with Wolfgang Hilbig: A link to my TQC review of Old Rendering Plant

It is easy to become lost in the dense and convoluted narrative Wolfgang Hilbig unspools in Old Rendering Plant, the most recent translation of his work to reach English audiences. This slight novella invites the reader to wander, with the narrator, through the fields and along the pungent waterways that extend beyond his small East German town. As he rambles on, caught up in his memories of the past and hopes for the future, it’s easy to get swept up—and find oneself disoriented—amidst the industrial ruins where he is forced to confront the dark echoes of recent history and the expectations of the socialist state. It may be, especially for those unfamiliar with Hilbig’s idiosyncratic, stuttering prose, a little unsettling at first, but if one is willing to forego linear narrative expectations, an unforgettable, immersive, atmospheric reading experience awaits.

I read this book last summer to write a review for The Quarterly Conversation. In fact, I probably read it three times over to be able to read and articulate an opening into the narrative, but every time my appreciation of this moody, filmic text increased. As a critic, I derive the most satisfaction from writing about complex, unconventional narratives. My goal is not to give a definitive reading, but to explore the possibilities and questions offered by a piece of literature, while leaving a reader to find his or her own answers (or further questions, as the case may be). It was a sheer joy to write about this book.

Old Rendering Plant, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, will be released next week (November 7) by Two Lines Press. My review from the Fall 2017 Issue of The Quarterly Conversation can be found here.

Silence, silence! A Skeleton Plays Violin: Book Three of Our Trakl — Georg Trakl

Listen carefully, what do you see?

Clouds expose their unyielding breasts,
And bedecked by leaves and berries
You see grinning in the dark pines
A skeleton play violin.

When Book One of Our Trakl emerged two years ago, attentive readers and lovers of beautiful books sensed the beginning of a very special project dedicated to the work of the Austrian poet who continues to intrigue and enthrall us more than one hundred years after his untimely death in 1914, at the age of twenty-seven. Translator James Reidel was introduced to Georg Trakl in the late 1970s, when he was himself beginning to write poetry. Early on he was made aware of the difficulty and importance of translating Trakl’s work. As the years went on, he would make his way back to Trakl through reading, and translating, Thomas Bernhard, Ingeborg Bachman and Franz Werfel. In the meantime, new Trakl translations had emerged and so, with this series published by Seagull Books, he has added his own contribution—his own approach to this ever elusive and enigmatic writer.

The first two volumes of Our Trakl represent complete collections of poems, as selected and prepared by the poet: Poems (Gedichte, 1913) and Sebastian Dreaming (Sebastian im Traum, published posthumously in 1915). The third and final part, A Skeleton Plays Violin, gathers Trakl’s early and late published works, unpublished pieces, and significant variants and derivations, in yet another beautifully designed edition. Through the poems and prose collected here, presented chronologically and woven together with a sensitive biographical essay, we can trace his development as a poet, and see potential indications of where he might have gone had he survived the war and his own demons. With Poems and Sebastian Dreaming close at hand, reading can become a truly immersive experience.

Immediately one notices a strong youthful, romantic quality to Trakl’s earliest creative efforts which include prose, plays, and poetry. Religious and classical Greek themes recur, as do sombre images of suffering and neglect. Born in 1887, he began writing and publishing in his late teens when he was working as an apprentice pharmacist in Salzburg—a job that afforded him access to the drugs he had been sampling seriously from the age of fourteen and that would continue to play a significant role in his life. The intensity that is said to have marked his personal demeanour comes through in his early work, granting it an eerie maturity.

A move to Vienna to continue his pharmaceutical studies in 1908, led to periods of depression and anxiety. While his reputation as a poet grew, he was unsatisfied and critical of his work. His unhappiness in the capital, worsened in part by the complications of having his beloved sister present for a time, is reflected in his published poetry from this period. It is possible to feeling the aching in his words, as in the first two stanza of “Twilight”:

You are dishevelled, wracked by every pain
And shake from every jarring melody,
You a broken harp—a wretched heart,
From which blossom misery’s sick flowers.

Who bid your adversary, your killer,
The one who stole the last spark of your soul,
The way he degodded this barren world
Into a whore foul, sick, pale with decay!

In 1910, Trakl’s sister to whom he had always been close—perhaps too close—left Vienna to return to Salzburg. Two months later, in June, his father died, an event which had a major impact on the entire family, economically and functionally. However, his corpse and ghost would provide inspiration for his son’s poetry which, at this time, began to shake loose a nostalgia for the past, and the influence of the Symbolists and German Romantics, to find its own distinct voice. Sexual tension is increasingly sublimated and Trakl’s lines become “ever more discrete, simple and painterly.” His imagery also shifts:

Liminal beings begin to populate the poems—angels, demons, dead gods, nymphs, fawns and statues of dead nobles, hunted animals, skeletons, corpses and the ever-shape-shifting presence of the poet and the figure of the sister. And this figure may be more of a composite than we know, for Trakl adored his older sisters too.

A persistent presence in Trakl’s life and poetry is his younger sister Grete. The rumoured incestuous nature—or at least longings— that bound the two is a subject of measured discussion in the biographical segments, Reidel preferring, ultimately, to leave the poetry to speak for itself, as it will.

Toward the end of 1910, with a need to support himself, Trakl joined the army. He was assigned to the Garrison Hospital in Vienna where his commanding officer would later describe him as hardworking and friendly. Mid-1911 saw him return to Salzburg where he worked as a civilian pharmacist until the spring of 1912 when he was promoted to Garrison Hospital 10 in Innsbruck. Initially unimpressed with his new location in spite of its glorious forested and mountainous setting, he soon became involved with a new literary circle, and made connections that would prove critical to his career and lead to the publication of his first book. Thus he made peace with the surrounding landscape which also begins to make its way into his poetry. However, as his poetic soul flourishes, his work life suffers. Ultimately, unable to hold a job, he surrenders himself to writing, and the increasingly reckless life of a poet.

The extensive central sections of A Skeleton Plays Violin, which feature unpublished poems and versions of published pieces, offer a window into the refining of Trakl’s imagination and craft. We see him spinning, again and again, the phrases, imagery, and themes he wishes to perfect—the crimson mouth, the screaming faun, the turn of the season, the quality of light—and watch the tightening of his language as the final version is formed. Reidel’s selection covers a wide terrain, yet is careful to bring together those variants and completed works that highlight Trakl’s growth and maturity over time. It is impossible though, not to notice that his work only seems to grow darker.

For Trakl, periods of depression and panic attacks marked the second half of 1913. He continued to consume alcohol and drugs, cocaine and morphine, at a remarkable rate. He saw himself as a doomed soul, even as his star was steadily rising in German poetry. He held to his writing to see him through that winter. He continued to attract impressive admirers, including Ludwig Wittgenstein, and plans were made for a second volume of poetry. However, with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in June of 1914, Trakl’s world was upended. With the advent of what would become the First World War, he was assigned as a medic to a frontline infantry unit heading east. The conditions soon took a toll on his mental and emotional health. He was hospitalized in Krakow following a suicide threat, and was found, in his room, on November 3, dead from an apparent cocaine overdose.

His later published poems show that a deep melancholy had long settled into his work. “Evening Reel,” for instance, published in October of 1913 opens with playful natural imagery, albeit a little grim:

Fields of asters brown and blue,
Children play there by the grave vaults,
In the open skies of evening,
Blown into the clear skies,
Seagulls hover silver-grey.
Horns call in the flood meadow.

To end, even gloomier, three stanzas later:

The candles’ glow weaves dreamlike,
Paints this youthful flesh decaying,
Cling-clang! Hear in the fog,
Ring in time with the violins,
And bones dance along naked,
Long does the moon peer inside.

Trakl’s final published poems are stormy and dramatic. The wistful beauty is gone; the imagery is now steeped with darkness—war is at hand. “The Despair” captures the scene:

Then the black horses leap
On a pasture in fog.
You soldiers!
From the hill where the sun wheels dying
The laughing blood rushes
Amid oaks
Speechless! O the grumbling despair
Of the army, a steel helmet
Dropped clattering from a crimson brow.

Until the end, Trakl held fast to poetry. It has been suggested that the news that the publication of Sebastian Dreaming would have to be put off until the war ended played a pivotal role in his final desperation. We will never know exactly what finally tipped the scales for a man whose scales tipped so heavily to dark side so often in his short life. Nonetheless, his last creative efforts form a rousing crescendo to the third and closing volume of this ambitious poetic project.

Wisely and appropriately, the final words are perhaps best left to Trakl himself, from “Revelation and Perdition,” the grim, haunting prose piece which closes out this powerful testament to a troubled poet, lost too soon:

When I walked into the garden in twilight, and the black figure of evil had yielded to me, the hyacinthine stillness of the night surrounded me; and I sailed in a crescent-shaped boat across the stagnant pond and a sweet peace touched me on the brow turned to stone; and when I died in witness, fear and that pain deepest inside me died; and the blue shadow of the boy rose lightning the darkness, a soft singing; on lunar wings, above the greening treetops, crystal cliffs, rose the white face of the sister.

A Skeleton Plays Violin: The Early, Unpublished and Last Works of Georg Trakl is translated by James Reidel and published by Seagull Books.