Nameless, neutered and neurotic: The Females by Wolfgang Hilbig

Over the past four years, five works by German author Wolfgang Hilbig have appeared in Isabel Fargo Cole’s lucid, evocative translations, each release bringing the late writer—always a literary outsider in life—an expanded following. The most recent offering, the fourth from Two Lines Press is the earliest, chronologically speaking. Originally published in 1987, The Females is an unrepentant portrait of a man burdened by a deeply and darkly distorted sense of shame and self-loathing. Classic Hilbig protagonist on one level, yet embryonic relative to the more abstract introspective narrators who move through many of his subsequent works.

This novella is set, like so much of Hilbig’s fiction, in a small industrial community in postwar East Germany. The narrator is, by his own description, a rather foul and socially inept misfit, a middle-aged man who still lives with his mother and harbours a troubled and seemingly stunted adolescent notion of women. He is not simply unnamed, but acutely aware of having been rendered nameless. Within the context of Hilbig’s shorter works this story is more explicit in its anger toward the state with its control of desire, creative and sexual. The recent history of his country, the ruins of war and the politics of the National Socialism, looms large. The imagery is gritty, coarse and vulgar, but the narrator’s desperate search for identity lends him a level of sympathy. He feels ashamed at his own corruption—especially a youthful turn at pornography, yet feels neutered and powerless. In the bluntness of its  approach, The Females seems somewhat less refined than Old Rendering Plant and the Tidings of the Trees which follow several years later, but having this earlier work published in English at this point allows readers familiar with his oeuvre to see developmental themes at play.

True to form, this is an absorbing, compulsive read, one that slips regularly into a nausea-inducing, full-frontal assault on the senses. The opening passages are fair warning. The protagonist is working at a pressing shop in a former munitions factory. The shop floor is entirely staffed by women and, confined to a dank basement room, his task is to clean the molds. From his subterranean vantage point he watches the women work the machinery:

Through the grating above me, damp, smoldering heat flooded down with steady force. I sat on a chair beneath the grate amid this hot tide, hidden in semidarkness, several bottles of beer by my chair; when I drank the beer seemed to gush instantly from all my pores, lukewarm, not even changing temperature inside my body. It was ceaseless strain—my head constantly tilted back—to stare through the grate into the light, always hoping to see the women up there step across the bars.

He obsesses over every movement the women make, sexualizing the physical routine of the manufacturing activity, longing for a fleeting taste of femininity, and masturbating in his gloomy enclosure. Needless to say, he is employed on borrowed time. “I had gradually begun to transform into a sickness,” he tells us, one that is characteristically “utterly excessive; an agony not quite human, it was no longer that of an animal either.” Dismissed from his job, he takes to wandering the streets at night and notices, that something has suddenly been drained from the atmosphere. As an aspiring writer, the only vocation he has ever truly desired despite the disdain this ambition evoked in his family and society alike, he had once been able to look at the dismal world around him and, as he puts it, “make the filth glitter”. Now, either in reality or in his madness, his environment had been altered.

Much to his dismay, he becomes convinced of a most horrifying truth:

It was no help at all to sense I was possessed by an obsession, in my overpotent head a cascade of letters blazed: all the females had vanished from town, and with them had fled every trace of femininity.—Not only that, I felt that even feminine nouns had fallen out of use; I thought I suddenly noticed people in town referring to trash cans as der Kübel instead of die Tonne. When I saw those trash cans from afar, set up in long rows along the curbs that summer—something unlikely to change, as the trash collection service was still more dysfunctional then than in the winter—at first I’d think a line of unshapely females was loitering there, dully iridescent in the bluish streetlights, and I’d hurry toward them. I’d realize they were just the trash cans I saw every night, from their gaping orifices hung rubbish that looked hairy, that had an undefinable evil about it.

His desperate, guilt-ridden efforts to make sense of this situation, to set it right somehow, drives the nonlinear, obsessive, self-deprecating and bitter narrative of The Females. Some of the imagery is harsh, off-putting, and sexist. In his defence the protagonist blames the psychopathology of the state under which he was raised, one in which “the sex drive was declared to be abnormal…and sex to be capitalistic”. He clearly has had no real, substantial and healthy relationships with women. He wants to be loved, longs for normal human contact, but fears that his anxious desire will drive others away, that as his desperation becomes evident, he grows increasingly hideous—“A monster with putrefaction written in the crannies of its skin as hectic red blotches, with uric acid drying and itching on its pate, a madness no longer stoppable as damp tufts of hair began painlessly detaching themselves.” His frustration is redirected back at women—his mother included—and it his inability to conform to the expectations of those around him. To see the world as he is supposed to see it.

At the core of this novella lies a crisis of masculinity. Hilbig, like many of his generation grew up fatherless. His father had disappeared at Stalingrad and he was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents. His characters often struggle with the rigid expectations of manhood in their closed society. As men who are naturally drawn to creative pursuits, they react against the predetermined factory life by trying to find their missing role models among the social outcasts—garbage men or the workers at a rendering plant. In the world Hilbig presents in The Females, the State is the all-powerful progenitor, women are brutish and masculine, men are soft and delicate, psychologically castrated. His protagonist is criticized by his family for failing to live up to an ideal set by his father, though it is not clear that his father is more than a myth he has no real memory of. He is seeking an absolution through the women who have controlled, avoided and now eluded him, longing to heal a wound with roots, ultimately, deep in childhood memory and buried national history. He chooses to work in a factory staffed by females to try to be near their presence and feels cut off from a vital reality when he is cast out. In the shadowy depths of the town’s laneways he is searching for a feminine presence which he can only vaguely remember, distrusting his imagination and distorting reality into misplaced freakish phallic and vaginal imagery.

His is a strange, and strangely fascinating existential pursuit. “The world outside my window,” he is inclined to tell himself, “lacks the gaze that is mine”:

But I’d had to realize that I was no one.—I didn’t know whether I existed; the fact of my birth had been kept secret from me. They kept it secret to punish me, for I hadn’t turned out to be the thing they’d hope to bestow upon the world. Yes, I’d made the mistake of having myself be born, having myself be raised by the state and its pedagogy, by pedagogy and its state—I’d practically volunteered for it—but then I turned out differently. And so I had to be nullified, voided; there was neither a womb nor a pedagogy nor a state for the creature I’d become. I didn’t even have a name to lay claim to.

The Females is a challenging read in today’s climate of gender sensitivity. But emerging at a time when Germany was still divided (though Hilbig was by this time already living in west Berlin), its message’s bold, brutal delivery possibly reflects a more immediate frustration. Either way, it is a powerful short work that takes no prisoners.

Deftly translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, The Females by Wolfgang Hilbig is published by Two Lines Press.

*Read for German Literature Month 2018.

The promise of change: Midsummer update, July 2018

With the end of July approaching, I am at a loss to know where the month has gone. To idle hours glued to my computer screen I’m afraid… it is amazing how the internet manages to suck away productivity when you are looking for something. And before you know it, deadlines loom, books are unread, words unwritten and summer is half over.

Earlier in the month I sold my house, “as is” fortunately, for the soil it stands on is worth more without it than otherwise. I am a little saddened to know the place I lived in for the past 24 years will be demolished, yet relieved that I don’t have to fix it up or worry about the aging furnace or sewer lines. I just have to get out by October 1. I will miss my yard with its defiant horde of Shasta daisies, army of saskatoon berries, gnarled old crab apple tree and row of prickly hawthorns. Not to mention, six towering spruce trees and one mostly dead mountain ash. But in return I am trading it for a two bed flat in a building that backs on to an escarpment lined with Douglas fir trees—a little piece of mountain wilderness cast off from the Rocky Mountains, and nestled here in this city of one million. And I don’t even have to move far; I am staying in the same neighbourhood.

However, in the few weeks between the time I accepted an offer on my house and the removal of conditions, I wasted so much time visiting and re-visiting real estate listings that precious little else got accomplished. I debated neighbourhoods, layouts, square metres  and, of course, price, ad nauseum. Somehow, all the information we now have at our fingertips, when we are planning a trip or a purchase, fuels obsessive behaviour rather than actually saving time. That is, at least until a decision is made and done. By the time I was actually able to start my physical house search, I knew all the listings on my radar by heart. We happened to visit my favourite first and nothing else came close. Offer made, a little back and forth, and it was accepted. Now after reviewing the building documents there is a slight concern about pending remediation work (nothing unexpected in a fifty year-old structure, but the decisions will be made before I myself an owner), so by Monday we should have a finalized sale and I will have seven to nine weeks to radically downsize and relocate.

Although I will have a lot to get rid of—sell, donate, or throw out—the idea of streamlining my life is greatly liberating. (Don’t worry though, I was cognizant of bookshelf-suitable wall space in my apartment search, and even then I’m still guaranteed to have more books than I can possibly accommodate.)

My house hunting helped ease me past the difficult anniversaries that accompany this month and, although it has cut into my reading and writing efforts, an invitation to visit San Francisco this week offered a most wonderful literary opportunity—one I never imagined would come my way in this belated, informal writerly “career” of mine. I had a terrific time stopping by the office of The Center for the Art of Translation and Two Lines Press—it’s always so nice to see where the magic happens—and talking Hilbig with Isabel Fargo Cole at a book launch for The Tidings of the Trees. I have attended many author interview sessions over the years, for better or worse, but to be on the stage at the Goethe Institute with a translator I have so long admired at was a huge thrill. I’ll confess to being a little nervous. I reread the book in advance and made countless notes and outlines. But in the end, I sounded reasonably intelligent and Isabel’s answers were detailed and informative. Even better, the audience had many interesting questions and inquiries, a sure sign of a successful event.

I chose to stay on for an extra day in the city, about all I could afford in a city not light on the wallet, but the extended time allowed me to have coffee with Veronica Scott Esposito and spend time at the MoMA, enjoy dinner with two of my cousins and their spouses—our first get together in thirty-five years—have lots of time to visit with Isabel, and also make my way up through Chinatown for the requisite pilgrimage to City Lights Books. I came home from that excursion with books (go figure) and a gorgeous, sturdy canvas bag.

So, suffice to say, my books-read-and-reviewed account looks a little shallow for July. I have, as usual, a handful of titles in progress including one for a published review to come later and I’ve also been quite busy editing for 3:AM Magazine. I’ve been amazed at the range and quality of submissions recently, so many that I’ve had to turn away otherwise strong work due to limits of time, but the experience of working with interesting material and authors is always rewarding and satisfying. If I do my work right, I am invisible, and I like to remind myself how nice it is to be spared the inevitable panicked staring at the blank page that seems to come with every essay or critical review I write for publication. That’s someone else’s problem when I’m the editor.

It is, as ever, a complex flow of emotions that washes over me with all of the decisions, changes and promises that have come into play over the last month. When I was young, the summer, short as it is in this part of the world, seemed to pass so quickly I could never seem to grasp it, hold on to the moment. Now, many decades later, July has become a month associated with some of the most significant events of my life—marriage in 1983, the beginning of transition and end of the same marriage in 2001, a pulmonary embolism and cardiac arrest that nearly cost my life in 2015, the closely entwined deaths of my parents in 2016, the surprisingly swift sale of their house last year, and now, this year’s exciting events.

There are still many challenges and unknowns, significant ones at that, but such is living.

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.

Lost in time with Wolfgang Hilbig: 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.

My review from the Fall 2017 Issue of The Quarterly Conversation is reproduced below:

Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig (Two Lines Press)

Long after he escaped East Germany to settle in the West, where he continued to reside until his death in 2007, Wolfgang Hilbig remained bound to the darkened landscapes of the GDR. He was not one to downplay the bleak and oppressive qualities of life amid the abandoned mines and crumbling factories of his hometown, Meuselwitz, and his dense, swirling prose evokes a world of strange, suffocating beauty. But his emotional attachment to his birthplace and his complicated misgivings about the benefits of reunification, left him forever torn between East and West—a conflict captured clearly in the stories that comprise the second part of the collection The Sleep of the Righteous. By contrast, Old Rendering Plant, the latest Hilbig offering to be released in English, presents a narrative firmly planted in the GDR that does not travel far beyond the immediate environs of the narrator’s home; yet this tightly defined arena affords the perfect space for a multi-layered exploration of one man’s struggle to define himself against the restrictions and expectations imposed by family, class, history, and circumstance.

Wolfgang Hilbig was born in 1941 in Meuselwitz, near Leipzig. His father disappeared at Stalingrad, so he was raised by his mother and grandparents. His illiterate Polish-born grandfather served as an important father figure, encouraging his aptitude for sports. However, as translator Isabel Fargo Cole notes in her afterword to the novel I, his early obsession with reading and writing soon alienated him from his own family. The works of Poe and the German Romantics held a particular appeal for the budding poet. Following his military service he spent years working in local factories, where, at least on the surface, he epitomized the ideal of the worker-writer that the GDR actively encouraged. Yet, unwilling to follow accepted scripts, Hilbig’s writing was seen as too challenging and obscure, and it soon drew the unwelcome attention of the authorities. Ultimately the desire to write would win out, but the tension between duty to work and to literature became a central theme that he returned to again and again.

In Old Rendering Plant, an extended monologue that slips in and out of passages of pure stream of consciousness, this tension is implicit. Originally published as Alte Abdeckerei in 1991, this novella is a meditation on the formation of identity in an environment that contains a complex network of buried secrets. The narrator is looking back from a vague and indeterminate adult perspective at that point of transition from adolescence to maturity. His is a restless narrative; memories and waters sweep by as he traces and retraces a path along a brook that, bordered by stands of willows, carves a channel through the fields on the outskirts of his hometown. As a child he found refuge in this landscape filled with magic, possibility, and adventure, armed with a wooden sabre and an imaginary foe. It was a place to feel safe and protected.

One of his favorite playgrounds was, against all adult admonishments, found in the fragmented ruins of a coal plant. Here he waged countless fanciful battles until one evening he slipped and fell off a concrete platform. He was fortunate to land in the grass, but later that night he remembered hearing people staggering across the platform above him, and he awoke to find on his right leg evidence of the substance that had caused his fall: “a dried mire, a black-green slurry mixed with blood.” This incident marks the beginning of a loss of innocence, the first intimations of the existence of dreadful truths that, as the narrator ages, begin to take on a greater, more complicated and disturbing significance. As the narrative unfolds, his reminisces and reflections trace his movement toward a reckoning. Gradually, as layers of memory are stripped away, he approaches an clearer understanding of the forces that have driven him. It’s not a comfortable space he finds.

The narrator is a solitary personality, both as a child and as a man, given to wandering the pathways on the edge of town during the hours that mark the transition from late afternoon light to early darkness. He speaks of his family without affection, referring to them as “my relatives.” He passes from childhood into manhood almost imperceptibly, when the adults in his life no longer show interest or concern about his habitual lateness, his tendency to come home after dark. There is only one mention of an anecdote involving a friend, someone he visits on a brief, aborted attempt to break free of the house and town in which he grew up—during that visit, an encounter with the bloated corpse of a dead rat, which he is not even entirely certain is not an illusion or dream, sends him hurrying home. It is perhaps the thought that the horror he hopes to escape is bound to his being, rather than his environment, that frightens him so.

Central to the narrative is a rendering facility hidden among the ruins of the former coal plant. The narrator’s fall from the cement platform was his first direct indication that something nefarious existed there, but he had always been aware of the signs of its presence:

As a child I knew it was the smell of the milk-colored current that washed down the brook, bubbling and steaming like warm soapsuds in the evening. I knew that the smell soaked the banks and seeped under the fields; the mist over the river channel was this smell, and the mist that rose from the topsoil too, infecting everything that grew in the fields, and it rose from the meadows, the grass of the paddocks smelled of the river mist’s cloying essence, the bushes on the banks thrived amid this smell, a smell of flesh . . . old, useless flesh relinquished to the waters, washed its smell through the land to the east, I knew this as a child. Tallow sheathed the snarls of grass on the brook’s edge, ancient fat clung indelibly to the slopes of the embankment; it was a brew of rancid fatback, even covering the paths, boiled-out horns, bones cooked to the point of disintegration . . . the old river-willows luxuriated in this nourishment; countless bluebottles, ill from overfeeding, dripping like glossy shapes made of wax, skimmed sluggishly through the foam, and this shimmering foam, rapidly turning black spun lazily on the water by the willow’s dangling roots.

At a later point—he is at a loss to even specify exactly when, the experience was so intense that it remains trapped in a level of reality between dream and waking—he happened to witness cadavers and sick, terrified animals being unloaded at the site. This plant, nestled among the ruins, was named Germania II after the mine that had once supplied the old coal factory, and it becomes, for the narrator, the source of such complicated questions and emotions that he finds himself unable to pass beyond the bridge and railroad embankment he encounters on his regular sojourns. The smells, memories, and anxieties that arise at this location routinely force him to turn and wearily head for home.

The rendering plant was rumored to employ society’s discarded men. At a time when radio reports of missing persons, and rumors of dangerous foreigners hiding in abandoned buildings, were commonplace, the workers belonged to a stratum of mysterious characters, unnamed and unseen by the light of day. The particular autumn forays that form the pivotal thread of this monologue are motivated by the narrator’s concerns about what his own future holds. He is remembering his final year of school when, with graduation approaching, he has a critical decision to make. This is where his fanciful nature, his defiant poetic spirit, begins to stir as he briefly considers becoming a gardener, inspired by the end of Candide rather than by any fondness for the tilling the soil, and entertains an idyllic life as a miller. He seems oddly determined to disturb his family and his teachers, ultimately announcing his intention to work at Germania II. With a mix of horror and fascination he develops an obsession with the process of rendering carcasses to make soap, and attempts to seek out the elusive workmen. But there is something more complex at play.

This is, at its core, a search for identity and the expression of individuality. The question of where one is heading, is necessarily a question of where one has come from:

my strange interest in bad places was an unacknowledged, unclear interest in our origins . . . because I had not actually experienced the affronts that went with the soil we had sprung from.— On reflection, we were actually exiles. Of course, only in the indefinite way in which all our names were sheer hubris . . . all our names, titles, and nouns. So we were not exiles based on some neat solid idea, but exiles out of instability . . . out of ineptitude, ignorance, antisocial tendencies; we hadn’t been torn from our roots, we had lost our rights, we were in exile because we’d never had roots or rights; we’d never even sought to find them, perhaps we constantly sought the world’s most noxious regions in order to rest our rootlessness, like gray vegetation, feeding on the ground’s nutrients but giving nothing back, we settled in the desolate provinces that were the strongholds of evil, we settled between slag and scrap where we could run riot, rank and uncontested.

What, then, do those most reviled of workers say about him, and his people, who are similarly dispossessed? Is it a matter of degree that divides them? Is it destiny? As the narrator’s monologue continually circles back to this place of darkness and all of the memories that point in its direction, he rekindles the oppressive existential crisis that once drew him to fantasize about disappearing into its foul depths.

As the narrative progresses, Hilbig’s characteristic prose, which flows in fits and starts, like eddies in a stream, swirling, reversing, and moving on again, is hypnotic and disorienting. It is easy to get caught up in the beauty and rhythms of his language, momentarily losing one’s temporal bearings. As such, it is especially ideal for this type of lyrical reflective monologue. When, on occasion, he slides into passages incantatory stream of consciousness the effect is exhilarating. Translator Isabel Fargo Cole has a strong sensitivity and fondness for his idiosyncratic style that comes through in this, as in all of her Hilbig translations (including The Sleep of the Righteous and I).

Reading Hilbig, I often find myself stopping to reread a section before moving on. I revel in losing myself in his long, winding sentences and paragraphs that can stretch on for pages. This can, on the surface, draw allusions to Sebald, though, Hilbig’s prose is quite different in quality, and unlike a Sebaldian narrator, the protagonist of Old Rendering Plant, although he sets out again and again, finds it difficult to push beyond the boundaries his memories and fears have imposed. What is similar in the reading experience, however, is that both can stimulate a desire to distinguish points of departure—with Hilbig, to find those moments where reflections, memories, and memories of dreams diverge, reinforcing temporal dislocations.

The narrator’s troubled forays are rooted in his reluctance to bend to the fate that awaits him, choosing a practical apprenticeship and accepting the bonds of adulthood. He harbours a Romantic sensibility that can only find expression in defiance, in word if not in deed. This resistance continues until one evening when he wanders farther afield than intended. Disoriented, he attempts to make his way back to town, only to witness a dramatic event—an apocalyptic cataclysm resulting from the extensive economic hollowing of the land that tears a wound into the darkened recesses of the soul of his nation and ultimately frees one rootless exile whose lonely monologue culminates in a rousing Joycean climax.

 

Thoughts on Among the Bieresch by Klaus Hoffer

Sometimes, when I am reading a book that I know I will want to write about, my thoughts about the work at hand take form in the process of reading in a manner that will later inform and direct my review. Other times, the route from reading to writing is more circuitous. I tend to take copious notes, underline and engage with my books, but, having said that, there is always the risk of failing to see the forest for the trees (or more explicitly, failing to appreciate the text for the words). Then, when I sit down to write, no matter how much I may love the work at hand, I look back over my notebook and face too many words to sift through.

BiereschAmong the Bieresch, the long-standing German cult classic by Austrian writer Klaus Hoffer is a book that threatened to undermine me, as a reviewer, with its words – words that are supercharged with meaning and reference to a broadly expanding literary and socio-economic landscape. The beauty of this book is that it works on so many levels and now, with its recent release from Seagull Books, in an animated translation by Isabel Fargo Cole, an English language audience has the opportunity to meet and explore the singular world of the Bieresch.

My review of Among the Bieresch has been published by 3:AM Magazine. I am most grateful to Tristan Foster for his wise and patient editorial guidance as I floundered, at times, in my own words.

For all the restless souls: The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang Hilbig

The landscape haunting the seven intermeshed stories that make up The Sleep of the Righteous by the late German writer Wolfgang Hilbig, is decidedly bleak. The fulcrum around which these stories pivots is an industrial town south of Leipzig – run down, defined by its drabness, perpetually unfinished, bordered by mine pits, the ruins of munitions factories, a lake, marshes,and, beyond that, the forest. Before and after reunification, this town remains a place in which time exists on another plane of reality, at least as far as the narrators – all varying shades of the same man with more than a passing resemblance to Hilbig himself – experience or remember it:

“Time persisted here in dogged immutability; the autumnal fog banks that merged beneath an earth-colored sky appeared unlikely to pass for decades to come. And more and more smoke seemed to spill from the sodden lowlands into the flat clouds, which, even in the afternoon, were nocturnal.”

sleepThis powerful collection is divided into two parts. The first part focuses on childhood, coming of age or, as it often seems, waiting to come of age, to “rise at last from the state of useless, unfinished, in-between beings”. Set in the years immediately following the Second World War, the town is a place where men are in short supply. The majority of the children are fatherless, their mothers widowed, and few babies are born. Consequently, relationships and social dynamics are skewed. In the opening story, “The Place of Storms”, the young narrator endeavours to negotiate the murky waters between the realm of the “little children” and that of the “older children”. Rumours that his grandfather has a gun boost his status and potential for crossing the divide, while the horrific swim trunks his mother knits him complete with suspenders are a decided barrier. All of the awkward anxiety of youth is played out in the grimy pools of the abandoned mine pits at the end of the street where children wile away the summer hours divorced from the world of the suffering, lamenting adults in their lives.

The stories in the second part are set in the 1990’s, after the Wall has come down. The protagonists are all now grown men, writers, who have long since moved away from this small town, but find that they are unable to stay away. Restless, they regularly return to encounter ghosts, to visit an aging mother, or to escape a disintegrating relationship. No matter how long they may have been away, they never really leave the place behind. But they return to a town that is dying, industries and businesses that have been abandoned, and memories that cannot be escaped. In the final, and longest story, “The Dark Man”, the unnamed narrator is an established author who encounters, on the darkened streets of his old hometown, a stranger who has pursed him and now reveals that he was the Stasi agent responsible for intercepting and reading the writer’s correspondence. He claims to have a collection of letters originally intended for our hero’s former lover, a woman who presently lies near death. The narrator is disturbed, but determined not to let this curious relic of the GDR get the better of him – he denies any suggestion that he and his enemy have anything in common. Yet when he gets back to his mother’s apartment, the man in the bathroom mirror bears a haunting resemblance to what he could manage to make out of the stranger in the dark.

The Sleep of the Righteous is one of those books where you may well be inclined to stop and reread a paragraph several times before moving on, not because it is opaque or dense, but because the language is so captivating; the flow and rhythms, like eddies in a stream of water, swirling, reversing, and moving forward again. The brief title story is a sadly lyrical meditation on the cycle of guilt and recrimination that binds and defines the relationship between a boy and his grandfather who, in a reorganization of sleeping arrangements, end up sharing a bed following the death of the grandmother – a demise that one of them might have inadvertently caused. It opens:

“The dark divests us of our qualities. — Though we breathe more greedily, struggling for life, for some fleeting substance from the darkness… it is the darkness that forms a mute block above us: intangible matter our breaths cannot lighten… it seems to burst apart at each answer from the old man, each lament of breath, yet sinks in again swiftly to weigh down still closer, in the cohesive calm of myriad tiny black, gyrating viruses. And we rest one whole long night in this block of black viruses, we rest from the toils of the day: from the everyday toil of circling each other, still and hostile.”

Night after night, grandfather and grandson twist and turn to a nocturnal chorus of queries and accusations, in this poetic evocation of the tensions that underlie the fictions that families maintain to make sense of the very ordinary tragedies that strike close to home.

In his introduction to this volume, Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai, writes that in focusing on the mundane, the everyday life in East Germany, Hilbig manages to heighten the oppressiveness of that existence, rendering it all the more horrific as a consequence: “He wrote his astounding novels about a world in which only the weak, the sensitive, those incapable of bargaining and in no way heroic, can sense the chaos and the surrealism.” However, the measured, heavily weighted quality that hangs over the stories in The Sleep of the Righteousness, is bouyed by the sheer beauty of the prose and the quiet resilience with which the protagonists respond to the circumstances that history has gifted them. This could be a depressing read but somehow it is not.

Translator Isabel Fargo Cole, in a recent interview in World Literature Today, indicates that this collection is one of Hilbig’s most autobiographical works. His narrators tend to share the same basic features of his background – his grandfather emigrated from Poland, his father disappeared at Stalingrad, and he grew up with his mother in a household dominated by women. The town he mythologizes in his tales is modeled after the same one where he was born and grew up. Yet, it does not feel liked these are connected as part of a continuous narrative so much as each protagonist seems to have a similar launching point from which he proceeds to tell his story. There are overlaps and divergences along the way.

The Sleep of the Righteous is published by Two Lines Press. Along with his earlier novel,  I, which was also translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and released by Seagull Books this summer, English speaking readers finally have a chance to experience the sombre magic of Wolfgang Hilbig. And, hopefully, look forward to more.