Station to station: The Interim by Wolfgang Hilbig

Will we survive this century? asked the lonely reader in his train compartment. Yes, surely we will survive this one last century.

East German author Wolfgang Hilbig was not the kind of writer one associates with sunshine and bucolic scenery. His skies seem to be forever suffused with pale white winter sun, his landscapes marked by the residue of post-war industrial expansion, his urban streets draped in shadow lit only by dim pools of artificial light. His characters typically wander through this environment, never certain where they came from, where they are going and who they are meant to be—pulling and chafing against the constraints of a life they cannot fit into. Their situations and circumstances vary, but they are all lost in some kind of provisional existence.

The Interim, the most recent Hilbig release from Two Lines Press, takes, as the name implies, this sense of impermanence and makes it explicit. This novel, originally published in 2000, is, as with previous translations, rendered into fluid, incisive English by Isabel Fargo Cole. It follows the emotional and physical restlessness of C., an acclaimed writer from the GDR who is afforded the tenuous “freedom” of life in the West in the years immediately leading up to reunification. It is a time of shifting energies on both side of the Wall and C. finds himself completely adrift, caught between the crumbling social infrastructure of his homeland and the hollow promise of Western capitalism. He endeavours to perform the part of the celebrated author, often without either ease or grace, while he struggles with writer’s block and resists committing to the woman he genuinely feels he cannot live without. Trapped in a cycle of relentless anxiety, depression, and addiction, his only refuge is the train with its familiar chain of stations carrying him back and forth across the border, between an equally elusive past and future.

To be honest, I was apprehensive about this book, afraid somehow that it would be a 300-page pilgrimage through one man’s dark and decaying life, claustrophobic and bleak. And, in a way, it is most of those things except that Hilbig is an exceptional writer. Even if he is, as ever, narrating from the edge of his own existence, he has, in this novel, wisely stepped back into a more conventional third person perspective to examine his protagonist from the distance necessary to be honest—to his character and to himself. The result is an engaging narrative tracing loss, displacement, creative struggles and romantic failures washed down with too much alcohol and self-loathing. There are unpleasant moments—wandering about drunk in strange cities, taking in pay-per-view porn with an almost clinical sense of disconnect, mopping up vomit with a book from the “Holocaust & Gulag” section of his personal book collection—but the main thrust of the narrative is fueled by real human longing, stark humour, and much of the kind of mesmerizing existential questioning that drives the dreamlike, meandering narratives more typical of his work.

C. is, by the time we encounter him, living in Nuremberg. He has been in West Germany, for several years—how many, he is never sure—with an expired visa, living in a small apartment near that of his girlfriend Hedda who is losing patience with his constant insecurities and consistent unreliability. Back in Leipzig there is another girlfriend, Mona, whom he has avoided on visits home but has never properly broken off with. Both women are aware of and challenge his insistence on holding to a series of “interim solutions” as an excuse to never have to accept any tangible solution to the existential restlessness that haunts him. But there is a sense, for C. that his entire identity is false, lacking, provisional. Especially as a writer in the increasingly forced ecosystem of the literary world around him where authors use their miseries justify their writings:

in some convoluted way he believed in the creative power of tormenting experiences (while Hedda disputed it, claim­ing that pain merely silenced people), and he’d always sus­pected himself of lacking that experience. – In fact he’d always written offhandedly, looking away from his words, which had flowed from him effortlessly. In his life he’d never done a stroke of real work, he’d done everything in passing, for the interim, as it were. The real thing is yet to come, he’d always thought, as though he had infinite time at his disposal. Now he was pushing fifty—just three years left to go—it was high time for the “real thing”…and suddenly nothing was coming at all!

If The Interim never expanded its focus beyond C.’s self-recriminations, sodden or sober, it would run the risk of becoming weighed down by its own protagonist, spinning through a circuitous, non-chronological narrative that turns in on itself to travel wide but get nowhere. But C.’s inability to find himself reflected in his own country’s marginal, backward declining state, or the West’s flashy commercialized culture of consumption, allows Hilbig to make sharp, cynical observations on the state of the world as the twentieth century is nearing its end. A century of lies, as C. describes it. Technology has fostered progress and destruction, looking back to the horrors of the Holocaust and the Gulag, and ahead to the escalation of depersonalization and commercialism under the force of Capitalism. Is the latter a saviour from the godlessness of the former or simply a new God? C. is not so sure as, from the window of a West German train, he observes cars racing along the autobahn:

Disciplined and united in close-massed squadrons, united for one minute, identical lobotomized brows behind the windshields, bodies perching their death-packed asses on a power that wasn’t theirs, fused to a steering wheel that mastered their fists, they’d flee onward as if set in motion by the lash of a great herd-driver’s whip. And that great shepherd was Capital…he said to himself each time he looked out the window of the train at the inter­twined chains of dimmed headlights, a light-suffused gas-cloud over them, a cloud of sweet Arabian perfumes as of burning pipelines, a cloud of colored miasmas that drifted along with them as they rushed down the course in formation, gigantic glittering automobile hives, and the shepherd whipped them on from one gas station to the next, where they filled themselves with their manna, tanked up on their divine gas. – Stick it to them! cried the shepherd, their God, who had long since grown weary of his flock.

If C. can never quite decide which side of the border he belongs to, within West Germany itself he is equally unsettled. He moves several times and travels for readings, tracing a network of cities through their train stations, their hotels and their seedy bars. He convinces himself that Hedda is the reason he stays at all, but he cannot understand why he seems destined to sabotage what they have. Whether it is a fear of failure or a fear of commitment, Hedda is certain that the problem, not only in their relationship but in his inability to write, lies in an unwillingness to address his childhood fears.

One of the later sections of The Interim takes C. back to memories of his childhood and youth, to an early secret love of writing through his lonely apprenticeship in a machine shop. His writing remains a hidden activity for many years, while conflicts between what he longs to be and what others expect him to be grows wider, more fraught, echoing themes that course through the pages of Hilbig’s strange and wonderful novellas. This book is essentially about becoming a writer and coming apart as a writer, while clinging to a transitional existence during a transitional time in history. In turning C.’s trauma into literature, Hilbig accomplishes the one thing the novel’s protagonist is presently unable to do.I have read, and written about, almost all of Hilbig’s work translated to date and have had the opportunity to discuss it at length with Isabel Fargo Cole who has done so much to help bring his writings to an English language audience. I loved this book. But I am not certain if I would recommend it as an introduction to his idiosyncratic writing. I feel somehow that if one has read and enjoyed other titles, especially Tidings of the Trees, Old Rendering Plant and his short story collection, Sleep of the Righteous, The Interim will feel like an opportunity to see the “Hilbig protagonist” and his creator in what might be his most true-to-life work—gritty at times, melancholy and dark, but filled with powerful language and insightful observations. Be warned, though, C. is an anti-hero unlikely to find redemption or accept it if offered.

The Interim by Wolfgang Hilbig is translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and published by Two Lines Press.