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.

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.

The Best Translated Book Award 2018: Some reflections about the fiction and poetry nominees

In advance of the announcement of this year’s BTBA finalists for fiction and poetry, I wanted to share a few thoughts about the nominated titles I have had a chance to read. I read almost half of the poetry long list and almost six of the 25 fiction titles—I say “almost” because there is a title on each side that I have not yet finished. I don’t have posted reviews for all, but I do have a few favourites going forward.

What I love about this award is that it invariably draws my attention to a few titles that I might never have encountered and, because it is based on titles released in the US, I can generally get my hands on the books that interest me. This year, because I turned my focus to poetry, the experience has been especially rewarding. Here are the books I’ve read, in whole or in part, with links to the reviews I wrote (where applicable) and some thoughts about the books read and not yet reviewed:

Fiction:

Bergeners by Tomas Espedal, translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson (Norway, Seagull Books)

I have not quite finished this book, and therefore cannot judge it fully. I am pleased to see it on the list; it’s an interesting blend of genre and so far I am enjoying it. However, as it is my first experience with Espedal, I have no context to place it against.

I Am the Brother of XX by Fleur Jaeggy, translated from the Italian by Gini Alhadeff (Switzerland, New Directions)

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur (India, Penguin)

 The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Booker (Mexico, Feminist Press)

My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (France, Two Lines Press)

Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole (Germany, Two Lines Press) Also see here.

Hands down this is my favourite title of all that I have read, a book that I absolutely adore. Above I have linked the argument in its favour that I wrote for the Three Percent site. I would have to say that this and My Heart Hemmed In are two books I really love and hope make the cut. Both, it happens, are from the same publisher, in this case Two Lines Press—a circumstance echoed on the poetry side of the equation.

*

Poetry:
Because this is where I spent most of my energies, this is where my attention will focus.

Paraguayan Sea by Wilson Bueno, translated from the Portunhol and Guarani to Frenglish and Guarani by Erin Moore (Brazil, Nightboat Books)

Raining. Winter wet pluries of southern hemispheric June in the beach town. Dense fog, tick, a sort of paste of days when the rains start to soak even gardens and streets. An evocation of fairies through the windows: all marrying winter, leurs sombreros s’embracent in an orgy of wet leaves. I swear.

I have not yet finished this most unusual book—an extended prose poem that employs a delicious blend of languages to tell a strange narrative tale. Very intriguing, it would be good to see it make the cut.

Hackers by Aase Berg, translated from the Swedish by Johannes Goransson (Sweden, Black Ocean Press)

I am
inside you
Where nobody expected
Looneysingapore
Hovered down through
The Phillipine
storm

cat-soft
toxoplasma
schizosex

Endorphoria
never kills
its host world

Of the poetry I read, this book was the least successful for me. The imagery—parasites, computer viruses, hackers, movie and pop culture references—did not resonate with me. I could admire it, the translation is slippery and solid, but I don’t feel I would be drawn back to it so readily. It is a quick read, so another visit is likely in order. But not yet.Before Lyricism by Eleni Vakalo, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Greece, Ugly Duckling)

The plants in the garden
Give a first impression
Of peace
Even more so than pets
But that impression changes
As evening falls
And the garden seems to have multiplied
In the movement
Of proportions of changes
You understand
At such times I try not to look
In case someone is hiding there
As it often seems
Though in morning the garden
Will be once more
Like the slanting line on the cheeks
Of very young girls
When the light strikes them from the side

—from “Plant Upbringing”

I did not have time to review this book, but probably will write more soon. This is a magnificent collection of six early book length poems by Eleni Vakalo, presented with great attention to placement and space on the page, and intended to be read as complete pieces. One of the exciting encounters of my recent BTBA poetry excursions.

Things That Happen by Bhaskar Chakrabarti, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha (India, Seagull Books)

I am so pleased to see an Indian author in translation on each list. This collection strikes a melancholic tone and speaks to very human emotions—loneliness, loss and nostalgia. It speaks to the diversity represented by the BTBA selections.

Adrenalin by Ghayath Almadhoun, translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham (Syria, Action Books)

If it isn’t clear from my recent review, I love this book. It is a vital collection and so very timely. I would be quite happy to see this take the award. I certainly hope it makes the short list, along with my other favourite, also from the same publisher, Action Books (in this case a joint publication with Broken Dimache Press in Europe).

Third-Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjær Olsen, translated from the Danish by Katrine Øgaard Jensen (Denmark, Action Books & Broken Dimanche Press)

You were inside me like I was a house; that does not
mean I know what’s going on inside you. A house
does not know the interior of its resident.

That is the other wall for loneliness.
To irradiate.

My x-ray/loneliness.
Your loneliness/grass.

If you are to be tortured, I must
teach you to sing: as I walked out one midsummer’s morning
it will keep them out.

You make me think, as I walked out, I must learn to sing
double with one voice,

whose song will fan in to seven voices
whose songs will each fan into seven voices
whose songs will each fan into seven voices, whose songs will

make the air solid and prevent any movement. No one can move.
No one can harm you.

I have read this book many times, my copy is exploding with marginalia and sticky notes, and in response, I wrote an experimental review that has been published at Minor Literature[s] . In the meantime, I will say it is at once spare and epic. A post-human vision that moves beyond patriarchal and matriarchal physical, social, and political dynamics—edgy, unnerving and ultimately inspiring. A challenging work, I love it as a piece of literature, and find it endlessly fascinating as a person with a bi-gendered life experience and a history of heart-stopping re-awakening (in literal terms).

So, now to see the short list…

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.

 

Winter solstice (again): 2015 – The year in review

I tend to run solstice to solstice, so this seems as good a time as any to pull together my thoughts about the year that was. I debated the conventional “best of” list affair, but somehow that is not reflective of the way I read or engaged with literature this year. I began the year still finding my footing as a book blogger, my earliest reviews tended to be less critical, more personal. By the end of the year I feel I have endeavoured to establish a more critical but, hopefully still accessible approach. Off my blog, it was an honour to cap off 2015 with my first review on Numéro Cinq where I have been invited to join the masthead. I am most thankful to Douglas Glover, the fine editor of this fine magazine, for having faith in my ability to write.

8294617299_b22c0cd186_z(1)I read and write about books as a an effort to strengthen my own skills both as a reader and a writer, but behind it all is a writing project of my own that has been struggling its way into being, seemingly with an infinite number of forays down paths leading to dead ends. So the following is a review of the year and, along the way, a nod to some of the books, new and not so new, that kept me company.

Reading in translation: I have typically read widely, but I never stopped to focus specifically on literature in translation, or, for that matter, to even think of much that I did read as being translated – sounds odd, I know, I think I just thought of myself as someone who tended to read internationally. Joining a shadow jury for the IFFP and then devouring as much of the BTBA long list as I could manage was, for me, a significant turning point in the way that I saw and focused my reading. My books are now shelved (or stacked) by original language. Apart from English I read books in 20 languages over the past year; German, French, Afrikaans, Czech and Spanish topped the list.

istrosIndependent and not-for-profit publishers: This year I became more conscious about looking to and supporting independent publishers. I was already well aware of Istros Books, a small UK publishing house dedicated to bringing Balkan and Central European writers to an English speaking audience, but this year I had the pleasure of meeting with publisher Susan Curtis, and visiting her closet sized office in the heart of London. She has been a most supportive influence in my development as a reviewer, and because I believe in their books and trust her instincts as an editor, I always look forward to their new releases. I also became conscious of other publishers including And Other Stories, Twisted Spoon, and Two Lines Press, just to name a few. I would reckon I bought few books from major publishers over the course of the past year, and trust me, I bought a lot of books!

2015-10-22 11.21.29Seagull Books: Here I have to credit (or blame?) Anthony of Times Flow Stemmed for bringing Calcutta based Seagull Books to my attention in recent months. I may be late to the party as they seem to have a core of passionate devotees. A book from Seagull is, quite simply, a finely crafted treasure, a reminder why books will never be supplanted by their electronic versions. They are also willing to take on authors or works that other publishers often balk at as witnessed by their impressive German, Swiss, French and African literary offerings, but any publisher who can transform a child’s tale by Thomas Bernhard into a huge, gorgeous picture book for all ages is alright by me!

23818667295_d1e4f92c94_zSouth Africa: I have had a significant interest in the literature of South Africa for a number of years but this spring, feeling especially isolated and unhappy in my present circumstances, I decided, rather suddenly, to visit the country for the first time. I aimed for the solstice, effectively trading what would have been summer solstice here in the north for winter solstice in the southern hemisphere. I spent time with a dear friend in the Eastern Cape, then kicked around Cape Town and dropped a small fortune on books.

An ending does not give a life meaning: On my last full day in Cape Town, I sat in the Company’s Gardens, took the notebook I had carried and scribbled in, back to front as is my habit, throughout my journey; opened it to the first page and began to write. I felt I had reached a point, perhaps of closure, a space in which to truly start to pull together my endless personal writing project. I was certain I could, from that vantage point, look back over the months to June of 2014 when I walked away from my job, wildly manic after a period of unbearable workplace stress, and finally begin to give shape to that story I had been trying to tell for so long. I was at an end, of sorts, so I thought, and now I could work back.

14344933323_66912ab5a8_zBut I was wrong: Just over two weeks after I returned home, a pulmonary embolism I had unknowingly developed, a souvenir most likely of my recklessly long flight back, triggered cardiac arrest – in my sleep. The quick response of my son, who happened to be home, saved my life. I nearly reached that “end”, not the one that I imagined would be the point at which I could render my particular life experience and write some meaning into it, but an end final and complete. One that would have left me mute, distorted in the memories of those who have known me. The story would no longer be mine.

So what of writing? That is most critically the end to which I read, seeking ways into a story, or stories, I that need to be able to explore – to ultimately put behind me. I can write easily about other people’s words but I choke up on my own. And so the following list of books are those which spoke to me this year as a reader and a writer. I read over 90 books and enjoyed many including: the long overlooked Hansen’s Children by Ognjen Spahic, Ivan Vladislavić’s Double Negative, While the Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier, Can Xue’s The Last Lover, Marlene van Niekerk’s monumental Agaat, not to mention her wonderful Swan Whisperer from the Cahier series, and  Primeval and Other Times by Olga Tokarczuk. I have, by the way, excluded from this accounting a host of writers I expect to like and therefore read regularly, often repeatedly, including Bernhard, Sebald, Borges, Coetzee, Damon Galgut, and, added to the group this year, Bohumil Hrabal.

But the following books were, for me, the most vital. Thbirdse order is chronological, as read:

The Alphabet of Birds (And Other Stories) S J Naudé (Afrikaans/tr. SJ Naudé)
* This debut collection, of long, simmering, often disturbing, stories is simply some of the most sensuous work I have ever encountered. The characters are typically groundless, searching South African ex-pats, uncertain residents trying to find their place, and or those suspended somewhere in between.

atavisms

 

Atavisms (Dalkey) – Maxime Raymond Bock (French/tr. Pablo Strauss)
* The thirteen stories that make up Atavisms reach back hundreds of years, stand in the present, and spin into the future to explore the Québécois experience – at the personal and the political level. Bock skillfully employs a variety of genres to create what reads, in the end, as a mulit-facetted yet cohesive whole. Most impressive.

 

The Elusive Moth (Open Letter) – Ingrid Winterbach (Afrikaans/tr. Iris Gouws & Ingrid Winterbach )
* This novel about an entomologist in search of some way to fill or heal an ache that even she is at pains to articulate becomes an evocative exploration of memory, loss and anxiety. The story unfolds through scenes that repeat motifs, imagery, and fragmented conversations; set against racial tensions building in the small town where she has come to conduct research. The result has an unforgettable cinematic, art film feel.

 On Wing (Dalkey) / Signs & Symptoms (Twisted gal_on-wingSpoon) – Róbert Gál (Slovak/tr. Mark Kanak/Madelaine Hron)
* As I have tossed my own writing goals between fiction and memoir, happy with neither, I had sensed that an experimental approach might be part of the mix. However I had been frustrated with many of the works I had encountered – at least in so far as they spoke to me in a meaningful constructive way. With On Wing and then Gal’s earlier Signs & Symptoms I finally encountered works that I could enter into with my own observations and begin to map out ways of talking about the essentially philosophical issues I want to address. Re-engaging with philosophy years after my formal studies in the field, has also been critical to framing the way I view the essentially ontological questions I wish to articulate. So I am most grateful to Róbert for both his writing and his encouragement.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (Farrar Straus and Giroux) – Peter Handke (German/tr. Ralph Manheim)
* This 69 page memoir, Handke’s finely wrought tribute to his mother written within months of her suicide at the age of 51, not only paints a careful and delicate portrait of a woman trapped by her circumstances, but offers reflections on the challenges of telling a true story – distilling an entire life to the essential elements – when it might be easier to simply make up stories, to, say, write a play. A whole life is messy to write about with elegance. Handke succeeds.

dreamhorsesA Dream of Horses & Other Stories (Roundfire Books) – Aashish Kaul
* This is a collection of dreamscapes populated by seekers of truths, purveyors of words, storytellers and readers. Most of the protagonists are writers, negotiating the fine balance between truth and imagination, struggling to capture the point of intersection in words. At least in my own experiences as a writer, or would-be-writer, that is what spoke to me throughout this melancholy, impressionistic book. And that is why it has to be on my list.

Vertigo (Dorothy Project) – Joanna Walsh
* Short story collections dominate my favourite books this year. It was an intentional focus, again with an eye to becoming more confident with medium. To that end, I recognize that the stories I am drawn to tend to have narrative arcs that are less pronounced, or more subtle, than some may like. The writing is typically more evocative, more ambiguous, more difficult to define and pin down. Like Vertigo – brutally sharp, spare and gorgeous, cutting to the quick of everyday life – an exquisite piece of work.

Dry Season (Istros Books) – Gabriela Babnik (Slovene / tr. Rawley Grau)
* I read many fine and challenging works from Istros Books this year, but the most stunning and devastatingly original has to be the EU Prize winning novel Dry Season. This tale of a love affair between a 62 year-old Slovenian woman and a 27 year-old man from Burkina Faso breaks every expectation, weaving African magical realism into a layered metafictional narrative that culminates in an ending so unexpected that it suddenly throws everything into a new light. Or does it?

sleepSleep of the Righteous (Two Lines Press) – Wolfgang Hilbig (German/tr. Isabel Fargo Cole)
* 2015 saw the release, for the first time in English, of two works by the late German author Wolfgang Hilbig – both championed and translated by Isabel Cole (The other, I, from Seagull Books is waiting on my shelf.) The magic of this collection, set in East Germany before and after re-unification, lies in the atmosphere created by the long sentences that flow, like a stream, back and forward again. Starting grounded in a harsh reality the narratives slip into a subtly surreal, gray-toned, world where reality blurs at the edges and memory takes on a haunting, dark quality.

Adventures in Immediate Irreality (New Drections) – Max Blecher (Romanian/tr. Michael Henry Heim)
* It may well be that my most memorable read of the entire year is one of the last – an impulse buy if I can be honest. A prisoner of the plaster body casts that were the standard treatment of spinal tuberculosis, Blecher’s creative imagination penetrates the experience of being in the world at the level of minute, intimate detail and manages to capture with acute sensitivity those moments of reality in flux and flow. I don’t know how unique this way of interacting with the world is, but as someone who has always had a discordant, dysphoric relationship with his own body, there is more for me, personally, in this book than I can begin to express. A fine closure to a year of excellent reading experiences.

Finally I am most grateful for the conversation and company of the book bloggers and twitter literary folk with whom I have been so fortunate to engage over the past year. I have a dearth of book lovers in my real life. I was at a Christmas party the other night and a game was played in which we were each to share our three worst Christmas gifts – two true and one lie. I was saddened how many people included books among their worst gifts ever. Breaks my heart. Bless you all for keeping me (somewhat) sane.

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.