Thanks to Isabel Fargo Cole’s translations, Anglophone readers were introduced last year to one of German literature’s best-kept secrets: the writer Wolfgang Hilbig, the enchantingly brilliant, haunted, and, in Cole’s own words, ornery voice of the postwar divided country. Along with Hilbig’s last book of short stories, The Sleep of the Righteous (Two Lines Press), 2015 saw the English appearance of the novel ‘I’ (Seagull Books), a labyrinthine tale of a Stasi informant in search of his own memories. In his introduction to The Sleep of the Righteous, László Krasznahorkai writes that Hilbig “discovered a wondrous language to describe a horrific world.”
Born in 1941 in Meuselwitz, an industrial coal-mining town in eastern Germany, Hilbig grew up in the socialist German Democratic Republic. After several years of struggle with the authorities, including the Stasi, he was finally permitted to leave for West Germany in 1985. He died in 2007, having been awarded almost all of Germany’s major literary prizes.
Isabel Fargo Cole has lived in Berlin since 1995. Our conversation was conducted in person on March 24, 2016, in that city.
— Madeleine LaRue
Madeleine LaRue: One thing that strikes me about all of the stories in The Sleep of the Righteous is Hilbig’s tendency to develop these slowly-unfolding contradictions. He’ll set up one proposition, and then later, seem to state the opposite. This happens even in the very first story: it’s called “The Place of Storms,” but there are, in fact, no storms. And in “The Bottles in the Cellar,” which is my favorite story in the collection—
Isabel Fargo Cole: Mine, too.
ML: It’s so great! And your translation is so beautiful. In that story, there’s a weird contradiction of time. The narrator seems to be terrified of the past that the bottles represent, but also terrified of the future—he’s afraid he’s going to grow up and have to deal with these bottles. And because of these fears, the present is somehow cancelled out. This all seems connected to Hilbig’s relationship to the past, to time in general, and to the post-war state he’s always writing about. Can you comment on that?
IFC: That’s a really interesting observation. I think there are a couple of different levels to it. One of them is that, fundamentally, he always calls into question the idea that you can have a precise idea of reality. Reality can be two things—maybe it’s one thing, maybe it’s the exact opposite, and it’s impossible to figure out what it is. You might try and try to figure it out, and it might look like one thing, but then suddenly turns into the other thing, and then back again. So his main characters are often frantically wandering around, trying to figure out what is actually going on, or looking for some place where they think they’ll find a phenomenon or an answer—the storms, maybe—and they never quite get to it.
The aspect of time, I think, is a whole other topic, a very big topic that’s also an aspect of this difficulty of getting a handle on reality. Hilbig’s characters are often spiraling around, getting sucked back into the past and then being in the past and wanting to grow up, or to work their way out of the situation they’re in, which they never actually end up doing. They just keep spiraling around and around in the same situation. I think the best example of that for me is in the novel ‘I’, since the entire book is this labyrinthine spiraling around between levels of time. The protagonist wanders around in these underground passages—he’s trying to find his memories, which he doesn’t have a connection to anymore, and he’s never quite sure what point of the narrative he’s actually at, which means that the reader’s not quite sure either, making it a challenging book to read. It may take a couple of readings to see, but it has a sophisticated, complex structure, with different levels of time. Suddenly you’ll be ejected into a previous part of the narrative. And that also has contradictions—you may think you’re seeing the same scene again, but it plays out differently. You also have this theme of doppelgängers, like you see in the last story in The Sleep of the Righteous, “The Dark Man,” which is also a kind of contradiction, where the narrator is facing a figure who’s not him, who is him, maybe he’s him, and you’re never quite sure. Maybe they’re in opposition, but—
ML: They seem codependent—
ML: Let’s stick with the doppelgänger for a minute. “The Dark Man” is the most obvious doppelgänger situation in the collection, but the theme appears several times in some form. There’s a fantastic tradition of the doppelgänger in literature, especially Russian literature—what do you think Hilbig’s contribution to this tradition is? How does he interpret it, what does he bring to it?
IFC: Hilbig comes very much out of the German Romantic tradition; that’s what he read when he was growing up. He often references that tradition consciously, but I don’t see it as a calculated device on his part. It’s hard to define too precisely, and probably one shouldn’t try to define it too precisely, but the doppelgänger often reflects a sense of different possibilities within the same person. One theme that’s common to “The Dark Man” and to ‘I’ is this idea that he, if things had just gone slightly differently, he could have been that other man. Hilbig was actually victimized by the Stasi, but he could have been the pursuer, rather than the pursued.
ML: That’s what they wanted from him, right? The Stasi were trying to recruit him as an informer and he refused?
ML: So there’s this ambiguity of a possible alternate future.
IFC: Yeah. He’s someone who’s very much aware of the dark sides of his own personality, and very pessimistic. I think the idea of overcoming your dark side wouldn’t even really enter into his realm of possibilities; it’s something that all his characters are constantly grappling with.
ML: Although I find it interesting that in “The Dark Man,” it’s actually the narrator who kills his double. In a lot of other stories about doppelgängers, the doppelgänger wins in the end. Even in early versions—I thought of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale about the man and his shadow, where the shadow eventually kills the man—or in Dostoevsky or Gogol, where the doppelgänger usually comes out on top.
IFC: But then, by killing him, he becomes a perpetrator. So they switch roles: he kills his dark side, but in so doing, he becomes the dark man. I mean, that’s too simplistic an interpretation, but there is that element. And there’s a famous scene in one of his other novels, Das Provisorium, which is almost a variation on the doppelgänger theme, where the main character gets into a boxing match with a store dummy, he thinks he’s being shadowed—and there’s this constant, kind of absurd sense of being persecuted and trying to defend yourself, but ending up just shadow boxing.
ML: I wonder if you could talk for a moment about Hilbig’s relationship to politics and the Stasi legacy. Because obviously this is a huge theme in his work—in almost every story, the narrator has this feeling of being chased, or being watched, or being followed. There’s always a sense of danger from some faceless, unknown source. Yet, in “The Dark Man,” the narrator sees or hears some East German writers talking about getting their Stasi files, and he feels tremendous contempt for these people for basing their whole literary careers on this legacy. He rebels against it, yet it seems to have had such a profound impact upon his own work.
IFC: Well, he was just generally an ornery guy. The whole discussion about the Stasi was extremely fraught in the early 90s, and he obviously knew very well the suffering that the Stasi had brought about, and he’d had his own conflicts with them and seen those of other people. He later felt that he had even let them get off too easily in his own writing and hadn’t depicted the full brutality that they were capable of. But at the same time, in the early 90s, he didn’t feel comfortable with the way that East Germans were being taken over by the West and were being subjected to certain processes. There was one point at which he famously said that the reunification was like Unzucht mit Abhängigen—essentially statutory rape. He liked to put things provocatively, but there was a sense that a lot of East Germans did have that, even though the legacy of the Stasi was important to work through, at the same time, the process of working through it within the power relations between East and West Germans was difficult. So I think he was expressing some of that resentment that East Germans as a whole were being tarred by the Stasi affair, or they were being put in the stocks to demonstrate—
ML: Scapegoated, a little bit?
IFC: Yeah, so that was that whole complex discussion that he was reacting to. He was reacting both against the people who were trying to trivialize what the Stasi had done, and against the West coming in and making everyone deal with everything—this kind of imperialism, this cooptation. And you see a lot of that in “The Dark Man,” in the narrator’s tensions with his West German wife and their bitter discussions.
ML: I thought that story in particular, and that relationship, did a nice job of showing the fault lines between East and West Germans. The narrator also makes a poignant statement about how, even though he lives in one of the most beautiful areas in West Germany, he doesn’t want to write about it—
IFC: Well, it wasn’t that he doesn’t want to write about it—
ML: Just that he doesn’t write about it.
IFC: I was thinking—recently, in reference to a piece in The Boston Review, Sarah Coolidge on the Two Lines Press blog wrote about how, although Hilbig’s writing is often presented as a dichotomy between East and West, the truth isn’t that simple. That was thought-provoking; on the one hand, I do think that it’s a good handle for this book, to explain that Hilbig was torn or that he moved between East and West—but I think dichotomy is maybe the wrong word. It wasn’t a dichotomy in the political sense, in that he hated the East and thought the West was great, because in fact, he probably thought that anything that people do, any kind of state that is created by human beings is going to be terribly flawed. And he had lots of problems with the West—he hated the consumerism, the materialism, the constant advertisements, the media circus, all that. That’s something he talks about in Das Provisorium—it’s about the situation described in “The Dark Man,” where he was living in the West and trying to cope with his own culture shock. So it’s not a dichotomy in the sense that the West was a counter-example to the East; it was just an alien world, it wasn’t his element, it wasn’t something he could write about. I mean, his stories are extremely elemental. I don’t think anything he writes is about a specific political system. That’s why ‘I’ is not just about the Stasi, it’s also about power relations and psychology and certain mechanisms that are in each human being that enable surveillance states and dictatorships to come about. I really like what Krasznahorkai says in the introduction to The Sleep of the Righteous, that Hilbig only wrote about East Germany, but East Germany was the world. And it is the world in this sense. What he does with time is very interesting here. So many of his stories and novellas have all these layers of time, like in “The Memories,” where the landscape around his home town of Meuselwitz, the soil itself has all these layers of history and memories, and he just happens to be there in the 70s in East Germany. All these ghosts from the past are there, the past is there in the soil and in the ruins that are still present, and so you have this sense of it being this very narrow layer, and in twenty years there’ll be another layer and more ruins, and in fifty years there’ll be more ruins, and it’s all part of one big process. And in that sense, what political system East Germany has as opposed to West Germany is not that crucial an issue to him. He didn’t go to West Germany out of a massive sense of conviction, it was just that he happened to be there on a fellowship and stayed there out of inertia—and he could publish there—but it wasn’t this conscious act of rejecting the East and going to the West, or choosing one political system over another.
ML: That seems to fit with the impression of the personality, or the type of mind, that I get from his work. I wouldn’t describe him as a political writer, despite the clear influence of East German system on his work. Nor, for all his animist tendencies, does he seem like a mystical person. And you’ve mentioned too the materiality of his stories—he’s very grounded in physical things. Sometimes the awe of them, more often the horror of them—or just sometimes the presence, the presence of the things themselves is overwhelming. What I find masterful in him is, when he’s describing these things, a metaphor or a resonance with some psychological or historical problem eventually emerges, but you don’t feel that he’s going out of his way to construct some kind of allegory. It seems to arise organically.
IFC: It’s just in the ground. It’s all in there.
ML: Right, at some point, he writes, “What is it lies beneath us?”, which seems to be the key question for him. He’s very concerned about what’s underground. And this maybe goes back to the Romantic or the Gothic tradition—this confusion between the qualities of things. He often describes objects or natural features like people, and then he describes people as if they were objects—there’s a blurring of qualities, because what’s important is actually their physicality and their position in space.
IFC: German Romantic literature has a lot of mines and people going down into caves, and so that fits into that tradition. I mean, he’s very steeped in this literary tradition, but you have the sense that it’s something that he—he started reading all these things as a child, so it’s this elemental, literary experience that melds with his own experience of the landscape. It doesn’t feel like he’s using these devices in a calculated way, but it does fit into this tradition. Which I think is natural in a way. Actually, I had a very interesting conversation with some British people the other day. We were talking about Romantic literature and how German Romantic literature has all these mines and English [Romantic literature] doesn’t, because England doesn’t have the same kind of mining. Coal and tin mining, but not deep mining. Someone said, isn’t it interesting how the landscape shapes the literature? And that’s appropriate to Hilbig too, because he’s born into a certain landscape and he excavates it, and that’s what the Romantic writers were interested in doing—delving into things, looking at how things are connected, looking at nature, trying to get to the roots of things.
ML: We talked a lot about political context in terms of East Germany and West Germany and the Stasi, but the other context which seems to be even farther below the surface, still exerting an influence but rarely directly referenced, is the Second World War. The narrator in “The Place of Storms” brings it up, saying that the older boys remember the war and they thought it was more exciting than now, but there are other hints of it as well, and particularly, for me, in “The Bottles in the Cellar.” I thought of Sebald’s comment about the conspiracy of silence, how everyone refused to talk about the war for twenty years or more; part of the horror of this cellar full of bottles is that it’s there and it’s enormous, but it’s completely silent.
IFC: That’s interesting, because that’s one story where I didn’t immediately sense the Second World War… For me, in a way, it almost feels more present than the East German [past]. The past always feels more present than the present in his stories. In the stories in the second half of the book, which are set after 1989, everything is still stuck in the past—the GDR [East Germany] is almost even more present than it was in the earlier stories, and the stories that are set in the GDR are almost overwhelmed by the Nazi past. I don’t know, maybe it feels more present for me because I’m more familiar with that particular landscape myself and I know that there was a forced labor camp in Meuselwitz—
ML: He mentions this directly—I think it’s even in the first paragraph, he mentions that the inmates of concentration camps were working there in his hometown. So it is referenced, but I feel like usually it’s more in the mood—
IFC: Well, it’s in the topography—he often talks about the ruins of these armaments factories where he played as a kid, and that crops up over and over again—
ML: Playing in the ashes, literally.
IFC: Yeah, and I think these ashes—it’s in the images, and to me it feels very present, I think because maybe I’ve been working with this topography for so long. It almost feels to me like the East German present, which was supposed to have totally overcome the Nazi past and brought this bright new future, is an incredibly thin crust on top of all this darkness in the ponds and the strip mines that the narrator swims in that are literally glowing from underneath, and bubbling and boiling. Or there’s the story where the horse slips through the crust and falls into a pit, into the hell fires, basically. So for me, the images seem so connected to the war and the concentration camps that they seem very present in the natural images throughout the stories. But in a way where you can read them way or the other. And so that might just be my interpretation.
ML: Since we’re talking so much about the landscape: I know you took a trip to Meuselwitz recently, and you wrote a beautiful essay about it—was it your first time there?
IFC: It was my first time there, because it’s not really…
ML: Not really a tourist destination?
IFC: I mean, it’s not far from Leipzig, maybe forty-five minutes, but you wouldn’t really go there. I’d always planned to go there, but I never got around to it. And then I was put in touch with an old friend of Hilbig’s—he’s from Meuselwitz but lives in Leipzig now—and he’s been very helpful, and offered to show me around, and of course I just jumped at the chance.
ML: Did it feel necessary for the process of translating or getting to know Hilbig, or was it just out of curiosity, after having read so much of his work?
IFC: Well, what’s the difference between curiosity and necessity? I mean, I’m a very obsessive person, so if I’m working on something—like, when I translated Among the Bieresch by Klaus Hoffer, which was set on the Neusiedler See [Lake Neusiedl] on the border between Austria and Hungary, I went there and he showed me around and it felt like something I wanted to do. I don’t know if it was necessary in that I would have translated this or that word differently, but it was interesting in a lot of ways, also to see what Hilbig left out. Because it’s actually quite a pretty town. They’ve fixed it up and it’s got this nice marketplace and it’s kind of picturesque, and it has some actually really attractive remnants of an old palace where Voltaire used to hang out. But he never talked about this palace ever! I think all that’s left now is the orangerie, and it’s in this very nice landscape park. It was probably a romantic ruin back then, but he never wasted a word on it. Which I think is typical—first of all, he wasn’t interested much in the Enlightenment, except to skewer this idea of rationalistic…—in ‘I’, he plays with the word Aufklärung [Enlightenment] as meaning simultaneously reconnaissance, surveillance, enlightenment, and rationality—and you get the sense that these are all things that he does not approve of, because the Enlightenment represents a certain line of political thinking, these rationalistic utopias that ultimately lead to socialism and the catastrophe that that was. And I think that he was someone who—it’s hard to describe him as political in the sense that, “I’ve got these political ideals and this system,” because I think for him, that would be too much in this Enlightenment, rationalistic tradition, and I think that he would have felt that that kind of rigid structure, or this idea of utopia, ends up suppressing or not dealing with the darker and emotional elements of life. And there’s also the aspect of technology and human rationality and nature. What you see of progress in his stories is really just devastation—all Germany’s wonderful industrial, and scientific progress—
ML: The “economic miracle”—
IFC: And even before that—the nineteenth century was this time of incredible technical progress and industrialization in Germany.
ML: Well, and as you described his personal politics before, he sounded quite impulsive—not rationalistic, not logical.
IFC: Yeah, I think he was. I remember I once went to a panel discussion with him and several other writers. It was some discussion on dealing with the German past in literature. It was typical because the other writers on the panel were sitting there, analyzing their own work in this very lit-critty way, they had these whole explanations of their novels that they would roll out, and they knew what they were supposed to say. So they did their spiel, and he was just sitting there, looking more and more impatient and fuming. And then he got called on and—so, “What do you think, Herr Hilbig?”—and he just stammered out something like, “Es geht um die Imagination. Imagination ist wichtig.” [“It’s all about imagination. Imagination is important.”] And it was like he couldn’t even get more words out than that, but he was just so frustrated, first of all with the idea that the writer is supposed to sit on the stage and glibly produce a theory about his own work—I’ve never forgotten that. And it shook everything up a little bit. But I also felt that he was playing the gadfly role there and enjoying himself. I think this is also a cautionary word about analyzing his work—not that he never did analyze his work, he’s written a lot of essays about philosophical and literary questions, but he’s not someone who analyzes in this rationalistic way. He works more intuitively, or he works more with images, and he’s read all these philosophers, but he’s not someone who sets up a clean, analytical model—it’s always a messy process.
ML: You’ve touched on this a bit in other interviews, but it’s still an interesting question to me: the role of women in The Sleep of the Righteous and their relationship to water. It seems that, in the stories that involve women—because there aren’t a lot of women, and they’re usually side characters—but particularly in “The Place of Storms” and “Coming,” there’s a strong connection between women and water. Which is somehow interesting because it seems so elemental, almost mythological—fire-men and water-women—even though it’s not mystical, it’s presented in a very matter-of-fact way.
IFC: Yeah, he’s not mystical, but I think he’s sort of pagan. And even the word “pagan” suggests a system of belief, but I think he just had a very strong connection to the elements. I think the connection with the women and the water in these stories might be kind of coincidental. I think women in his work are often associated—in keeping with a long tradition—with natural images. In this story, he associates them with elements of nature and nature is actually something that he can get close to, whereas the women are always elusive. He’s able to become one with nature, in a very messy way, nature is also this dirty, devastated thing, but it’s still elemental—and you know, what if everything’s covered with coal dust? Coal dust is also nature. It’s all just mixed together. And women—it often feels that nature is a substitute for women.
ML: Yeah, he doesn’t seem to be able to relate to the women particularly well, but he can relate to nature.
IFC: Well, he can’t relate to anyone! His persona is always of someone who just has incredible problems relating to other people at all—who’s suspicious, who’s shunned, who likes to work down in the boiler room where he won’t have to see anyone. And who wants to be alone, but who’s tormented by being alone. He has trouble relating to the men, too, but it’s not usually as tormenting because he doesn’t have as much of a need—although, the story with Gunsch (“The Memories”), with his Polish colleague, that’s an instance where he’s trying to find a connection to this person too, and also to his own past. And they’re like two alien beings who can’t find a language to use with each other. But then the women in his work are also living and suffering in this messed-up world, but they’re the few characters in his work who seem to have some kind of dignity or decency. The description of his dying lover, Marie, in the last story—which for me is incredibly powerful—is another strong example of his desire to somehow connect with her in these last days of her life, and his inability to. He feels there’s something he should be doing to have one last contact with her, or show her what she meant to him, and he just can’t do it, and she’s “smiling ironically” at him the whole time. And he doesn’t know what’s behind that smile and you don’t know, but she somehow, even though she’s obviously had a probably not very happy life and is now dying of cancer, she somehow seems to be her own person, to somehow have control—
ML: The narrator’s wife even says, when she’s criticizing East Germans for being too passive, that Marie is the only one who tried to live independently. She’s an exception from the beginning.
IFC: And then the narrator’s wife, I also think that’s interesting—even though he describes their marital quarrel with a directness that’s hard to take, and it’s based very closely on his own marriage—
ML: That’s sad!
IFC: Well, his wife, the writer Natascha Wodin, then wrote a book about him, which is also quite hard-hitting. I think it’s interesting in the story—you see their quarrels and he’ll say all these nasty things about her, “Well, I was paying the whole rent…!” and all that kind of stuff, but at the same time he’s presenting her in such a way that—I mean, she’s not necessarily a sympathetic character, but you do get a strong sense of her and, at the end, she has the decency to respect his former lover, she has more of a moral perspective than he does about a lot of things. So it is typical of the female characters in his books that they’re the moral center—which falls back into clichéd gender roles, with the man as the chaotic genius and the woman as the pillar of strength, but in the context that all the characters are struggling in an apocalyptic world, where the women are pillars of strength in a very qualified way… I don’t find myself chafing at his descriptions of the women because they are half-way decent, they’re not idealized—I mean, he does have idealized female characters who are pale and beautiful who waft through the stories, but he’s also conscious that he’d idealizing them and that they’re figments, and he writes about that. He’s aware that these are fantasies, and then there are these more realistic women who are described, sort of sketched in, but you get a strong sense of them.
ML: And I feel it’s the relationships with them that throw into relief the narrator’s own failings. In his conversations with men, the relationship is usually less intimate anyway—or it’s the bizarre recurring grandfather-grandson relationship, which has its own dynamic of estrangement—
IFC: And he’s always painfully conscious of his failings.
ML: Oh yes, but there’s this moment in “The Dark Man” when Marie is dying and he’s thinking about what he should have done. And what he criticizes himself for is not lying down next to her and trying to make love to her—while she’s dying! Which doesn’t seem like the right response at all!
IFC: I was just reading that and thinking about that. And he says something like, “but there was some incomprehensible darkness that kept me from doing that”—that makes the moment extremely ambiguous… On the one hand, you think, that was probably an inappropriate idea—
ML: But it’s also a lack of imagination? Like he couldn’t think of how else to approach her, other than sexually? Like he couldn’t imagine any other way of relating to her, even in a situation where the sexual way was inappropriate.
IFC: For me, that moment is very ambiguous— because on the hand, what he wants to do feels invasive, but on the other hand, it is his genuine need to seek a connection with her, and he thinks of it in this physical way, and that’s also an elemental thing, and I think it does go back to the elemental way that he experiences things. But he makes the point throughout the entire story that he realizes he wasn’t able to express his love for her, and he was only ever thinking in terms of sex, and as he says in the other story, he lacked the words to tell her. It’s a very uncomfortable, very fraught relationship. Then again, at this moment in “The Dark Man,” I’m not sure “make love to her” is quite the right phrase. It’s about physical contact in the face of death, and recalling her as a vital, erotic being in the face of death. The fact that she’s dying makes his physical desire seem inappropriate on one level, but profoundly appropriate on another—death is physical, death is happening to her body, and the impulse he didn’t act on would have been an attempt to suspend that, to defy mortality. His desire is all he has to offer, as always, but now, because she is dying, it finally has existential weight, it’s a celebration of her life. Ultimately what is sexual is not “merely sexual,” it is about life in defiance of death. That’s what comes across in this moment for me and redeems the transgressiveness of it.
ML: To speak about a different kind of relationship: I find it interesting that all the characters are fatherless. There are only grandfathers, there are no fathers. There’s a broken link with the past.
IFC: His narrators are always himself, and I imagine if you did grow up without a father—
ML: Which I guess he did?
IFC: Yeah, his father went missing in action at Stalingrad, so he was raised by his mother and her father, who was Polish. Which is the background for the stories, and which is another thing I think contributes to being an outsider: he’s not even really German, he’s from this dark East, etc. The issue of fatherlessness is important in ‘I’—the main character is also fatherless, and that ends up being a big theme. One theme of the novel is that there’s this girl back in the narrator’s home town who he was hopelessly in love with, and she never let him get anywhere near her—she would make out with all the other guys but never with him—and then she has a baby, and she puts him down as the father. So he’s supposed to pay child support, and then the Stasi come and say, “Oh well, we see that you’ve had this child that you’re supposed to be taking care of. We’ll be happy to take over the child support payments if you’ll help us out a little bit.” So that’s how he gets sucked into the Stasi. But then the child crops up in this nightmarish scene of absolute neglect, it’s sickly and it won’t eat and there’s baby food all over the apartment and the mother is at her wits’ end, and the idea of this child without a father, growing up in this crumbling state—that becomes a powerful theme in the novel. And the narrator begins to develop a weird sense of responsibility to find the child, and worries that it’s died or disappeared, and that comes through very powerfully, and that he also feels his own experience as a fatherless child. That’s another kind of time loop, of things circling around over and over, fatherless children having fatherless children. So that was obviously a big, fundamental part of his psyche, but then it was something that was a common experience for his generation.
ML: This goes back to the Second World War. All of the children are fatherless.
IFC: Right, and it’s almost a sentence you read in passing, but just the fact of the women being so dominant is a fact of the war. There are all these women—it’s a society of women who will probably never find husbands because there just aren’t any men. Women make up society after the war. And that in itself is not something that you think about immediately, but then you realize that it is also an effect of the war, throwing things out of balance. And I think that’s also another big factor that he often touches on, a big factor in his relationship to women—
ML: He’s always saying, we were outnumbered, there were four of them for every one of us—
IFC: Right, so he didn’t have a father figure, and essentially, he doesn’t have any image of men and women in relationships. And I’m thinking now that, throughout his work, there are very few depictions of men and women in even semi-functional relationships. Someone might have a flaky boyfriend who turns out to be working for the Stasi or something like that, but usually it’s these people who are either very isolated or who form collectives, like the workers at the factory, or the men hanging out at the pub together. But there’s little sense of, few images of relationships or families in the classic sense. So I think it is, in many ways, the sense that as a child, he was in this certain environment, on this certain terrain, and in this certain web of relationships that was very much shaped by the war—this predominance of women, the absence of men, fatherless children, and then this landscape. And in a way, he was not able to get out of that set of images, or these images were so strong that he had to keep working with this particular constellation over and over again. Which is understandable, because it’s a traumatic setting for a childhood.
ML: Impressive, in the original sense—it stamps itself onto you.
ML: Krasznahorkai has a lovely phrase in the introduction. He says that Hilbig found beautiful words to describe a horrible world, and that this is a “sick illumination,” but illumination nevertheless. Do you agree?
IFC: I mean, it’s a very nice phrase. But “sick” implies that there’s something that’s healthy or normal… The fascinating thing about Hilbig is that you can’t even draw the line between the beauty and the horror. And you have to ask yourself, especially if you’re taking about natural phenomena—
ML: That’s also very Romantic—the sublime, the beautiful and the horrible simultaneously.
IFC: And why shouldn’t you be in a swimming hole that has a smoldering coal seam boiling away at the bottom and where you have to wash the coal dust out of your swimming trunks afterwards? That’s what he was born into, into this landscape, and that was the swimming hole. And children don’t draw these distinctions, so there’s something childlike about his writing, too. He’s playing with these material things and some of them are beautiful and some of them are disgusting, and he doesn’t necessarily draw the distinction between them. And that’s how small children are: Oh, mud! Mud is cool! No one came and told them: no, bad bad, mud is dirty, and this is clean, and this is good and this is bad, it’s just all stuff, this sensual stuff to play with, without any sense of this is something we don’t touch and this is something we do touch.
ML: One last question, which isn’t actually related to Hilbig at all: You’re a writer yourself, and even though your native language is English, you write your fiction in German. How come?
IFC: For about the first seven years I was in Berlin, I really went native and didn’t have much contact with other Americans. Now there is a very active English literary scene in Berlin, but that only started about ten years ago. I went on writing in English, but I began to feel that I was working in a vacuum, and also I was starting to write about my German surroundings and German history, things that I almost felt I was having to translate into English, things that I would have to explain for an English-speaking audience because they don’t know the context. Also, I was starting to translate German literature, and that gave me an awareness of possibilities German has that English doesn’t, and made me want to explore them on my own. At some point I started going to a weekly open-mic session for German writers, just to find a connection to some literary scene, and pretty soon I thought, why not jump into the fray myself. Things were coming to me more and more in German anyway. And I think it actually improved my writing in various ways; it allowed me to get out of some bad habits I’d had in English, and find new paths. Now I do know a lot of English speakers in Berlin, including many writers, but it still feels more natural to me to write in German and work with the language and environment I’m more immediately caught up in. There’s a certain excitement to it as well.
Isabel Fargo Cole is a U.S.-born, Berlin-based writer and translator. Her translations include Boys & Murderers by Hermann Ungar (Twisted Spoon Press, 2006), All Roads Are Open by Annemarie Schwarzenbach, The Jew Car by Franz Fühmann, Collected Essays by Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Among the Bieresch by Klaus Hoffer (all with Seagull Books). The recipient of a prestigious PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant in 2013, from 2006-2016 she was the initiator and coeditor of no-mans-land.org, an online magazine for new German literature in English.
Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity for Music & Literature. She lives in Berlin.