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Time to meet Wolfgang Hilbig

INTERVIEW. German cult literary hero Wolfgang Hilbig is set to enter the international canon with the launch of his books in English on Mon, Oct 19. Translator Isabel Fargo Cole explains what we've been missing.

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Critically acclaimed for his powerful use of language and timeless narrations, Wolfgang Hilbig (1941-2007) is barely known outside German literary circles. But that’s all about to change thanks to one woman: American translator and Hilbig superfan Isabel Fargo Cole, singlehandedly responsible for the translation of Hilbig’s works into English. “I” (Seagull Books), a novel about a Stasi informer, was published over the summer. Now, the English version of the short story collection The Sleep of the Righteous (Two Lines Press) will be launched at the Literaturform im Brecht Haus on Monday, October 19 at 8pm.

Born during WWII, Hilbig lived in the GDR until 1985, when, at the age of 44, he immigrated to West Germany. Never feeling comfortable anywhere, he remained an outsider in the West German literary scene, only gaining the recognition he deserved late in life when he won the Georg-Bücher-Preis in 2002, five years before his death.

Cole, known to Berliners for her online translation magazine no-mans-land.org, is not exactly done with her mission: before the book launch, she and German lit giant Ingo Schulze will deliver her completed translation to Hilbig’s grave in Mitte’s Dorotheenstadt Cemetery. Joining Cole and Schulze at the party will be Inka Parei, also a huge Hilbig appreciator, and fellow superstar translator Katy Derbyshire. Don’t miss a very special evening of unearthing real literary treasures for a wider audience.

How did you become interested in the work of Wolfgang Hilbig?

I was living in former East Berlin, studying at Humboldt University, and I had all those East German friends. I got to read a lot of different works from GDR authors, some of which were more realistic and straightforward. But somehow it was actually Hilbig’s work that grabbed me. There was that fantastic or romantic and gothic edge, this surreal or hyper-realistic side to it, that drew me in. For some reason I felt that he was speaking to me with a lot of immediacy about life then, in the GDR, but also raising it to that universal level of that very profound psychological truth and observations of the natural world. One of his first stories I read was “Bottles in the Cellar”. It really grabbed me with its sensuality and that darkness and this really dense and powerful description. From then on I kept exploring his work.

He spent his last 22 years in Berlin – did you ever get to meet him before he died?

Yes. I would actually go to his readings and occasionally talk to him and say “Oh, I am still trying to find a publisher for a translation of your work,” and then one time – that was before email – I wrote him a letter and asked him a translation question and he wrote me back a very nice letter.

So, was he the difficult person he was reputed to be?

I know he famously didn’t like to read [in front of an audience]. He felt very awkward on stage and he didn’t want to be in the limelight. You could tell when you were at his readings that it was kind of a torment for him. As a matter of fact, he was very much a loner and he wasn’t someone who liked to hobnob in the literary circles. He didn’t feel comfortable with all the social stuff that writers have to do. He wasn’t someone who would go on talk shows. And he had a severe alcohol problem and, of course, it all depended in what kind of a mood you encountered him. But whenever I spoke to him, he actually had that very warm aura about him. I mean he has that boxer’s face and he looks very rough and forbidding, but he actually had that warmness… It is hard to explain but it was that interesting combination of this warmth and kindness but also this very raw-ish looking face and this sort of unapproachableness.

Although critics regard him as a very important German writer, he’s not so well-known, especially outside Germany – why is that?

For one thing, he is not an easy writer. I mean, it is very rewarding, but his writing is not always linear, the syntax is challenging and he is also very dark. That is one aspect of it. Another aspect is that he has that stamp of being an East German writer, writing about East German subjects. I think for a lot of people, especially West Germans, this made his work very alien to them or very distant. Ultimately, he wasn’t an easily digestible writer that the whole literary business could sell very well. That is always what makes him interesting. He was a completely self-taught writer. He would go to the village library and would get out books – Edgar Allan Poe, the German Romantics and Ludwig Tieck – and he kind of read and read and read, and then began writing his own thing that was completely different from the socialist writing. He was really on his own and creating something very unique.

Can you tell us more about his GDR life?

Hilbig was born during the war and grew up in the small coal mining town of Meuselwitz in East Germany. He was a real worker – a stoker, working in a factory, shovelling coal in the boilers and then in between he would write his poems. So he was really the perfect socialist writer, except that what he was writing was not exactly what they wanted to be hearing. He published one book of poems in the GDR because another writer took him under his wing and tried to get him published, but after that he couldn’t publish there. He tried to join official literary writer groups and he did join one, but he was kicked out because his writing was too dark. It wasn’t that socialist optimism that they were looking for. He was only discovered in West Germany in the 1970s, when Fischer Verlag published his books. But he still could not publish in the East, where the authorities were harassing him. He finally got permission to go abroad for a year for a stipend in West Germany. He left the GDR in 1985 and didn’t come back.

But he ultimately came back to eastern Berlin…

Yes, after the Wall came down he moved to Prenzlauer Berg. He couldn’t stay in East Germany but in West Germany he always felt like an alien, not at home. He was really someone who didn’t feel at home in either world.

Hilbig’s work is often compared to famous Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai, who actually wrote the foreword to The Sleep of the Righteous. Why is that?

I have been following his Kraznahorkai’s name for the past couple of years and was always thinking “Oh I’ve got to read him, I’ve got to read him.” When I found out that he was a big fan of Hilbig and was going to do the foreword of his collection, I did read one of his books – Satantango – and it is very similar to Hilbig in spirit. I mean he does different things with language but it is also very dark, it has this kind of dark sensuality, very atmospheric descriptions of forests and storms and little rooms that people are sitting in. It’s interesting because it was written in the 1980s in Hungary, so it was in that Communist period, but there is also something very timeless about it which is similar to Hilbig’s writing. They deal with a very concrete reality under socialism, but they both lift it to that different plane that is very universal and mythical.

How would you describe Hilbig’s writing?

He has a certain range. On the one hand, he is very lyrical. For example “The Bottles in the Cellar” is a very lyrical story that is much about sensual impressions and very much about the rhythm. It is really about the impressions and the atmosphere and the images. He also has more political range, like in the novel “I” where he is looking at a Stasi informer, describing developments in a more narrative way. His language is very rhythmic. It can very often be labyrinthine and fragmented. It often has very long sentences with ellipses and dashes. That often reflects the narrator’s thinking in circles and spiralling towards some kind of an idea. All his narrators are obsessing about something or trying to remember something. So, the language is always seeking and for me that has this incredible force to it. That is what makes him challenging to read, but for me, he has sentences that really suck you in with the rhythm that they have. You get sucked further and further down that dark tunnel.

This also must have made him a challenging writer to translate!

It certainly wasn’t easy. On the other hand, his rhythm would pull me through. I did have to make a lot of conscious decisions because I had to preserve the fragmentary effect and the difficulty of the sentences and the way he takes us down this labyrinth. At the same time I had to be very, very careful that I was not making it more unclear than necessary – I might want to break up a sentence a little bit to help the reader. So, that was the big thing I was always dealing with: To what extent do I smooth over some of the rough edges? I really tried to avoid doing that because the rough edges are very crucial to his language, but a lot of it was to rescue the sound and the rhythm because that is what is important.

Could you give an example?

In “I” he plays with the word Aufklärung. It means what the Stasi is doing: Spying on people and trying to do surveillance. On the other hand it also means the Enlightenment, like Voltaire and all that stuff. So, he is playing with light and dark – and shadows. So, that particular word was difficult because it kept creeping up in the book and I had to find a way to fan it out in to a couple of different words and play with the idea of light and try to get all those nuances into that. I had to rephrase a few things.

Could you tell us why his books are still so relevant today?

It took me a long time to find a publisher for this book because everyone would say, “Oh, East Germany, that is not interesting,” but I think, we are actually at a point in the cycle of things where people have suddenly become interested in different perspectives on the reality of socialism and the fact that there were really great writers who were dealing with that reality in different ways. I think Americans in particular in the last couple of years are a lot more interested in translations and in shedding light on different parts of the past that we haven’t really thought about that much. And also, what these writers have to say to us about things like surveillance and state power, which writers under socialism were dealing with and which are becoming very relevant again.

Hilbig experienced state surveillance firsthand, right?

Yes, he was someone who was under surveillance and who was actually imprisoned by the Stasi for several weeks and refused to become an informer. He always looks at it from the perspective of someone who says, “I could have easily participated. I could have been seduced and pressured into working with the surveillance system.” So, he doesn’t take the heroic stance, he is really looking at the psychological mechanism in each person that could prompt them become a tool of surveillance. He really goes deep into these mechanisms and really makes it impossible to say “That doesn’t affect me” or “That is not me.”

AN EVENING FOR WOLFGANG HILBIG Oct 19, 20:00, Literaturform im Brecht Haus, Chausseestr. 125, Mitte, U-Bhf Naturkundemuseum