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Oozing Class

The leaky fictions of Wolfgang Hilbig

The Interim by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole. Two Lines Press, 290 pages.

Of all the many literary images for Germany’s long, difficult process of coming to terms with its past—Heinrich Böll’s sad Socratic clown; Günter Grass’s anti-triumphalist “crabwalk”; Charles Maier’s radioactive “half-life” of guilt—there is none quite so unforgettable as one that comes late on in Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Interim, recently published in English by Two Lines Press. This novel’s protagonist, C., is an alcoholic author from post-Communist East Germany (GDR); as he shuttles back and forth across the 1980s Iron Curtain, torn between two women and two tired German states, he loses the ability to write and drinks himself towards oblivion. In his temporary apartment, boxes of books that he has obsessively accumulated in the West—books on the atrocities of fascism and Soviet Communism—sit tauntingly beside his mattress. When, in the middle of a bender, he wakes up and vomits everywhere, the box of books labeled “Holocaust & Gulag” are thankfully at hand. So he mops up his spew with these timeless (and surprisingly absorbent) reminders of Germany’s unmasterable past, a past that this particular German simply can’t, or won’t, digest.

It is a hell of an image: dark, irreverent, and deeply perverse. But it is not so out of the ordinary for Hilbig, a genuinely maverick author whose distinctive literary style is marked by visions of oozing, secreting, spilling, and sweating—and by the mud, smog, and ash of (post)industrial landscapes. Born into the East German coal-mining town of Meuselwitz in 1941, Hilbig worked as a stoker for many years before he was able to move to East Berlin and make a living from his writing. Absolutely stubborn and completely self-taught—between shifts, he used to borrow Edgar Allan Poe and German Romantics from the Meuselwitz library—Hilbig found no place in the GDR’s conformist literary establishment. He left for West Germany in 1985, but there, too, he felt alienated from the genteel world of letters. Even after reunification, when he became an unlikely star of the post-Wall German cultural scene, Hilbig felt deeply out of place on account of his proletarian origins and his strong regional accent; Western critics regularly mentioned his Boxernase, or boxer’s nose. He was prone to immense anxiety before readings and had problems with alcohol until his early death from cancer in 2007.

Reading such authors as border-crossing thinkers, rather than as presumptive allies in a Cold War long won, seems to be a persistent challenge for Western critics.

Thanks largely to his translator and tireless advocate, Isabel Fargo Cole, Hilbig has earned a committed English-language readership since 2015, when his work started appearing in translation. He is best known for “I,” a grim novel about the Stasi and East Berlin’s literary underground, and a short story collection called The Sleep of the Righteous largely set around Hilbig’s home town of Meuselwitz. Western critics have come to appreciate the bizarre, quasi-Romantic maximalism of his prose and, especially, his unsparing treatment of paranoia and alienation behind the Iron Curtain. (László Krasznahorkai has taken issue with the latter reading, complaining that this universal champion of the vulnerable has been diminished by gawping Westerners as “little more than a kind of chronicler of East Germany”). But The Interim, with its constant crossing between blocs, sees Hilbig in a mode far more challenging to Western readers.

The novel may be set in the final years of the Cold War, but it is clearly marked by the frustrations and disillusionments of the 1990s, a period when the rapid—and, for eastern Germans, totally disastrous—privatization of GDR assets was accompanied by vigorous Western triumphalism and condescension, not to mention a vehemently conservative memory politics that demanded easterners completely renounce every aspect of their past lives. C., by contrast, is a grump of Non-Alignment. Throughout The Interim, he shares his disillusionment toward not one but two repressed, culturally bankrupt German states; he has nearly as much contempt for consumer capitalism as he does for state socialism.

Intellectuals like Hilbig had access to both systems. To them, it was clear long before reunification that many defining problems of the late twentieth century—state surveillance, worker exploitation, environmental vandalism, unprocessed historical guilt—were not only features of the East. Many, including Hilbig, alternately disappointed and infuriated the West German literary mainstream by refusing to play the grateful dissident, even as they completely disavowed the GDR regime. Even today, reading such authors as border-crossing thinkers, rather than as presumptive allies in a Cold War long won, seems to be a persistent challenge for Western critics. A review in the New York Times said The Interim was evidence that “the only thing worse than living under a totalitarian Communist regime is outliving one.”

Insofar as The Interim has a plot, it involves C. traveling between Leipzig, Berlin, Hanau, and Nuremberg as he drinks, reflects, remembers, gives literary readings, goes to a rehab clinic, struggles to manage his multiple love interests, and drinks some more. He, like Hilbig, is deeply resentful about his class background and how it marks him out. Unable to write in the West but unable to live in the East, the self-pitying C. cannot quite tell who to blame for his writer’s block: the GDR, Western capitalism, his wife (C. is prone to occasional flurries of obviously hysterical misogyny), or himself. It is C’s inability to decide where to live or what to do that brings the novel its first main sense of “interim.” Everything he does is only temporary.

C. is also unable to integrate the various leaps and discontinuities of his biography—from manual worker to prominent author, from socialist subject to minor capitalist celebrity, from mother’s son to husband and adulterer. We first meet him in West German city of Nuremberg, where he walks around fancy shopping malls grumbling about consumerism. Watching some happy young people laying about by the castle, C. muses, in Hilbig’s close-third narration, on the illusory freedom that his in-between status has afforded him:

The freedom here was not for him, because he was much freer. He was unfree by virtue of a far greater freedom, because he belonged neither to this side of the world, where people lay and strolled around, nor to the other side, where people yearned to be lying here . . .

What so many GDR citizens were dreaming of—a life of free expression and free consumption—turns out to be empty, at least for him. “Though he couldn’t quite substantiate it,” Hilbig writes, “he suspected that for the entire past year he’d simply been no one at all.” C. has no past and no future, just the weighty experience of time in the moment. His life, he feels, is “a menace, makeshift, contingent on every chance influence, empty of truth.” An entire life as interim.

Yet this condition is not exclusively reserved for indecisive, semi-stateless literary cads. If C. seems lost in time, unable to connect his past to his future, then that is also a function of his historical moment, and something particular to his generation of working-class East Germans. Pressed into crushing, ecologically devastating labor by a cynical Communist regime, Eastern workers were then subsumed into the conservative, capitalist West and—after a brief period of euphoria—found themselves gravely disappointed by the lack of opportunities and respect they were afforded there. C’s historical pessimism runs counter to the triumphalism of both late Communism and late capitalism. “The West had become the meaning of life in the East,” he reflects, but decides that this is not enough. Even, or especially, once you actually cross over—as all GDR citizens did, in a way, when the Eastern states were absorbed into the reunified Federal Republic. C.’s disorientation, his “depressive inertia,” is that of an entire class cohort.

Western consumer capitalism, too, appears as a kind of “interim” in Hilbig’s novel. C. experiences it as a system that denies its past, ignores its workers, and forgets itself in the fever of individualism. But he is unable to forget or adapt: C. watches porn and goes to peep shows, then grumbles about them; he despairs of glossy literary events that care more about sales and reputation than real art. He can buy any book he likes, but notices many people decorate their shelves with “plastic mock-ups” instead. Western ads, with their outlandish promises of sexual fulfillment, make a “most astonishing parallel to standard GDR-speak.” The novel begins with a humorous sequence where C., in a Nuremberg shopping center, thinks that someone is attacking him: when he takes down the aggressor, he finds that it was only a mannequin. We are relieved—but later on, once we have gotten on C’s level, we can see why he’s so freaked: the mannequin is all surface, a still and voiceless slave to consumption.

The novel ends just after reunification, when the “small predacious fish” of capitalism have made it across the border to the East, but the “big sharks” still lie in wait. During the very first days of the “end of history,” C. decides that the twentieth century must surely be the most mendacious of all time. Rather than individual errors, it was driven by “nothing but the scientific lie”: the bogus teleology of both East and West that burned up workers’ lives then threw them onto the “trash heap” of history. As the narrator of one story in The Sleep of the Righteous, very much a partner text to The Interim, says: “In other eras you’d set your memories before the world, convinced they’d find listeners or readers in coming times. But no one believes in coming times now, at least not here, in the class we belong to.” 

It is against this backdrop that Hilbig’s distinctive leakiness—the goops, the smogs, the particles, the sweat—comes into play. He insists on smudging this world of false surfaces. C’s misadventures in Eastern and Western cities are punctuated with eruptions of the dense, lyrical, filthy surrealism that characterize Hilbig’s short fiction. Typically, these eruptions take the form of industrial waste being hurled up across the urban landscape: at the end of one day, the “dissipating smoke” of rain summons “benumbing brewery vapors” from the streets of Nuremberg. “Even the light of the spherical lamps seemed to be stained yellow-brown,” Hilbig writes, “as they shed endless foamy strings of beads resembling bubbles of spit.” An idyllic café scene is transformed into a foreboding kind of grease trap:

Exuding a toxic red-gold tincture, the sun had crawled into the haze, its vestigial heat now powerless to burn off the smells in the city’s crannies. And these smells now ventured forth: the inexplicable stench of old cooking fats rose from the gutters and settled like soapy sweat on the woven plastic patterns of the café’s tablecloths. The warmth had melted the raspberry-red glaze on the leftover strawberry tart, making puddles on the plate in which yellowjackets twitched, caught in the trap of colors and aromas.

Hilbig’s grime offers the promise of dissolution—for better and for worse. At the very least, it’s democratic: contamination from Chernobyl threatens citizens in eastern Leipzig and western Vienna alike. C. experiences the mystical solidarity of the nation’s down-and-out inside a grim West German addiction clinic, where feels his sweat “mingle with the bitingly acrid and sweetish secretions of all those who had occupied that cot before him.” Factory emissions, too, are inflicted on everyone; the coal from miners’ lungs invades society at large. Call this blue-collar Gothic: the supernatural resurgence of the means of production.

In Hilbig’s visions, this dissolution of boundaries—between nations and classes, present and past—feels almost ecstatic. It is the main source of dynamism in The Interim’s stuffed-up world. And at the center of it all is C., a man with a special sense for the leakiness in all things. In Leipzig’s train station, for instance, he seems to be the only one who notices sunlight striking the “radiant filth” of pollution in the rafters: “Up under the roof it begins to ignite: vapor, smoke, steam and dust, the exhalations of humans and machines. All unseen to the people waiting, breathing out and shivering after the crush in the trams and buses that brought them here.”

C. is also a prolific secreter in his own right, constantly sweating and trickling. He resembles a malfunctioning machine, a clogged-up boiler, a broken-down factory releasing waste into the water supply—or one of those decommissioned mines, the sort you have to keep running because it’s too expensive to shut down entirely. In a hotel bathroom, he stands before the mirror and watches as his flesh steams up the glass. “He was making a tremendous effort to break down,” The Interim’s narrator reflects, “but something in his body refused to play along.” C.’s inputs do not turn into outputs: he is sexually impotent; he has writer’s block; he drinks and drinks, only to vomit it all back up after. Alcohol, he believes, helps him “dull the pressure” of living without hope for the future. Instead of processing the world’s various toxins—including, perhaps, those books on German history—he merely expels them as waste. And afterward, the books haunt him in a characteristically interpenetrative manner: “They loomed in the night like darkly glowing furnaces, emitting a faint incandescence that spread sulfurous vapours.”

If C. finds contemporary society to be overly disembodied, then that is not for the sake of some masculine fantasy—it is because the body made invisible is the working-class body, a body that remembers and accuses. He is the East-proletarian ghost at the feast. Throughout The Interim, C. feels strongly that his own body carries Meuselwitz’s factories along with it. When a West German woman comes onto him at a reading, he reflects that before he became an author, women had no interest in him at all: “As if he’d been going around with his face covered in green or purple chemical metastases, oozy eyes that squirted out ammonia, a mouth filled with acetate or phenol, a fug of gas rising from his salt-soaked clothes.”

The imprint of work on the body is a recurring preoccupation for Hilbig. The central story in The Sleep of the Righteous, “The Memories,” features an émigré author returning to his Eastern hometown of M. after reunification. He riffs on a half-rhyme between the German word for coal (Kohle) and “cholera!” an exclamation favored by his shift partner, a jabbering old migrant worker named Gunsch. “Perhaps they used the word so often, my grandfather and Gunsch, because it resembled the German word Kohle, the term, that is, for the stuff at which they slaved each day, which filled their lungs with black deposits and forced black sweat from their pores.”

Gunsch is unable to tell the narrator where he or his family come from; when asked, he merely gestures over the mine pits. Coal, in this story’s bleak vision, becomes not just a deadly plague upon the town—one that leaves its smell and stain on everything—but also the “quintessence” of coal-mining people, whose reservoir of unspoken memories is trapped below ground. The people of Meuselwitz/M. appear to the narrator as a “lost class.” The town’s façades might be getting spruced up to appease Western eyes, but the people themselves have already seen their factories sold and their jobs disappear. “And looking ahead,” the narrator adds, “they shuddered to think of their sons who went about with shaved heads, in combat boots and black bomber jackets, staring with alcohol in their eyes into a future that was none . . . ”

He is the East-proletarian ghost at the feast.

This is a histrionic kind of pessimism, one that very few working-class East Germans—especially those who didn’t leave town to become famous authors—would likely identify with. But Hilbig is a maximalist, after all. And, while neither The Interim’s C. nor the narrator of “The Memories” is a neo-Nazi, he seems to be hinting that historical discombobulation, poor working conditions, and an inability to speak about the past might feed into the persistence of far-right politics in Eastern Germany. (In the last federal election, Thuringia’s District 194—home to Meuselwitz—was won by the far-right AfD.) If Hilbig’s cohort of Easterners, particularly those of the working class, don’t always manage to articulate an enlightened sense of their own historical guilt, this might have more to do with their fractured and repressed biographies, and less to do with a lack of education about liberal democracy, the explanation favored by smug Western journalists. When West Germany’s Ruhr region began its transition away from coal and steel industries in the 1970s, the process was cushioned by an active welfare state and significant cultural investment: the area gained museums about its industrial heritage, even an archive for workers’ literature. In East Germany, by contrast, reunification was an abrupt, impatient lurch from one administration to another—as well as the rapid collapse of mining and heavy industry in most towns. Denied the opportunity to process their biographies in public, a decent share of Easterners have found themselves vulnerable to the “sulfurous vapors” leaking out of C.’s Holocaust & Gulag box.

The one source of hope in The Interim appears to be literature—throughout Hilbig’s work, writing is pretty much the only thing that keeps absolute despair at bay. C’s alcoholism is fueled by his writer’s block, which the drinking doesn’t help. While C. shares many of Hilbig’s biographical details, they differ in their literary productivity. Hilbig’s mechanisms were never quite so jammed up: in just over twenty years, he published thirteen books of fiction, three poetry volumes, and a handful of other texts. Writing, for him, meant dipping into the world’s essential sludge and emerging with some sense of renewal. His Gothic dissolutions can be unsettling, but their upside is something like negative capability: whatever gets dissolved can also be reconstituted.

The tragedy of The Interim is that C. is unable to perform this act of regeneration—and so he turns to the bottle, an alternative oblivion, one that makes him generate vomit rather than verse. Drunk somewhere in the luxurious West, he can “do nothing now but sit there motionless, slowly perishing and waiting for this interim to end.” Hilbig, too, was a melancholic drinker. But he was able to write, and write brilliantly. In doing so, he found a way to take his fractured autobiography—his inability to digest Germany’s present and past—and generate something that would last beyond the inbetweenness of his own life.