The Interim by Wolfgang Hilbig
As a reader who has grown increasingly interested in a particular species of postwar fiction from the German-speaking countries—which traffics in introspection, anomie, and melancholy—to hear Wolfgang Hilbig referenced as part of a general literary/philosophical/intellectual cohort which included Ingeborg Bachmann, Thomas Bernhard, and W.G. Sebald immediately piqued my interest. Isabel Fargo Cole, translator (and novelist), should be credited with Hilbig’s introduction to an Anglophone readership and the resulting critical esteem which has rightly elevated him to the ranks of those aforementioned writers. Upon reading the novel “Ich” as a student in the mid-1990s, Cole immediately identified Hilbig’s essentiality as a chronicler of the East German experience as well as the lamentable absence of his fiction in translation. For more than a decade, her advocacy was met with inertia on the part of publishers who—mistaking marketability for merit—failed to grasp Hilbig’s enduring relevance. Her assiduous stewardship secured both the publication of “I” with Seagull Books and The Sleep of the Righteous with Two Lines Press in 2015. Additional works have followed in rapid succession: Old Rendering Plant in 2017, The Tidings of the Trees and The Females in 2018, and now The Interim.
The plot, if one can be discerned, is proforma: C., an author from East Germany (German Democratic Republic, GDR), navigates various cities throughout West Germany (Federal Republic of Germany, FRG) in the late 1980s. He seeks to avoid writing an undisclosed project for which he received both a (now shrinking) literary stipend and (now expired) artists’ visa. To achieve this, he drinks excessively and emotionally torments those unfortunate enough to be considered romantic partners and platonic acquaintances. (While C. does share a striking number of biographical details with Hilbig himself, these reflections inform rather than restrict one’s reading.) In this relative absence of dramatic structure, the primary concern of the novel is the effort to construct identity and the internal and external factors which beleaguer that project.
The title of this review is a reference to Sebald’s posthumously released collection, On the Natural History of Destruction. And while I’ll leave it to the reader to determine whether this allusion is astute or flippant, the intention was to echo The Interim’s own depiction of self-authorship as fundamentally adversarial. Here, identity is neither pre-existing nor self-executing. The assembling of self requires explicit, concerted effort; it is a higher form of struggle. And what forces are set in opposition to C.? Only fragmentary answers are, at first, explicitly offered: “the enigmatic West, the status quo, the Cold War, and the whole idiotic world.”
Germany divided between FRG and GDR, between the Nazi (National Socialist, NS) past and capitalist and communist futures, is the setting for Hilbig’s examination of the divided self. Yet our own reflexive assumptions regarding the traditional structures of narrative, the orthodox satisfactions of dramatic expectation, suit him. Hilbig (mis)directs via literary antecedents which provide the reader with discernable associations, a rudimentary foundation composed of possible intertextualities. A protagonist designated only by his initial recalls both Franz Kafka’s hounded bank clerk and frustrated land surveyor as well as the byzantine bureaucracies they failed to navigate. Perhaps less explicit, though to me as noteworthy, is the concept of Whiteness (in the Melvillian sense). The absence that comprises the singularity of C.’s self “a dumb blankness, full of meaning.”
While self-hatred is certainly not in short supply, much of C.’s antipathy regarding his “non-identity” or even “anti-identity” is projected outwards. This resentment partially stems from dislocation and failed aspiration—the East German who finds neither solace nor a sense of belonging in West Germany. Czeslaw Milosz observed this response (which he diagnosed as a form of “schizophrenia”) amongst residents of “the people’s democracies” in his 1951 landmark work, The Captive Mind. One’s disgust at the conditions prevailing under Soviet authoritarianism did not guarantee fulfillment by the supposed freedoms of those countries maintaining market economies. One passage from Milosz seems particularly descriptive of C.’s dilemma and response: “All about him in the city streets, he sees frightening shadows of internal exiles, irreconcilable, non-participating, eroded by hatred.”
Apropos of Sebald, C. cites the Allied air raids as producing a tabula rasa for German nationhood; with his own selfhood pulled along in slipstream (or, better still, incinerated in the firestorm): “. . . and it was almost as if his thoughts had frozen at the end of that war; that was when his consciousness, his sense of the world, had taken form.” While Sebald’s observations in “Air War and Literature” are incisive from 30,000 feet, C.’s are less convincing at ground level; his external focus is largely obscurantism. Further introspection concedes a deeper absence, original sin as omission rather than provision: “There’s nothing solid there, at any rate, nothing you could cling to or build on. There’s nothing but brutality, lies, and evasion, the only sure thing is loss.”
These distractions of world and word collude to provide abiding refuge, enduring excuse. Hilbig seemingly anticipated our present age of infinite content and ubiquitous surveillance. The Big Brother of East German HUMINT finds contemporary counterpart in Big Tech’s daedal user agreements and omnipresent data mining. Accordingly, the present-day reader is likely to feel some sympathy for a protagonist (however flawed) who seeks, and fails to find, a sense of personal significance. This argument against introspection and for projection is further strengthened if one subscribes to the belief that personality itself is construct, performance, primarily dependent upon externalities; it becomes all too easy, self-serving even, to look everywhere else but in the mirror.
Fiction—both the act of writing and of reading—might well serve as the tool necessary to rectify the absence in our hearts. Bibliography can serve as biography, as the epigraph credited to August Strindberg posits. For C., it is the only feasible path towards self-actualization (moments of dizzied consciousness in briefly detailed boxing matches serve as analogue in the physical world, but these are merely crude reflections of the intellectual transcendence he seeks). Writing comes to represent a personal exclamation of “yehi’or” from the Book of Genesis: “He didn’t know how he’d begun . . . didn’t know how (nor when, nor why) he’d begun to write, dark chaos hid all those things from him.” And even more than this implied light, it is a form of cartography, the method by which he might navigate “the infinite desert of omission inside him.”
Of course, this aspiration comes under heavy assault from C.’s metastatic cynicism. He questions, and ultimately disavows, an alleged moral dignity ascribed to fiction; its singular potential to express the personal and cultivate empathy. This is the case for both branches of the literary arts: reading (“What could reading books, poetry collections for instance, really tell you about the person who’d written them?”) and writing (“He’d always wanted to be a writer, his whole life long . . . a producer for the remainder bin!”). And yet C. remains burdened by the doubts of the spurned romantic. The wellspring of his reprehension seems none other than former, ardent belief. He retains an indwelling faith in the powers of fiction (e.g., distress at the hypothetical destruction of the Heinrich Heine Bookstore). A thread of hope woven within the warp and weft of his hatred.
C. identifies those more legitimate forms of exchange which exist between the individual and collective, specifically with regard to writing: “Identity . . . cannot be developed purely from the inside out, from the hermetically sealed interior; it needs an external, comparative perspective.” How then does C. view, and fit within, a broader community of writers? Success in both the East German mainstream and avant-garde was predicated upon cooperation with the State Security Service (“Stasi”) as “Unofficial Collaborators” (i.e., informants who reported on, and worked to hinder, their friends and colleagues). A reckoning with this complicity was the subject of Hilbig’s earlier novel (and thematic prequel to The Interim), I. The wages of resistance for both author and his protagonist were exile; travel visa as a form of ostracization. He therefore views his peers largely in bad faith, as we might expect. Furthermore, their deception was reflected in the confessional booth of their own fiction: “Writers reported on writers, often enough with subtler variants of an author novelizing about an author writing about the novelizing of a third author.” Unexpectedly, he does not spare himself the rod of his own recrimination. In his own estimation, C. occupies the worst of all possible worlds: existing between hackery and misanthropy, where art is less craft than pathology. He becomes, as William H. Gass phrased it, “sentenced to sentences[.]” Under these conditions, writing becomes anathema to self-expression, a weapon of self-effacement. For C., fiction and its avoidance are forms of mortification, the violent gestures of a priest turned not only apostate, but anti-deist. And in so choosing to valorize his own pain as singular, he constructs not a personhood worth inhabiting but rather a police state worthy of the GDR he so despises; strong enough to maintain a détente with the world around him.
Complementing this exploration of self-construction is the presence of water as both recurring image and reinforcing metaphor. Liquid, in its various forms, is used as an atmospheric and, more importantly, elemental echo of C.’s vacuous inner life. It comes to represent both his absence of identity as well as the collective decision against memory. These evocations are numerous and include weather (e.g., rain, storm, fog, humidity), bodies of water, beverages, and bodily fluids. Emotional states are described as “viscous” or flood-like; the mind a flat surface for thoughts and feelings to pool onto or drip off, seep into and ruin. And C. eagerly imbibes from this River Lethe. Reduced to these few lines of summarization, it may seem unimpressive but when so deftly distributed by Hilbig across the novel’s 290 pages, recognition feels more an exhilarating discovery than rote observation.
As a reader of what might be generally categorized as the German social novel, one might be forgiven for bringing certain expectations and assumptions to the text. As I began The Interim, I immediately noted what appeared to me as references to the NS state, its manifold crimes, and the Second World War more broadly. As my notes accreted, I remained wary of presumption and inference: illusion rather than allusion. If I wasn’t careful, every mention of trains, gas, fire, and smoke might become a nail for my analytical hammer. Yet, even if this interpretation proved an assumption on my part rather than an intention on Hilbig’s, it wouldn’t have been the worst thing. The characterization of C. is predicated on void and absence. The project of the novel is how one constructs (or, in C.’s case, fails to construct) a selfhood within the vacuum. Burdened by a history that eludes moral apprehension (as Gass observed: “Men cannot imagine such numbers . . . only perform them”), the conclusion we can safely, all too obviously, draw is that the legacy of National Socialism, while failing its self-imposed thousand-year mandate, extends far beyond the twelve years in which it operated the levers of power in Germany and across occupied Europe.
To speak of immediate resonances is by no means hyperbole. The novel begins with the words “In Nuremberg,” raising in the reader’s mind numerous associations with the NS era: rallies, racial laws, military tribunals. C., befuddled by drink and beleaguered by “something that resembled a vague sense of guilt,” navigates an abstracted space, dislocated from immediate identification. As such, the scene adopts a tone of menace, strewn with the prospect of harm. However, this atmosphere is quickly dispelled as we learn he has toppled over a mannequin in one of the stores of Nuremberg’s burgeoning shopping districts. This sort of smash-cut realization and revelation—which mimics waking up after a night of binge drinking and the frantic effort to inventory what you’ve done and what you’ve said—is used to frequent and great effect throughout The Interim. It’s a technique that would have proved far less successful had Hilbig failed to render C. as so consistently inconsistent, reliably unreliable; and, equally as important, if it wasn’t mirrored so deftly in the novel’s themes and subtext.
It is all the uncountenanced elements of individual and collective character that link Hilbig most substantively to Sebald’s thesis that postwar fiction in the German-speaking countries was derelict in its responsibility to address the horrors of the Second World War, both perpetrated and endured. C., for all his personal failings, succeeds as both riposte and repudiation. He is the fictive hangover after the literary establishment’s night on the piss. If this situation had changed by the 1980s—a time when, C. observes, “all anyone talked about was the Allied air raids on German cities” and authors and publishers alike resisted “the omnipresence, the dominance of the subject of Auschwitz”—then the reversal was perfunctory and constituted a crime. This transition, which lacked circumspection and was adulterated by self-serving goals, represented a decided lack of interim and robbed the nation of an opportunity to reflect and redefine itself.
One of the more fascinating scenes—a sequence so orchestrated and sustained that we might be tempted to label it plot—occurs near the novel’s opening, when C. is admitted to a clinic in Haar for the treatment of substance abuse and mental health issues, which soon emerges as a space where the transition of the German national character can be dramatized. C., understandably vexed at his quasi-voluntary admittance, wanders the ward as if somnambulant, greeted by vague shapes, sleep paralysis demons, and an old man muttering: “Nazis . . . Nazis . . . Himmler . . . Hitler! [. . .] Hitler . . . Himmler . . . SS . . . Reichsführer-SS!” It should be noted that, while C. increasingly makes references to the dictator, all subsequent mentions are abstracted (e.g., Schicklgruber, “the little Dachshund with the black moustache”). When next we encounter the old man, “madness has receded from his face” and he appears young again, rejuvenated or perhaps simply misapprehended in the dark. It would seem that confronting the crimes of the German past are a form of detox; self-executing in the absence of fascist intoxicants. Yet, as this old/young man remarks: “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.” Their common chemical dependency and shared identity as East Germans offer a clear warning: the authoritarian impulse will recur despite remission, as “the end product of forgotten things.”
Throughout, Hilbig employs some of the most readily identifiable iconography of the genocide of European Jewry. The novel as a whole, and this tactic in particular, succeeds through accretion; tides receding to expose underlying and enduring topographies. Among the earliest and most frequent cognitive tethers is the presence of trains. C. traverses the tributaries of the German railway system as an excuse not to write, to elude immigration services which might seek his repatriation, and as a refuge where the vacuity of his inner life harmonizes with the anonymity of public transportation. The opening pages may be a showcase for C.’s vitriolic class critique, but the reader quickly realizes his thoughts drift along darker currents: “The multitude exhales [on the platform]; in the trams, you could only inhale, so as to take up as much space as possible against the compression of their no longer identifiable bodies.” The Deutsche Reichsbahn was an essential constituent mechanism within the wider NS machinery of destruction, ferrying millions to death while robbing them of discrete identities; a divestment that can only ever be partially rectified through Gedenkbücher and the memories of those who survived them. By novel’s end, C.’s peace is ever more infringed, encroached upon, and proved untenable. A coda taking place sometime after Reunification finds him in Leipzig’s Hauptbahnhof, his locomotive imaginings now colored wholly by grotesquerie, focused on “the filth of the camps and platforms across which life’s animal and human flesh had been shunted and loaded.” In this dirge, there is one moment of levity which warrants mention: C., when describing the obnoxiously officious disposition of the literary class, refers to himself as an “Obersturmbahnführer [sic]” (emphasis mine); a pun undoubtedly recognizable to German-speakers, and one I’m glad Cole included in her translation.
Other signifiers are no less evocative and are integrated into the text in a far more sophisticated manner than the following enumeration implies. As one might expect, repeated mention of fire, inflammability, and combustion are made (e.g., “sulfurous fumes,” “the insolvable slime of ash, soot, and rain”) predominantly in the context of the material residue of Germany’s thriving industrial sector. C. himself was a laborer at Leunawerke, an installation formerly operated by the compromised conglomerate I.G. Farben. The Autobahn, in part an NS public works project, can be read as historical, infrastructural analogue to C.’s own efforts at self-construction. The frequency of C.’s persistent, passive suicidal ideation fluctuates from noise to signal with mention of Walter Benjamin, whose collected works C. purchases in a characteristically uncritical act of retail therapy. Similarly, when C. describes his own botched efforts to “open the gas taps in the kitchen,” we recall that this was the manner of death Tadeusz Borowski (Polish survivor and author of the recently republished Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories) allegedly chose for himself in 1951. The commercial demands of the literary marketplace, anathema to artistic expression, are described as “death chambers[.]” The quip “Shopping Makes You Free” would be intolerable if it wasn’t situated in a dream sequence, where such naked commentary commands stranger, more intriguing nuance. Likewise, oneiric amalgamations of commercial interests and crimes against humanity—“Nike No. 174517 (that happens to be the number tattooed on Primo Levi’s arm, thinks C.)”—might risk risibility, if the preceding 237 pages hadn’t so successfully alchemized the lassitude of this alcoholic writer and the vicissitudes of the German state into such a baleful colloid. Personal identifiers and group affiliations, formal and informal, inevitably produce the hierarchies responsible for the “ghettoization” of outgroups. Even peep show booths reflect aspects of the killing process: “. . . you returned, days later, their gasses in your clothes and your hair—their blood, sweat, and tears, their cagey panting, their flatulence, and the smell of their burned-up semen. And all that mingled with the scent of the immaculate women who danced before them, taking breaks for mild disinfectant baths. . .” (emphasis mine). The overall fixation on excretion, vomiting, ejaculation, etc., recalls some of the great chroniclers of NS barbarity in fiction: Borislav Pekić, Daša Drndić, Péter Nádas, Jonathan Littell, et al.
If C. has constructed anything approximating a Weltanschauung, then European totalitarianism is the rock upon which he chose to build his church. As a novitiate might effuse when first granted access to illuminated texts, so too does C. obsess over his monographs on National Socialism and Stalinism. In their pages he finds “the only necessary knowledge of the twentieth century . . . Holocaust and Gulag.” Yet this revelation only exacerbates his propensity for self-abnegation. To educate oneself on totalitarian atrocities rank orders suffering; quotidian discontent becomes not only trivial, but obscene. Relativized “horror” curdles C.’s belief in writing as a salvific, or even affirming, exercise. For him, Adorno’s admonition applies to prose as well as poetry. Those fortunate enough never to have suffered such barbarism—who consider Holodomor and T4, Endlösung and Great Terror only as historical events—and yet who find themselves still vengeful towards the course their lives have taken, “made language lose all its dignity.” For C., this indignity is constituent to the broader failure in confronting the realities of the past and has produced the true “myth of the twentieth century”: progress. He imagines “cattle cars filled with people barely recognizable as such, [sent] to Auschwitz, Vorkuta, Maidanek, Magadan, beneath a sky that was a web of lies.” This firmament persists. And the trains of history and narrative which it shelters will never be halted, merely rerouted, and laden with new freight.
As The Interim approaches its terminus, C.’s earliest and most fulfilling experiences of writing are recounted. As a boiler operator, he spends his days performing his duties, wandering the factory grounds, and manically drafting short stories. His feelings of isolation are present, but nascent; they’ve yet to consume him. Perhaps it is our foreknowledge, the infernal mise-en-scène of the Leunawerke, or simply the accumulated residue of nearly three hundred pages of misanthropy, but C.’s expeditious and prodigious output offers us paltry comfort. This disquiet intensifies as his tending the furnace becomes an act of expiation, takes on ontological significance: “he was burning the Scythian woods of his childhood.” (It bears mentioning here that C.’s father likely died at Stalingrad and his relationship with his mother cannot be described as particularly loving or expressive.) It is in this labor that fire and water (i.e., the active rejection, and passive neglect, of the past; Holocaust and unmemory) achieve synthesis: “the jet of water pierced the heaps, and at once the boiler room was filled with explosive plumes of steam; the mixture of ash and cinders . . . absorbed nearly endless quantities of water, until at last the heap stopped smoldering.” C. returns to his writing. And the reader is left to wonder if this steam may have escaped, spent subsequent decades spreading outwards from Saxony-Anhalt to cover the whole of Germany. Or perhaps that C. never left the boiler room.
Hilbig’s depiction of women warrants consideration given his complicated approach to characterization as well as broader, ongoing cultural discussions of female representation in novels authored by men. Unsurprisingly, women are often described only in the vaguest possible terms; their identities obscured, interpersonal syntaxes elliptical. They remain locked, inaccessible interiorities. By way of example, and in one of The Interim’s more comedic flashes of brilliance (n.b., I fear the humor of the novel might be belied by the focus of my review), C. blithely mentions a daughter, whose name is never given and who is never again referred to in the text. More developed are C.’s on-and-off-again girlfriends, who are introduced as synecdoches, representative of the cities they reside in more so than the personhoods they uniquely inhabit (i.e., Mona in the East and Hedda in the West). To the extent that they are developed, they are mostly refracted through the damaged prism of C.’s relentless, hypersexualized gaze; evaluated physically and for their potential as sexual partners. However, depiction—no matter how enervating the trope may be—is not endorsement. In both context and accretion, Hilbig’s approach further demonstrates C.’s vacant inner life (though the choice to use female characters primarily to develop a male protagonist would be a justifiable criticism). To describe secondary and tertiary characters in this fashion does indeed evidence C.’s misogyny. But subtextually, it casts his meagerness into sharper relief. In a world populated and peregrinated by lonely atoms, Hilbig’s nebulous women—relative to his central character—seem rather a difference of degree than of kind.
Hedda Rast, the first named and most fully realized female character in The Interim, supports the contention that Hilbig’s depiction of women is a product of intention and craft rather than a failure of understanding or imagination. An author who has achieved equal if not greater renown than C., she increasingly acts as her boyfriend’s conscience, critical thinking, and sober judgment (yet another trope, but no more so than the reader serves these functions themselves). Her personal history is related to us via a series of conversations in the latter third of the book. Therein we learn how Hedda, born in a displaced persons camp in 1945 and of Russian descent herself, navigated L’univers des réfugiés. Both her explanation of sex work in and around the camps (it was necessitated by conditions of privation) and her choice to adopt a pseudonym to better assimilate into the literary marketplace (we never learn her birth name) reinforce and demonstrate the persistence of racial antipathies within the German imagination. Moreover, they support C.’s thesis on the facile transition of power between oppressor states (“The master race of Germany’s economic miracle couldn’t do without its racial inferiors.”). That I’d gladly read a novel focused entirely on Hedda represents either a missed opportunity or Hilbig’s immense talents of characterization.
No discussion of gender dynamics would be complete without addressing C.’s rampant misogyny, a virulent mixture of male entitlement, sexual impotence, and dependence on extrinsic sources for personal meaning. Habitual self-sabotage in his relationships—frequent infidelities, alcohol abuse, chronic absenteeism, emotional neglect—has resulted in his inability to acquire and display traditional signifiers of consumer-driven masculinity (e.g., marriage, home, etc.). Sex—by which I mean the act itself versus providing either himself or partner with any feelings of pleasure—merely maintains this canard of “manhood” rather than serving as an authentic physical or emotional expression. Yet, he deliberately cultivates sexual humiliation (“She didn’t know that ultimately he was sleeping with her in order to unman himself.”) and revels in negative self-talk (“his little worm’s erectile tissue”). There is some basis for his behavior which might garner marginal sympathy: childhood trauma, the insistence on rejecting others before they reject him, a secret desire for redemptive love (“It was as though in each woman he’d seek the taste of life that he’d never come close to . . .”). Regardless, his behavior and worldview remain condemnable both on their own merits and as they exacerbate his growing desire for vengeance. The aforementioned denouement at the Leipzig train station finds C. enraptured by “fantasies of rage and anger [. . . imagining himself] behind a machine gun aimed at the city[,]” poised to perform some act of ecstatic violence. This ghastly daydream was no doubt informed by the violent political action of leftist militants (most notably the Red Army Faction) throughout the preceding decades. Simultaneously, it presages both the resurgence of antisemitism and a broader reactionary populism in post-Reunification Germany. Overall, Hilbig succeeded in dramatizing the transition from a century of state-sanctioned mass murder to an age increasingly defined by stochastic lone-wolf terrorism.
To close, I’ll return to a conversation between C. and Hedda about political malfeasance. She asks: “But is that any reason for you to lie too?” The question catches C. (and the reader) off-guard. Its brevity and precision negate blithe dismissal as bromide or saccharine sentiment, “the bitter blowing scent of the seasons.” In juxtaposition with C.’s despicable behavior, Hedda and her question shine brightly. Ultimately, this is the very question that he has abandoned and we ourselves are challenged to answer. C. offers no response. For him, the query is irresolvable. It has established permanent residency in its own interminable interim.
Two Lines Press, November 2021, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole