“The sickness of my language”: Hilbig’s “The Females”
I had gradually begun to transform into a sickness.
Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Females (Two Lines Press) is an angry explosion of a novel. The target of Hilbig’s haunting wrath in this brief book is the nation of his birth, the German Democratic Republic. Hilbig (1941-2007) lived in East Germany until he was finally allowed to emigrate in 1985 to West Germany.
Whenever I’d felt within me the unforeseen power to examine myself, even to know myself, and consequently, perhaps, expunge the germs of my sickness, I found that the state snatched every tool from my hands . . . For me, reality had been stolen and annihilated, so by necessity I had to exist as a form of annihilated reality, as a mere delusion of reality, and by that same token had to annihilate the reality of the people around me.
This book is that annihilation.
At first, the narrator of The Females works in a hellish factory where he is condemned to the basement, sorting molds and tools, while above him female workers staff the assembly lines. He voyeuristically spies on the females and masturbates. He is disgusting and disgusted with himself. And then he is fired. Freed.
Suddenly, all of the females begin to disappear. Then the female nouns disappear and he thinks his own hand doesn’t really exist anymore. “My losses accumulated; it seems I’d lost my own name; yes, I no longer knew who I was.”
Whenever I read Hilbig I have to rachet down to zero any expectation of plot, character, logic. This is hallucinatory writing. As his translator Isabel Fargo Cole says in a terrific interview with Joseph Schreiber over at 3:AM Magazine, “he wrote very intuitively, he wasn’t much for analyzing his own writing.” “He’s navigating a landscape in which time and space are continually bent by his own psyche, or by strange forces at large in the world.”
The jousting between the state and the narrator takes place within the arenas of language, gender, and sex—or, more narrowly, pornography. Hilbig’s narrator views the state that hounded him, spied on him, and ruined life in gendered terms. He feels that the state destroyed him through a “castration of the brain, and fair femininity was the forceps they used.” Whenever he is confronted by the bureaucracy, it is represented by a female, most significantly the bureaucrat at the Workforce Steering Office who derides his desire to become a writer, suggesting instead that he is better suited to collect trash.
The narrator’s struggles culminate in a nightmare in which he is sexually tortured by Ilse Koch, the wife of the commandant of the Buchenwald concentration camp, an apparent nymphomaniac who had an bottomless appetite for sadism. On the morning after this nightmare, he finally begins to find his way forward. “For the bureaucrat my I was not even a valid category.” So how, he wonders, is he supposed to invent a valid self? The answer is: through writing. Not by “bowing to the descriptions” of himself provided by others, but by providing his own description of himself—in other words, by writing his own “wanted poster.” He realizes that “if I wanted to start describing the world, my town for instance, the way I saw it through my eyes, I first had to engender myself.” Writing becomes his “secret life.”
Ultimately he decides he must figure out how to write about the females who disappeared—”the females, rather than women.”
And suddenly I knew the place where the females had truly been present . . . in the concentration camp barracks . . . Yes, I felt I must describe the females who had lived in the torment and the simple solidarity of these barracks, where they were called females, because women staffed the guard details. That was where the honorific was invented: the females.
Images of concentration camps have haunted the narrator throughout The Females. But, in a truly strange twist, the narrator feels that this is the appropriate time to launch into a lengthy, lusty, profane, visceral, Joycean paean to the “nation” of females and specifically to the sexual anatomy of females, all in an attempt to redeem himself. In a state which has “declared the sex drive to be abnormal . . . and sex to be capitalistic” and where his “prick was regarded as dangerous,” pornography is the ultimate weapon. He would become the one who would see the lies, dig through the filth, and be the raging, intemperate voice for everything the state and his fellow citizens had decided not to acknowledge.
In the end, he moves to Berlin and takes a job in the boiler room of a prison where, at last, he sees the females again, prisoners in the prison yard. “Now I knew where they were to be found, I’d seen them again and preserved them in my heart; I could wait for them.”
First published in Germany as Die Weiber in 1987, The Females is a powerful, if sometimes confusing rant that reminds me at times of Thomas Bernhard’s tirades about his own country, Austria. Hilbig’s insistence on some differentiation between women and females seems inconsistent and fuzzy in places. These two words are used scores of times, but if there is a rationale to which term appears in which context, I couldn’t discern it. After several readings I’m still not exactly clear what role gender plays in the The Females. The narrator declares that he will “adopt a female gaze” and he goes so far as to castrate himself (perhaps only symbolically?) and to wear women’s clothing. Hilbig’s idealization of “the females” feels uncomfortable today. The Females comes off as unsettlingly sexist and locked in a 1980s view of gender roles. Part of the confusion might lie with the English title. The German title is apparently more loaded than the neutral English version. Wiktionary suggests that weiber is a “more or less pejorative” term for a woman or a wife, often said with a macho ring to it.
But these are just quibbles. One doesn’t read Hilbig’s books expecting to find logic. The Females, which is being published in a few days, is a unique literary experience and one I highly recommend.
Here’s my earlier review of Hilbig’s novel Old Rendering Plant (also published by the great Two Lines Press), which I think the best work of his to appear in English to date.