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Posts from the ‘Wolfgang Hilbig’ Category

“The sickness of my language”: Hilbig’s “The Females”

Hilbig 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 ratchet 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.

“Unlanguagable reality”: Wolfgang Hilbig’s “Old Rendering Plant”

Hilbig Old Rendering Plant

It was the hour when some dark utterance waxed within me, needing no words, no names, no logical thoughts…a language in which the nouns lost their meaning, the language of an awareness that responded only to wordless, fleeting moments, made from the nameless sensations of the breath that quickened my blood or made it pulse more strongly.

Old Rendering Plant, Wolfgang Hilbig’s allegorical novel about East Germany and the Stasi, begins benignly with its nameless narrator recalling the times as a boy when he would explore the forest at the edge of his small town. The book opens with “I recalled a brook outside town whose current, strangely shimmering, sometimes almost milky, I once followed for miles all autumn or longer” and the boy proceeds to do what many boys have done over the ages. He explores the brook and follows it as far as a high railway embankment. He plays warrior, brandishing sabers made from sticks. He’s alert to the flora and fauna and the traces of an old watermill, hidden by dense brush and a rickety old fence. It’s a place for the imagination to roam. In the forest he sometimes experiences a sense of vertigo and “the distant, skyward-flickering din of expanding infinitude.” The forest is also the place where he starts to grasp the inadequacies of language—and the first hints that language can be dangerous. “The relevant nouns at my command proved again and again to be treacherous tools, perpetually demonstrating the impotence of all descriptions…compared to the nuances of the visible they seemed, at best, to be sketchy information.”

But the forest also has a menacing aspect. It has eyes and voices. It’s full of ruins. The river can resemble “the bluish blade of a long, straight knife.” One day he becomes aware of a stench that originates beyond the railroad embankment, a stench which, for years, he had somehow been able to ignore. But eventually he realizes it was everywhere. Malodorous smells seep up from the ground and the brook is befouled.

The smell soaked the banks and seeped under the fields; the mist over the river channel was this smell, and that mist rose from the topsoil too, infecting everything that grew in the fields, and it rose from the meadows, the grass of the paddocks smelled of the river mist’s cloying essence, the bushes on the banks thrived amid this smell, a smell of flesh…old, useless flesh.

Toward the halfway point of this very brief novel of 109 small pages, the noose begins to tighten around the narrator’s childhood and around the reader. One day the boy realizes he has become an adult (with a nod to Proust’s magic lantern).

Abandoned were the colorful picture books that just yesterday had brought a secret gleam to my eye; scattered were the bright playing cards with their naïve and inscrutable dramas of operatic morality; vanished were the handsome, disinherited youths whom the morning sun helped back on their way after a thousand ramblings in the base smells of the night; destroyed was the magic lantern…

The stench emanates from an old rendering plant, which the narrator learns is called Germania II and which Hilbig uses to represent East Germany’s repressive Stasi and its broad network of informers. Germania II is a “toxic organism,” a nightmarish facility that “breathed and throbbed.” There, apparently, animals are butchered and are somehow purified and made into soap. In local bars, the narrator grimly observes some of the workers from the plant.

The burden of their gaze dripped downward, and the weight of their knowledge dug into the pavement where their shoes stuck fast in decay, in burning dirt…dug still deeper, down past the echo of their shuffling in sand, while above their brains expired amid the vagrant clouds…their pupils were dark tears, like eyes of polished ebony.

The narrator’s innocent childhood idyll ultimately turns into an apocalyptic vision when the old rendering factory is swallowed up by the earth in a violent and fiery collapse, which Hilbig describes in language reminiscent of the Book of Revelations.

Like a hotbed of malice and crime afflicting the flesh of this district, one night Germania II and everything in it, alive or already dead, descended straight to Hell. It was as though the earth itself, rising up in one last desperate spasm, had catapulted itself out of a dog-like forbearance, bit open and devoured the glowing ulcer on its skin.

Inevitably, the socialist and “closed society” of East Germany forced Hilbig to be attuned to its Orwellian doublespeak. In one hallucinogenic rant that is part Bible and part Joyce, the narrator links the language of the police state with the mass graves that result:

oh over the mass graves of “knowledge is power”… oh over the dark unutterable knowledge of all, oh over the grave of the knowledge of the masses, dark stumbling of words and dark fall of dead vowels snatched like stones from their throats, and snatched from the smoke of their earth: vowel-skulls, consonant-bones, carpus-consonants, pelvis-vowels, knuckle-punctuation.

Hilbig’s wild and protean prose is utterly haunting. Every time I would dip back into Old Rendering Plant for a quote or a word, I would find myself rereading page after page, transfixed and tempted to quote the book at even greater length. This is especially true of the passages that turn Joycean, passages that must have been challenging for Isabel Fargo Cole to translate from the German.

Old rendering plant, starry-studded riverround. Old rendery beneath the roofs of baffled thoughts, baffled clatter of old-proved thoughts, old pretendery. Thoughts thought by night, star-studded: old clattery, the constellations covered. And clouds, old noise: smoke-brain behind the cloud-brow, windy roof of cloud racks covering the stars. But below is the fishes’ winding light: like star-script, winding, fallen chirring from the air. Past the corners of close-huddled houses, past streets, falling faster, vanished.

It’s not at all surprising that Hilbig (1941-2007), who lived in East Germany and was both harassed and jailed by the Stasi, wrote in a kind of coded language that obscured what he was really saying.  Ironically, the rich, evocative language of Old Rendering Plant leads the reader not toward clarity but into a fog that erases any actual sense of chronology or place. The events in the book span several decades, but the book is written in a kind of memory time, with events from disparate times blending into each other, blurring any and all demarcations. This blurring effect is even more explicit in Hilbig’s later novel I”, (Seagull Books, 2015) about the inner life of a writer and Stasi collaborator, who says that “over [my body] hung a grey, hectically woven web of language which in fact I could describe as an impregnable fabric of simulation.”

Despite being about a rancid and insidious police state, the writing of Old Rendering Plant is infused with an unexpected, surreal sense of joy, which made me think of something I had recently read by Jan Zwicky in the preface to her book Lyric Philosophy: “What is lyric thought for? For the discernment of lyric truth—the nature of timeless, unlanguagable, resonant reality.” [Her italics.] “Unlanguagable” reality—that, it seems to me, is what Hilbig is after in Old Rendering Plant.


Wolfgang Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant. is due out from San Francisco’s Two Lines Press this November. Translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole. Originally published by S. Fisher Verlag in 1991 as Alte Abdeckerei.

[Just as a note, Hilbig was fond of using suspension points (…) in his writing to suggest momentary pauses. In each of the quotes I have extracted, the suspension points were in the original text.]