(Two Lines Press, 2021)
Here are some things the late German author Wolfgang Hilbig had in common with C., the protagonist of his 2000 novel, The Interim: Both men were born in 1941, in a small town near Leipzig which began with the letter M. Both lost their father, a Nazi soldier, to “the cauldron of Stalingrad,” though he was officially only declared missing. Both apprenticed in their hometown’s boring mill before taking a night-shift at a nearby factory shoveling coal, where both began to experiment with writing their first stories and poems while on the clock. And both became a well-known literary figure off the strength of these stories—if not in their native German Democratic Republic, then across the Cold War’s imposed border in capitalist West Germany. In 1985, Hilbig was granted a yearlong visa to that country thanks to his status as an author—which he promptly overstayed, not returning east until after the fall of the Wall. A version of what happened in between is captured in his hectic and festering Interim, and in the plight of the pathetic author-protagonist C. While biographical details make it clear that we are dealing with a form of closely-hewn autofiction, you may find yourself wishing that more of it were made up.
The Interim, recently translated by Isabel Fargo Cole for Two Lines Press, is a harrowing story of alcoholism, memory loss, self-abuse, and impotence. It does not have a plot so much as a series of preoccupations and themes, obsessively revisited by C. as he travels aimlessly from town to Western town following the lapse of his visa, with no official destination in mind. We rarely know whether the action being described (namely: drinking, vomiting, and sidling up to peep shows) is taking place in Munich, Nuremberg, Vienna, or Leipzig—which also means we rarely know what year we are in, because C. can only travel to some of those places at certain times.
The novel is amazingly effective in its ability to interpenetrate action and recollection within the same passage, so that the only sense of progression seems to be internal, corkscrewing deeper into the narrator’s psyche. Hilbig shares Ingeborg Bachmann’s penchant for extended hallucination, as well as László Krasznahorkai’s prodigious descriptions of muck. The weather in The Interim alone is enough to make the reader nearly abandon all hope.
What do the three writers above all have in common? A childhood born from the wreckage of the Second World War, and an upbringing in the shadow of the Soviet Union. While not a distinct literary movement per se, the glut of narrative which resulted from this historical one-two tends as a rule to be surreal, anticlimactic, and nearly devoid of joy. Like Hilbig, many of these novelists have yet to be translated, or are only now just getting their due. Western histories of the Cold War tend to foreground capitalism’s with a banal predeterminism, but it’s important to remember that the outcome was once quite uncertain in the struggle for a totalizing social order, and that millions of people were left in the lurch in the meantime. In the case of Germany, which spent 45 years divided against itself, one could witness the disparities of living conditions in almost nauseating side-by-side comparison—particularly for the lucky few like Hilbig who were able to travel back and forth.
The strange curse of this privilege, and the sense of placelessness which resulted as both ideological systems came to feel hollow and bankrupt, is the proper subject of The Interim and the direct cause of C.’s prodigious unrest: “He belonged neither to one group nor the other. … Though he couldn’t quite substantiate it, he suspected that for the entire past year he’d simply been no one at all.” This sense of disorientation dogs him as long as the country remains split, and promises little relief regardless of which system wins. But if Hilbig’s lack of respect for the West robs him of his comforts, his hatred for the East borders on murderous. Twice, he includes passages in The Interim where C. voices a desire to go on a mass-shooting spree, directed at “the ones who’d carved the border through the country, who had built the Wall, who had justified and glorified that Wall with their poetry, their cultural policies, and their police force.”
Though C.’s trains of thought are often as difficult to follow as the routes of his roundabout journeys through Germany, it seems that this violent anguish is in turn the direct cause for his acute sense of imposter syndrome, itself a projection of his survivor’s guilt; since moving abroad and becoming a literary celebrity, he finds he can no longer write whatsoever. And why should he? Novels, C. thinks, “were a waste of even the cheapest paper. God had turned away in revulsion from the tripe of novelistic lives; now and then his finger pointed to the lives of those who had survived Auschwitz. Thinking people tossed their books into the trash bins; used book dealers were no longer buying the tacky stuff. The innocence of storytelling was utterly lost now that accounts of the Gulag existed (which, incidentally, meant big business for the publishers).” In one instance, C. uses his own books to wipe and soak up the “hellish swill” that he vomits, “stinking, the color of black blood, mixed with a few chunks of bread and un-chewed slices of pickle.” His bile in turn becomes interchangeable with the “insoluble slime” that seems to cover each city he visits in layers of “sodden filth,” another great intermingling of the story’s internal and external experiences.
In such moments, it’s possible to see why The Interim remains a novel, and how it even comes to approach being a great one. C.’s personal baggage, his fears, and his perversions are symptomatic of his entire country and century. He is divided against himself in the exact same way his nation is. The novel is thus at its best when this discomfortingly personal experience takes on a hint of the allegorical—sometimes purely in its putrid unreality. It is also, like all great examples of autofiction, fundamentally mischievous about its true origins, duping the reader into seeing no distinction between author and protagonist, the better to effect a sense of verisimilitude while continuing to craft a tale as artificial as any other. In The Interim, for example, the author’s writer’s block is absolute, but Hilbig published regularly throughout the eighties, and the novel flows without any sense of inhibition on the part of its creator. It is also too slyly cogent to have been written drunk. These aspects of the story are effects, meant to further entangle us in them.
What we are left with is a bleak and miserable affair—not helplessly, but purposefully so. Hilbig intended to overwhelm us with despair, and we would do well, in an age when the amnesiac idiocies of capitalism have truly won out, to hold some vigil for these darker times. After all, the Cold War feels less finished than ever given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Germany, long since reunified as the Federal Republic, has entered into an agreement with the United States to hold an intracontinental oil pipeline as leverage until things calm down. Thank God we in the West have plenty of entertainment to distract and distance us from the developing atrocities; Hilbig and his author-protagonist wouldn’t take it so lightly. “Will we survive this century?” Asks the lonely reader in his train compartment. “Yes, surely we’ll survive this one last century.”