There are many reasons for learning a foreign language. You might be planning to move overseas, or the language might be necessary for getting a better job. Some people learn a new language to be able to communicate with family members, while others might simply be interested in a different culture and wish to examine that more.
Of course, the best reason to learn a new language is to enable you to rub people’s faces in it when you read books by your favourite authors that haven’t made it into English yet, enabling you to indulge in gentle mockery on Twitter – and with that in mind…
Yes, for the third, and final, time this year, we’re taking a look at Erzählungen (Stories), a hefty collection of German writer Wolfgang Hilbig’s shorter fiction, and his 1993 book Grünes grünes Grab (Green Green Grave) is another example of his unique style. It’s not the longest of books, consisting of four pieces, dominated by one lengthy novella, but there’s a lot there connecting the stories to earlier work, and (for the first time) a look at life after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
First up, is ‘Fester Grund’ (‘Solid Ground’), which for Hilbig is surprisingly close to comedy. The protagonist, having missed his train, spends a summer day in West Berlin in a train station restaurant/bar. We witness a series of mishaps, with beer spilled all over the place and a group of old ladies happily chatting about funerals as the writer sits at his table, not knowing what to do next. The idea of the solid ground of the title is amusingly juxtaposed here with the swaying, drunken writer unable to move from it…
We’re back to the usual (gloomy) fare in ‘Er, nicht ich’ (‘Him, Not Me’), which kicks off with a man leaving his apartment building in the evening, off to post a letter – yet:
Er merkte plötzlich, daß er sich kaum noch auf den Inhalt des Briefes besinnen konnte, er fühlte gar, daß er den Brief selbst zu vergessen imstande war … daß er ihm gleichgültig geworden geworden war, daß er seinen Sinn aus dem Augen verlor, daß es immer mehr Pausen gab, in denen er sich des Briefs in seiner Manteltasche nicht mehr gewärtig war, von Minute zu Minute, und für immer längere Momente, und daß er dabei eine Ruhe verspürte, die nicht unangenehm war, daß ein seltsam verschwommenes Wohltun in diesem Vergessen war … als ob die Wärme des Raums dadurch endlich Platz in ihm zu finden vermochte.
‘Er, nicht ich’, p.259 (Fischer, 2002)
He suddenly noticed that he could barely recall the contents of the letter, he even felt capable of forgetting the letter itself … that it had become unimportant, that he was losing sight of its meaning, that there were more and more periods in which he was no longer aware of the letter in his coat pocket, almost by the minute, and for increasingly longer periods, and that in the process he felt a tranquility that was not unpleasant, that there was a strangely undefined pleasure in this forgetting … as if in this manner the warmth of the room was finally able to penetrate him.
*** (my translation)
This is just the start of a series of journeys and adventures, with the reader gradually being told what the letter is, and why it’s important. The story stalls at times, held up by some clumsy tangents on exchanges of money and writers between east and west, but it still has that trademark Hilbig feel, rather atmospheric and enigmatic in places.
It’s in the final two pieces that we start to see glimpses of changes in the world around the writer. The title piece has the narrator returning to East Germany from his semi-exile in the west at a time later identified as October 1989. There are several mentions of the famous Leipzig demonstrations (his reading is set for the same night as one of them…), but in usual Hilbigian fashion, we don’t actually get to see any of that; instead, we follow the writer on a walk across a wasteland into a little-known forest clearing, and down memory lane. This is where the title comes in, which plays on a nice rhyme in German between ‘Gras’ and ‘Grab’ (much closer than the English equivalents ‘grass’ and ‘grave’). But what does it mean? Well, there’s literal grass and a metaphorical grave – I’ll say no more.
The last of the four stories, ‘Die Elfte These über Feuerbach’ (‘The Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach’) takes place after reunification, and has the writer taking a lengthy taxi ride one night back to his home town. Against a backdrop of lashing rain, a talkative driver and changes in the once-familiar landscape, our friend muses over what he’s going to say in his talk at a university the next day. The topic he’s been given is utopia, and the idea he eventually stumbles upon is the GDR itself – and how it was, perhaps, the perfect utopia. As for the title, well, you can look up the relevance yourself…
As was the case with my review of Unterm Neomond, I’ve included a few short extras here. ‘Der Gegner’ (‘The Opponent’) takes us back to the novel Ich (I) with some underground action and then some breaking and entering. We’re privy to the thoughts of the writer as he sits in a dark room, pondering his life:
… wenn er weiterging, würde er der Opfer seines Gegners werden, der von jenseits, von der anderen Seite einer Barriere zu ihm herübersah. Dieser Gegner – war er ihm schon beinahe in die Arme gelaufen? – war nichts anderes als sein eigenes Ich in der Zukunft.
‘Der Gegner’, p.249
… if he continued, he would fall victim to an opponent who, from beyond, from the other side of a barrier, was looking over at him. This opponent – had he already almost fallen into his clutches? – was none other than his own future ‘I’. ***
The mood is altered somewhat, however, when the light is turned on, and a familiar figure enters the room.
Moving swiftly over ‘Der Nexus’ (‘The Nexus’), in which a man switches between considering the factory workers outside on their way to work and a couple sharing his bed, we come to the final story in the whole collection, ‘Der Geruch der Bücher’ (‘The Smell of the Books’). Set after the fall of the wall, the story has the usual Hilbig alter-ego staying in a Berlin apartment one of his friends has found for him, and his attention, naturally, is caught by a room full of Russian books. What he makes of it is, perhaps, not quite as predictable:
Sind unsere Versuche nicht vollkommen eitel, in ihrem Bestreben, den Boden mit allen seinen Elementen zu beschreiben, aus denen der Geist erwächst. Warum können wir den Geist nicht dort lassen, wo sein Ort ist? Turmhoch und babylonsich haben wir die Fugen der Schrift übereinander geschichtet, um uns Stätten der Weisheit aufzubauen. Letzten Endes sind daraus nur diese Metropolen einer kosmetischen Imagination geworden, wie das fern herüberstrahlende Manhattan oder wie dieses Berlin.
‘Der Geruch der Bücher’, p.349
How utterly vain are our efforts in their striving to describe the base with all its elements from which the spirit arises. Why can we not simply leave the spirit there where it belongs? Towering and Babylonian, we have carefully layered the building blocks of writing on top of each other in order to construct sanctums of wisdom. Ultimately, all that has come of this are these metropolises of a superficial imagination, such as Manhattan shining in the distance, or like this Berlin. ***
We’re given this cheery thought to end the book – given the futility of literature, the wasted energy poured into it over the millennia, why should we bother?
Luckily, Hilbig is just playing devil’s advocate here, and the reality is that he’s left behind a hefty body of work for us to enjoy – if you can read German that is. If you’d like to try this collection, you really only have two choices. The first is to study German (although I’m not sure Duolingo is going to get you up to the level required to appreciate Hilbig’s prose). The second is to start begging Isabel Fargo Cole and Two Lines Press to get to work as soon as possible. I’ll leave you to decide which will be easier, and more effective…