Biography of wolfgang hilbig : always in search of the word

The burden, the debt and life: Literary scholar Michael Opitz has written the first major biography of writer Wolfgang Hilbig.

It has become quiet around him, a good ten years after his death. However, a circle of sleepy people will never stop reading it. Courageously, almost defiantly published S. Fischer, his loyal publisher, an edition of his works. This year the final seventh volume with essays, speeches and interviews is published. Wolfgang Hilbig is the great solitaire of German literature in recent decades. Those who discover it for themselves become addicted to the tone of his magical texts. A narrative of persistent precision, whose content can hardly be reproduced, overflowing with atmosphere, colors, smells, sounds. Hilbig’s poems, stories, novels, plus some ravishing essays, have been discoveries since they appeared in the West in the late seventies. One had never read such a thing, and now one did not want to miss it, as familiar and strange at the same time it was.

Karl Corino brought him into the public eye, and Franz Fuhmann was the first to pay tribute to him as a fellow poet with the phrase that has become a label: "a big kid playing with oceans". For many years, the trained boring mill lathe operator was employed as a stoker, which did little to help him: in the workers’ state, after long struggles, only one book appeared. In the West, he was highly praised and, since he had gone there, wanted most to escape from everything.

Its home was the abandoned small town of Meuselwitz, south of Leipzig in the Altenburger Land region of Germany. There lie the roots of an almost inexplicable emancipation from the oilcloth table in the kitchen, at which he wrote as if life mattered. This poet, one of a kind, escaped the illiteracy of his grandfather without being able to forget his "way / of seeing". It owes the force of the verbal, it’s force and tenderness at the same time to it. Throughout his life, Hilbig was on a quest for the word. He struggled with language, a "language whose sentences must be revised again and again" and which was available to him like few others.

Opitz has dug into Hilbig’s work and life

After thorough research, the Berlin literary scholar Michael Opitz has written the first comprehensive biography of Wolfgang Hilbig. He was dealing with a paradox. "I didn’t learn to live," the poet confessed in a "Spiegel" interview when he received the Buchner Prize in 2002. "He didn’t want to live at all, he just wanted to write," recalled Natasha Vodin, who was married to him for eight years. "Life has bothered him."Hilbig prefaced his novel "Das Provisorium" with a motto by August Strindberg: "In order to be able to write my works, I have sacrificed my biography, my person." How to write the biography of a man for whom writing was more important than life?

Opitz has dared the impossible and spent more than five years digging into Hilbig’s work and the traces of his life – like the miners who surrounded his protagonist in the tunnels. The biographer takes the only possible path by trusting what the poet has left behind. In his writings, some of which are blatantly autobiographical, he discovers what is actually vital about this writer, without blurring the boundaries between what he has experienced and what he has written – a fine line.

The author is so gripped by his subject that he sometimes cannot help feeling a certain affinity for it in his tone of voice. For instance, when he persistently circles words like ashes, violence, war. At the same time he preserves the mystery that is about this poet. Opitz has combed through the archive kept by the Academy of Arts. He opens up diaries, correspondence, versions of great literary works such as "Alte Abdeckerei", "prosa meiner heimatstrabe", "die gewichte", "uber den Tonfall". And he found unprinted material: "Die blaue Blume" (The Blue Flower), an early work that he pushed forward for years, and whose poetological impulse he elaborates on. This description of Hilbig’s life opens up access to hermetic texts, because it traces their coming into being on the basis of tradition. The archive is the organon of knowledge, motivating and differentiating. This book is written from the archives – with a thoroughly sympathetic obsession with the material aspects of the tradition.

Whoever gets involved in the biography will want to read Hilbig

Michael Opitz draws literature and life together. Hilbig’s texts work for him, they confirm his process as a possible. This does not mean that the biographer would proceed immanent to the work. He embeds the life recognizable in the writing into the story. This is particularly successful in the first chapter, in which Hilbig’s birthday, the 31st, is celebrated. August 1941, is understood as a key historical moment. On this day Hitler and Mussolini met, the invasion of the Soviet Union was two months ago. The people of Meuselwitz had to darken at night, and during the day they enjoyed the performances of an underwater artist. In the last year of the war, a concentration camp was located right next to the family’s home, and the mostly female prisoners were herded past the house. This is exhilarating to read and conveys a sense of the burden and guilt Hilbig carried with him.

Of course, there is a danger that such an approach may illuminate the literature too much. But Opitz never forgets that he is dealing with literary texts. His attitude is modest for all his sovereignty. He wants to lead to the work, back to it. One reads this more accurately with knowledge of his study. Christa Wolf wrote Wolfgang Hilbig on 19. October 1985: "You obviously live and work in the process of trying to reconcile incompatible things. It is very exhausting, often exhausting. But if it is possible to wring some pages from this process, they are essential."Michael Opitz has reappraised this unbelievable, actually indescribable process and lifted material in a startling abundance. Whoever gets involved in his biography will want to read Hilbig. Again or – how enviable – for the first time. Erdmut Wizisla

More on the subject

Remembrance of Wolfgang Hilbig A love from back then

Michael Opitz: Wolfgang Hilbig. A biography. S. Fischer, Frankfurt/Main 2017. 672 pages, 28 €.

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