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Wolfgang Hilbig, Artist of Immense Stature

A group of editors, critics, and writers reflect on the East German literary sensation.

Until recently, Wolfgang Hilbig was one of German literature’s best kept secrets. That is, until he exploded into the English-speaking world in Isabel Fargo Cole’s stunning translation. In 2015, we published his short-story collection The Sleep of the Righteous, which was met with rave reviews and insightful reflections. Today, we celebrate the release of our second Hilbig title, Old Rendering Plant.

It seems that now, at last, the secret is out: Hilbig is a literary force. Check out what these critics, editors, and writers had to say about the German author.

“On the 10-year anniversary of Wolfgang Hilbig’s too-early death, it is only now becoming clear to me that his was among the most significant prose and poetry written not just in the GDR, but in all of postwar Germany—East or West, unified or EU-ified, whatever, full stop. His books combine a love of childhood fantasy with a lust for criminous genre, yet they never neglect the real: the reality of history, the reality of work. He wrote as a man burdened by the heaviest of responsibilities, having been convinced that politics is founded in language in the same way that poison coal is found in the earth.” — Joshua Cohen, author of Book of Numbers


Old Rendering Plant is a highly evocative and poetic novella that speaks to the burdens of history. In sinuous and lyrical prose, an unnamed narrator reflects on the woods outside the small German town where he grew up, later focusing on an old rendering plant. I’ll admit it, this book has almost no plot and yet it’s easily my favorite book of the year because it’s so beautifully written, so transportive. Each page begs to be read aloud. Joycean in parts, Edgar Allen Poe in others. I lost myself inside this book, in its ineffable sense of nature and the dense, unsettling prose. A small universe sits within its one hundred brief pages. I adore this tiny masterpiece. — Mark Haber, Brazos Bookstore and author of Melville’s Beard


“Wolfgang Hilbig was a fearlessly original writer whose visceral, protean prose has influences that range from the apocalyptic Book of Revelations to Dante to Proust and Joyce. Although his dark allegorical visions focus on the police state that was East Germany, his works explore what happens when individuals anywhere are faced with the choice of being the victims of evil or becoming complicit with it in order to survive.” — Terry Pitts, Vertigo


“The world, from the point where Wolfgang Hilbig existed, was bleak and desolate. It is only his sentences—wondrously quotable, visionary—that give color, light, indeed, in a certain sense, even a kind of magnificence to this bleak and desolate world. But how is this possible? How is it possible to create linguistic magnificence from what is for Hilbig a bleak and desolate world? Wolfgang Hilbig is an artist of immense stature. He discovered a wondrous language to describe a horrific world. I admit this is a sick illumination. Nonetheless, it is illumination. Unforgettable.” — László Krasznahorkai, author of Seiobo There Below and The World Goes On


“One could say that Wolfgang Hilbig, like the narrator of Old Rendering Plant, was ever treading the same paths, inhabiting the same streets, and exploring variations of the same themes in his work. But his complicated affection for a land and people he knew intimately, and his idiosyncratic intoxicating style continues to draw in new readers, ten years after his death. He is a master of mood who manages to create an atmosphere that is bleak, even oppressive, and yet permeated with a slow, sensual beauty. His narratives have an immediate, immersive quality. His halting poetic prose, with its long, winding sentences, catches you unawares, shifting gears as you read, slipping from harsh reality into a subtly surreal, grey-toned world where reality blurs at the edges and memory takes on a dark, misty quality. His universe is the post-war landscape of East Germany, before and after reunification—a dimly lit, filmic evocation of wooded rural hillsides, collapsing industrial apparatuses, and communities haunted by secrets and horrors that linger. His characters are rootless, disconnected from their own histories, but unable to escape the confines and expectations of the GDR. Even those who do manage to relocate to the West tend to find themselves drawn back to their birthplace by a melancholy nostalgia. There is a relentless push and pull—a longing to leave, a desire to return, an inability to fit in anywhere—that courses through Hilbig’s work. This restlessness speaks to me, I recognize it, and never tire of losing myself in its hypnotic ebb and flow.” — Joseph Schreiber, editor at The Scofield and critic


For all of his work’s haunted, time-bent metaphysics, it is Hilbig the materialist that initially snared me. Like Max Blecher before him, Hilbig has a particular way with things, with brick and vegetation, mud, lignite, earth, fire and rust, stone and metal. He is a poet of disintegration, a sooty, slithering aesthetician whose exhausted landscapes—flooded coal pits, ice fields, abandoned mines—seep from the page like blackened groundwater. It is this unerring sense of physicality, of matter’s flow and transference that enables the Hilbigian moment, a great leap from blighted surface to benighted interior. These occurrences are why I read literature, breathless plunges in which one is compelled to follow a vision or be left behind. And while Hilbig’s apocalyptic oeuvre reckons with the weightiest of concepts—moral paralysis, lost innocence, the abattoir of history—the journey towards them begins with the exquisite menace of physical substance. — Dustin Illingworth, contributor to The Atlantic, The Paris Review, and the Times Literary Supplement


“Though Wolfgang Hilbig’s writing focuses largely on the toll of memory and history in the psyches of Germans following World War II through the Cold War, the power of his work extends far beyond the borders of Germany. Hilbig’s books remind us how historical traumas continuously shape the present moment. His characters live between two worlds—the past and the present—in a state where the past repeatedly threatens to absorb the present, dragging characters into environments they believed they’ve escaped through the passage of time. Whether it is the Old Rendering Plant described in Hilbig’s latest translated novel, or the polluted lake where the young narrator of Hilbig’s ‘The Place of Storms’ swam as a boy, these remembered locations become hauntingly physical and present. They are less memories than experiences Hilbig’s narrators are forced to confront, searching for understanding and escape. Often, neither option is granted. For there is nothing sentimental in Hilbig, no easy answers, and even love, for Hilbig, cannot exist without the intrusion of state surveillance. Though Hilbig’s worlds are bleak, they also suggest a hard-earned drive for survival. ‘How can you sit calmly at a table and write,’ Hilbig asks in ‘The Afternoon,’ ‘when you’re constantly tormented by the knowledge that someone out there in the dark is being hunted.’ While writing cannot, here, protect the hunted, it offers the mind and the body some form of protection and solace during such times of crisis. Writing is the only option to take in such times. It articulates the feelings and memories that the state attempts to suppress. Hilbig’s books serve as a necessary and prescient reminder that the goal of literature is not to entertain or distract, but to confront, to capture, and to resist dominant narratives, because without this writing, we become the recipients of history, and not its makers.” — Alex McElroy, Fiction Editor at Gulf Coast


“I’d love to say something novel about the scarifying excellence of Wolfgang Hilbig, but Wolfgang Hilbig has already said everything there is to say about Wolfgang Hilbig—positive and negative both: the attraction, and repulsion, is evident in every sentence. I hope it’s not too cheap to say that he, who once earned his living stoking coal, fueled his sentences, forged his strange syntax, by shoveling his own mind into the fire. More than any writer save perhaps Thomas Bernhard, he exposes himself on the page—not in some nugatory autobiographical manner but in the only way that really counts: caught in the process of thought, biting at his own tail. He’s one of the secret chiefs of twentieth-century literature, and let’s not waste time complaining that he only arrived in English in the twenty-first . . . let’s just read him, instead.” — Jeremy M. Davies, editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and author of The Knack of Doing